The Complex Relationship Between Social Media and Mental Health

Social media is one of the highlights of the twenty-first century. It’s the place where a person from England can communicate with a person from the Philippines with astonishing ease and speed. People can also check social media to stay up-to-date on current news when they might not otherwise have access to news. Social media provides anyone with the opportunity to become famous, and the combination of entertainment built upon a platform that encourages others to act and buy in a copycat manner paves the way for the term “influencer” for those with millions of loyal followers and the means to inspire trends. Finding someone with shared interests is simpler than ever, whether you wish to discuss the latest episode of current TV shows or more niche activities. Given this, it seems that social media can do no wrong.

But for all the perks of this technology, social media can be quite damaging to a person’s mental health. It can result in a lack of self-esteem. People might start questioning their worth as individuals. After all, it’s hard to have confidence in yourself when you see all these seemingly perfect people on your feeds.

Anyone, regardless of age, can feel this way. It doesn’t matter if you’re eight years old or forty years old. There is something for everyone on social media, because people of all ages use it. And that goes for those less-than-positive aspects of this technology. Those aspects that make you wonder, Are there really people out there who are my age and manage to look so effortlessly flawless? Why do I have all these imperfections? Is my life interesting at all? Do I even have any talents or any good characteristics that set me apart from the rest of the world? What am I even doing on this planet? What do I have to offer?

I write this from experience. These thoughts cloud my head on a daily basis.

A number of studies have been conducted to analyze the impact of social media on a person’s mental health. For example, a psychology professor at San Diego State University found that teenagers who spent at least five hours daily online were 71% more likely to have one or more risk factors for suicide compared to teenagers who logged on for only one hour a day. An additional study discovered that young adults who went on any social media platforms at least 58 times a week were three times more likely to feel cutoff socially compared to those who utilized social media fewer than nine times weekly. This makes sense. For those who don’t have friends, it’s difficult to see posts about parties and other get-togethers. It fills them with an acute sense of loneliness. They feel more isolated than ever looking at pictures of people their age having a good time with their friends. Why can’t this happen to me? they can’t help but ask themselves. Why doesn’t anyone ever want to hang out with me? This might seem like mere speculation, but it is something that I experienced on numerous occasions when I was still floating around from social circle to social circle, trying to find companions before I became close with a group of girls that I feel proud to call my friends. Even people with friends sometimes have a hard time scrolling through their feeds and seeing similar posts. The mere sight of these pictures, especially when the friends haven’t gotten together in a while, feels like a slap in the face. In reality, many of these pictures are staged to look like the perfect party or the perfect gathering, meant to give off the idea that you’re social and friendly and can associate with as many people as you please. You may be as happy as you appear in photos, but something sorrowful might be hiding behind that cheerful face. It’s rare indeed that you find a candid picture on social media. Even what looks to be candid at the surface is really staged. Nothing is natural.

Furthermore, another study noted that the more someone uses Instagram, the more worried he or she will be about his or her body image. All too often these worries are brought about by looking at heavily altered pictures. Editing programs like Photoshop and FaceTune make it astoundingly easy to change your appearance to make yourself skinnier or to remove any apparent imperfections such as cellulite or acne. It’s becoming so normalized to use these programs that the word “Photoshopped” has been introduced into the English language to refer to a picture that’s been edited to look supposedly better.

Authors of a study conducted about Facebook (FB) a few years back wrote that “This magnitude of envy incidents taking place on FB alone is astounding, providing evidence that FB offers a breeding ground for invidious feelings.” This doesn’t stop at Facebook, though. Instagram and Snapchat and even TikTok offer opportunity upon opportunity for jealous feelings to arise. 

I envy her. Her looks, her life, her sense of fashion. I wish I could be her.

I envy him. His looks, his life, his skill on the football field. I wish I could be him.

Jealousy isn’t always about looks, although wishing you were as pretty as that girl or looked as toned that guy (because believe it or not, it isn’t just girls who have body image issues) is quite common. You can feel jealous about the way people live their lives..or appear to live their lives. Social media makes it easier than ever for people to flaunt all the vacations they go on and all the expensive clothes they buy and all the great places they visit. It’s so toxic. You see pictures of people going to Paris and England in rapid succession and think that it’s normal to do that. You want to take part in this luxurious lifestyle, because you feel like you’re “missing out” or “not as cool” if you don’t. But that isn’t the case at all. These are people with immense wealth who post these photos. They have money to spend, something with which not everyone can identify. So not being able to take a lot of vacations or buy the nicest clothes is not something to be ashamed of whatsoever. It’s completely normal. Besides, all those vacation expenses add up in the end. Debt accumulates.

