Some things are certain when it comes to social media. For instance, widespread use of social media is undeniable, especially in young people. In 2018, 93% of 16-24 year olds and 88% of 25-34 year olds in the UK used social networking sites. The range of social media platforms available to us in 2019 is staggering, crossing the boundaries between work and play as additions such as LinkedIn make themselves indispensable to businesses. There is an app for every purpose, an emoji for every mood: A place, it seems, for everyone online.
Other aspects of social media use are less clear-cut. The Office for National Statistics cannot tell us what we young people feel in our hearts when we access Facebook every morning (well, nothing beyond analysing our emoji-ridden status updates).
Despite endless speculation in the media over the last few years, it is difficult to predict the current and future consequences of all this screen time for the well-being and mental health of young adults (and indeed the growing number of mature adults) who access social networking sites. It is clear that social media plays a role in humanity’s destiny, and yet we are blind to the exact nature of this influence.
It is impossible to remove the uncertainty surrounding the effect of social media on mental health. However, we can set ourselves up for wellness by examining the ways in which newer technologies may be affecting us. We can acknowledge the threats and prepare ourselves. We can also consider how social media might be used in advantageous ways to promote public heath messages and increase access to psychological support.
Let us delve into our future.
“Faces are not feelings” (Matt Haig)
As Matt Haig shrewdly observes in his bestselling book Notes on a Nervous Planet (of which you can find The Guardian’s review here): “Faces are not feelings”. This reminds us that the stories we tell on social media rarely represent the realities of life’s ups and downs. Shiny status updates full of photos of happy, successful people and families dominate social networking sites like Facebook. We do not see the agony of anything. We do not see the stress involved in parenting, the uncertainty surrounding travelling or the hard work behind success.
This begs questions about the negative effects of all this false perfection on self-esteem. How can any of us develop a balanced impression of ourselves in relation to others when what we see of others is a lie?
How can teenagers be expected to have a healthy body image when they grow up in a world of filters?
How can students have realistic ambitions when success is shoved down their throats every time they go online?
How can those suffering with mental health issues not experience additional shame about their psychological distress when all their peers’ status updates are blissfully happy?
“The more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate” (J.B. Priestley)
If we cannot show our dark days to others, social isolation becomes a risk factor. This is touched on in a heartfelt discussion questioning whether today’s young people are the loneliest generation by The College Info Geek Podcast. The speakers wonder at how authentic connection and intimacy can occur without the sharing of hardships and struggles.
This is an interesting point and relates to harmful aspects of social media use in terms of the reduction of meaningful social interaction in real life. Evidence shows the relationship between social media and social isolation is largely confounded by social anxiety, meaning that those with this particular mental health issue reinforce their symptoms by avoiding real social interaction, since social media is available for them to half-fill the void of loneliness.
A lot of users may also find that social networking sites can enable social isolation by creating an illusion of busyness. Since every aspect of our work and social life becomes ‘optimized’ by social media, there is not time to simply ‘hang out’. Meet-ups and events must be arranged in advance. We resist the urge to call up or call on friends unannounced, for fear of disrupting their busy day. We dread being an inconvenience in this fast, technological world.
We have to wonder what this constant concern for troubling our loved ones for their time does to us socially. Arguably, relationships with friends and family members should cost time and effort in order to be rewarding.
The importance of boredom
Another side effect of social media that Matt Haig has also touched on is the threat of over-stimulation. Haig even suggests the minimalist movement is a backlash to the current culture of staying switched on.
Indeed (here is the positive bit), a recent study by the Global Web Index shows that although average social media use is still relatively high on the internet (142 minutes per person per day), global usage has begun to plateau in recent years. Many of us are realising that we have forgotten how to be bored; to have unscheduled time to simply be. It is heartening that people have begun to take control of their well-being, through reducing their screen time and embracing wholesome, mindful activites like knitting, walking in nature and having face-to-face interactions with family members. Doing nothing at all has been especially advocated by the mindfulness movement.
This more optimistic note brings us to the potential upsides of social media, in that access to information about mental health and support for vulnerable people can be enabled by social media sites.
Can social media benefit young people?
Social media platforms are rife with public health messages, particularly when it comes to mental illness. Mental Health Awareness Week saw this mental health minute video viewed in the thousands, mostly thanks to the ease of online sharing. Awareness movements like Time to Change have done wonders for beginning conversations about mental health that were not previously very common. Now, mental health is a fly endlessly buzzing in our ears, and we cannot escape the important articles and discussions that pop up on our news feeds.
Support avenues for sufferers of mental illness are additionally more accessible with social media. The Centre for Mental Health has outlined the potential benefits social networking sites have for providing outlets for help-seeking, self-expression and crisis management. Mental health support apps that mirror the interfaces of social media platforms have become also popular in recent years (see my take on the Wysa app).
Previously, those with mental health problems would have to go through their GP for information and support. Nowadays, mental health advocates are working hard to increase awareness and break the silence surrounding mental illness.
The illusion of support
Unfortunately, access to information does not always mean access to support. The Centre for Mental Health warn that increased awareness of mental illness on social media can trivialize issues and even set back attempts to improve outcomes for individuals with mental health problems. As I touched on in a recent article on stigma and mental health, careless cliches do not necessarily lead to validation and support for people with mental health issues.
Another problem with this storm of mental health awareness is that it creates an illusion of support that does not necessarily exist. Waiting lists for mental health services are staggering, apps are not doctors and doctors have suggested that all health professionals need to exercise caution when signposting patients to online support. There are some extreme communities online that may even worsen a vulnerable person’s depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Such communities may prevent a person seeking professional support.
Despite this, it is positive that health professionals are starting to consider the role of social media for people with mental health problems, so that risks can be considered, and benefits taken advantage of.
What can be done?
We cannot avoid it. Social media is everywhere. It can be an advantage in terms of allowing access to information and support surrounding mental health. It can be a danger in terms of over-stimulating our minds and isolating us from meaningful social interaction.
The internet can escalate anything to its ultimate impact – even a video of a kitten in pyjamas who is scared by her own sneeze. It is no wonder that there are some considerable benefits and some considerable drawbacks to social media. It is no wonder that some symptoms of mental health problems are sometimes worsened by this extreme and intense online world.
In order to cope with the impact of social media, we must embrace the shades of grey. We must strive to use social networking sites in the situations when they will benefit us. Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to reach loved ones on the other side of the world. Sometimes, it is helpful to be able to schedule social events into our busy weeks. Often, videos of cute, fluffy animals may brighten our days.
Other times, we might be feeling a little raw, or vulnerable, or like we really need an in-person conversation, where we can see the smiles and feel the hugs. Being self-aware is key here in allowing us to get the support we need, when we need it.
Soon, we will all learn when it’s time to switch off.
Olivia is Seventh Wave's Head of Operations, and believes in the indispensability of mental health awareness in the workplace, having spent time supporting individuals in thriving in both their private and professional lives.