The seesaw of social media use and mental wellbeing

Recently I received an interview request from a final year journalism student at the University of Technology Sydney. She had some great questions on the topic of social media use within the younger generation of today. Social media use is almost as prevalent as the sun so instead of shying away from it here was my response:

1. What are the effects or impacts of regular, sustained use of social media on a young person’s mental health?

The answer to this depends on several factors such as the young person’s intensity of use, frequency and whether it’s impeding on their day to day functioning. Problematic social media use is still being researched, and studies I’ve come across seem to indicate that excessive social media use can have a detrimental effect on young people’s mental health. As a Psychologist who is in regular contact with young people, anecdotal examples of this include:

  • Increased symptoms of general anxiety and social anxiety (such as feeling isolated)
  • Depression,
  • Relationship conflict with family members such as parents,
  • Distraction from class at school,
  • Lower sense of self esteem

Having said that, it is important to note that there are many young people who don’t experience significant issues as well from social media use. It is likely that if social media use becomes a stressor, it can exacerbate underlying mental health issues.

2. In your experience, how often would you see cases linking the use of social media to mental illness?

I think that in this day and age, social media is prevalent in almost 90% of young people that I see for counselling. However, I’m mindful of drawing conclusions from this correlation, as you can also say that most of the young people I see go to school or undertaking tertiary education. This doesn’t mean that education is linked to poorer mental health!

What I often experience is that for those with diagnosed mental health issues, there is a small percentage who report issues with social media use. Usually social media use can be one of the perpetuating factors, however I’d like to say that there are many other larger factors involved, e.g. the way they think, coping with their feelings, and take meaningful action.

3. Why do people become so dependent on social media?

I think a better way of asking this questions is, “Why is social media so attractive to young people?” To answer this, I think it’ll be helpful if we zoom out and take a trip back in time. From an evolutionary perspective, our society has often focused on comparing ourselves to others in order to get a sense of our worth. This extends back to caveman/woman days, when fitting in with others and having others respect and admiration often meant the difference between life and death. In the current climate of 24/7 “connectedness”, we often see that just like our ancestors, it was important to find our place on the social hierarchy. It’s important to learn how to fit in and be popular.

Social media is a perfect medium for this, as not only can you see what your friends are doing, you can also check out all the celebrities personal lives on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some young people feel that the social media posts are representative of people’s actual lives, rather than a PR front, and thus can allow us to feel envious of their lives and make the young person feel a lower sense of worth.

Kanye West has a great set of lyrics that goes along the lines of ” Checking Instagram comments to crowd source my self esteem”. I feel that this illustrates another reason why social media is attractive to many young people. The amount of positive reinforcement received can be measured by metrics like number of likes, re-tweets etc and some people may feel validated by this, that there are many friends (or strangers) who like me, I must be worth something then! It’s common knowledge that there are many people who pay for “likes” and “followers”, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it shows how much importance people place on social media.

4. What are the ways in which you can treat mental illness as a result of extended social media use?

Just like any other mental health illness, we’d have to assess for the factors that have led up to this point, and sometimes this includes finding out if there are other issues going on that’s making social media more attractive. For example, if someone has social anxiety and is using social media to compare themselves constantly, then we’d either like to look at better ways of interpreting what they’re seeing on social media or gradually reduce the usage.

Generally speaking, we’d need to find out the “why”- what is it about the young person’s use of social media so attractive? How is it helping them? Next, it’ll be important to figure out what direction in life the young person wants to go towards and whether activities other than social media use can be more helpful. Finally, it’ll be important to teach people the skills to manage the automatic thoughts and urges when they use social media so that if they wanted to reduce usage, they have the tools to. In the mean time, a helpful strategy one of my clients mentioned was for young people to identify which social media platforms they have issues with, and if they can access/follow the ones that have more beneficial and wholesome content.

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