While I am by no means an expert, I conducted a poll of my own about people’s experiences with social media. Where did I conduct it? On Instagram. This might seem counterintuitive in a sense, but doing it on a social media platform is the best way to reach a great deal of people. To really understand the effects of social media, you have to talk to the people who use it the most. Young people. Gen Z. Whatever you wish to call us. We’ve grown up surrounded by technology, and so we have a close relationship with our screens. Our phones are our best friends, but they can also be our worst enemies.

In my poll I asked such questions as how much time people spend on social media, what they would change about social media if they could, and what feelings they experience while on social media. For the questions where you could choose from two options, forty to fifty people responded to each one. For the open-ended questions that required you to type in your response, however, roughly thirty people gave me their insight. Regardless, the results I got were enlightening. More people than I realized have a complicated relationship with this technology available at our fingertips. The vast majority of those who responded to the poll said they spent hours scrolling through their feeds. Many said they would like to change the negativity found on social media and make it a kinder, more positive place. One girl reported her self-confidence going down while looking at various posts of “prettier” girls, and in a similar vein, another girl admitted she felt sad and even mad at times while using social media. She compared herself to other “picture-perfect” girls, and that negatively impacted her self-esteem. Two people even confided that they experienced bullying on social media.

Cyberbullying. A topic I haven’t touched on yet but one that deserves to be discussed. Before cyberbullying, school bullies could stay at school. When you went home you could escape, at least for a while, the torment and the taunting you had to deal with at school. But now with cyberbullying, school bullies can follow you home. They can say anything they want to you at any time. But cyberbullies don’t have to be school bullies too. It could be possible that you’ve never met your cyberbully before. He or she can exist solely through hurtful messages and comments online. He or she found you through whatever means and has made it his or her mission to make your life miserable. There is no escape, no pause button for the harassment. Consider the story of Elle Trowbridge, who in April 2017 took her own life at sixteen years old because of threatening messages sent to her online. The internet can be an unbelievably cruel place. It’s persistent and at times unforgiving.

You might be reading this article and thinking, She has a grudge against social media. She hates it with a burning passion. That’s not true. I’m merely examining and analyzing the toxic side of Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms. Because social media is definitely a two-faced technology. It has its upsides, but it also has its downsides. Sure, my experience with social media hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows, but it hasn’t been entirely stormclouds and tornadoes either. I’ve met some good, kind-hearted, funny people online who I might not have gotten the chance to meet otherwise. 

I feel like now is an appropriate time to talk about a positive facet of social media, because there is both light and dark in everything. The light in this technology deserves some recognition. Social media gives people struggling with their mental health an outlet to voice their thoughts and likely receive encouraging comments. This might seem surprising. The same place that contributes to mental health issues also provides a way for people to vent about them. But it’s what’s happening right now, and it’s a great thing. It has become more accepted recently to talk about mental health online, via Instagram captions or YouTube videos. Influencers like Garance Doré and Olivia Culpo have posted photos on Instagram detailing their respective mental health journeys. Their followers might see these posts and feel inspired to do the same, and they might also feel more connected to these people who they thought were invincible and impeccable. These famous individuals experience depression and low self-confidence just like perfectly ordinary people do. What some people don’t realize is that a lot of life is lived off of social media, and “celebrities” are people too. They have their unique struggles, as everyone does. Sharing these struggles is proof that perfection is unattainable, and it is okay to speak out on sensitive topics such as eating disorders and anxiety because there are people in the world who grapple with these things. It is hard, and going from day to day might seem like a task in itself, but they aren’t alone. Social media is a great place to remind them of this.

Indeed, social media is not without its faults. It leads to feelings of social isolation and poor self-esteem and is yet another place for bullying to occur. Numerous studies have found that social media is linked to mental health issues. But it is also important to acknowledge social media’s strong points, such as the way it allows for speedy communication and quick access to current news. Although this article mainly focuses on the negatives of social media, the positives must also be taken into account to properly study this multifaceted technology.

Hassan’s column will further explore this issue, in subsequent opinion pieces

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