It is sometimes thought that the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can have a negative effect on a user’s mental health. In this week’s blog, Research Assistant Katie Thompson and Placement student Emma Bishop discuss the influence of social media on mental health.
Katie Thompson and Emma Bishop
As the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, has increased over the last decade, researchers have begun to explore the influence of such a popular and pervasive way of documenting everyday life. When compared to other forms of screen time, such as video games, an increase in social media use over the course of a single year has been associated with a decrease an individual’s self-esteem (Boers et al., 2019). A substantial decrease in self-esteem has shown to be associated with later symptoms of depression, and social media may actually enhance these symptoms over time (Boers et al., 2019). The more advanced technology becomes in viewing another person’s life, the more people compare themselves to others, which can have a negative impact on mental health. Social media is mainly a tool to connect with other people, however, in spite of the increased interconnectivity, the current generation may be the loneliest yet (Pittman and Reich, 2016). Furthermore, research has shown the strong link between loneliness and depression in young adults (Matthews et al. 2016; see our previous blog post for more information from Tim Matthews on loneliness). It is clear there is a relationship between social media use, self-esteem, loneliness and depression, however these relationships are likely extremely complex.
“People compare themselves to others, which can have a negative impact on mental health”
Giving and receiving “likes” for posts is a key element of all social media platforms. This creates a system of individual affirmation and validation, where people gain emotional encouragement for their content, and subsequently aspire to gain more likes. To keep up with this validation, some individuals create an unrealistic representation of themselves, particularly on Instagram, where most photos are edited to seem more desirable than they are. Social media increases the exposure to idealized and unrealistic images of other people and their lives, which feeds into a person’s confidence and self esteem. For someone who is already feeling low or vulnerable, this culture can severely impact self-esteem. An individual may compare their 20 likes to another person’s 500 likes, make unhealthy comparisons between their lives and consequently be left feeling inadequate. Consistent feelings of inadequacy can lead to low self-esteem and increased depression symptoms (Vogel et al, 2014).
With that said, social media may not be as negative as it appears. Several studies have shown that both passive and active social media use has no relationship with depressive symptoms, loneliness or stress (Heffer et al., 2019, Aalbers et al. 2018). Instead, individuals who were experiencing more depressive symptoms, feeling more fatigued or lonely to begin with, engaged more with social media (Heffer et al., 2019). These Individuals may then use social media as a tool to acquire a social connection with other people or as an escape from reality (Kırcaburun & Griffiths, 2019). There may also be a difference in the way that individuals of different ages who are feeling low use social media. For example, young teenagers may post more publicly and turn to social media as a way to make them feel better. Whereas, young adults instead use more private forms of social media to talk to friends and family for support (Heffer et al., 2019). This leads us onto our next point, the use of social media as support networks.
Making connections with other individuals through social media platforms may help promote mental wellbeing in those who are feeling low. Social media can provide people with a space to form connections and share stories (Naslund et al, 2016). Online communities present an opportunity to learn information and coping strategies from others who are feeling a similar way. These peer-to-peer connections can help combat feelings of loneliness through mutual support, social contact and the common understanding that it is okay to feel the way that they do. Individuals also may be more likely to come across mental wellbeing interventions delivered through social media and share these with their peers (Naslund et al, 2016). Online communities and peer networks reach a wide demographic, particularly young people, and can have a positive influence on mental health through providing a sense of belonging and safe space to express themselves.
“Peer-to-peer connections can help combat feelings of loneliness”
It is perhaps easy to assume that social media “causes” mental illness, specifically depression, however individuals still experienced mental health issues way before social media existed. Singling out social media use as a single cause of mental health is oversimplifying the many complex reasons as to why individuals experience mental health issues (see our other blog posts on genetics and environmental risk factors). Rather, it is important to remember that unhealthy use of social media platforms may negatively influence individuals who are already feeling down or lonely and looking for comfort.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health problems, please seek help through contacting your GP or you can call Samaritans on 116 123. You can also take part in important mental health research, such as the GLAD Study, that aims to uncover the underlying mechanisms of anxiety and depression.
- Aalbers, G., McNally, R. J., Heeren, A., De Wit, S., & Fried, E. I. (2018). Social media and depression symptoms: A network perspective. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.148(8), 1454–1462.
- Boers, E., Afzali, M. H., Newton, N., & Conrod, P. (2019). Association of screen time and depression in adolescence. JAMA pediatrics, 173(9), 853-859.
- Frison, E., & Eggermont, S. (2016). Exploring the relationships between different types of Facebook use, perceived online social support, and adolescents’ depressed mood. Social Science Computer Review, 34(2), 153-171.
- Heffer, T., Good, M., Daly, O., MacDonell, E., & Willoughby, T. (2019). The longitudinal association between social-media use and depressive symptoms among adolescents and young adults: An empirical reply to Twenge et al.(2018). Clinical Psychological Science, 7(3), 462-470.
- Kırcaburun, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2019). Problematic Instagram use: The role of perceived feeling of presence and escapism. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17(4), 909-921.
- Matthews, T., Danese, A., Wertz, J., Odgers, C. L., Ambler, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Arseneault, L. (2016). Social isolation, loneliness and depression in young adulthood: a behavioural genetic analysis. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 51(3), 339-348.
- Naslund, J. A., Aschbrenner, K. A., Marsch, L. A., & Bartels, S. J. (2016). The future of mental health care: peer-to-peer support and social media. Epidemiology and psychiatric sciences, 25(2), 113-122.
- Pittman, M., & Reich, B. (2016). Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 155-167.
- Vogel, E., Rose, J., Robert, L., & Eckles, L. (2014). Social Comparison, Social media, and Self-Esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206-222.