Mental Health and Social Media

We’ve all done it – stalked people on Facebook, grown envious of people’s party lifestyle on Instagram, snorted at some dazzling wit on Twitter. On social media, people portray a sparkling glamorous life that leaves us feeling pretty dull and miserable in comparison.

Studies have shown that social media can have a negative effect on mental health, affecting diverse problems such as depression, anxiety, eating habits, sleeping patterns and even an increased risk of suicide. Now that smartphones have been available for a decade, more and more people are searching out counselling to help tackle the negative behaviours brought on by this broad range of problems triggered by constant connectivity.

Image-based sites, such as Snapchat and Instagram have been linked to body confidence issues and more obsessional thinking around food, eating and body imagery. There is a massive trend of capturing images of indulgent meals and foods and posting them in arty ways. Next to these, there are constant body and food conscious posts, sending confusing mixed messages to those who suffer with a poor self-image and feelings of shame around eating combined with obsessions about food such as anorexics, bulimics and those affected by binge eating disorders.

To make this worse, there is an increasing number of people who body shame on social media. Not only pointing out flaws in celebrity photographs, but actively seeking out vulnerable people online to mock and insult. Cyber bullying can be a huge influencer on young people: the National Eating Disorders Association in the US revealed that “65% of people with eating disorders said bullying contributed to their condition”.

Surveys are showing, however, that an even bigger issue stemming from social media is that of perceived social isolation.

Social isolation is having little or no contact with individuals or society. Social media can be a double-edged sword in this regard. Firstly, it can make you feel that way because, after seeing the things your friends are doing while you’re there, you can feel FOMO (fear of missing out) even for occasions you don’t want to go to. Secondly, because you feel more isolated, you can feel anxiety about these friends and choose to avoid real life socialising for online interactions. As humans are inherently social beings, this can be very dangerous for our health as it’s eye contact, touch and body language that humans have evolved to need to make meaningful connections.

The reality is that the pictures you might feel envious of are not painting a realistic portrait of anyone’s life and it’s possible that the people you are jealous of are feeling the exact same anxieties as you. People can hide their flaws and their unhappiness online; no one wants to post pictures of themselves weeping when they’ve burnt the Sunday roast, but that perfect chocolate cake they made last week? That can go up instead. Mental health problems can’t be seen so it’s easy to paste on a smile and pretend to the outside world that life is great. In that way, people may not be getting the attention they need, it’s stopping the mental health conversations that should be happening and turning it into something to hide.

Social media anxiety disorder (SMAD) is made up of this unrealistic comparison between your life and those that you are seeing online – even though what you are seeing is only someone else’s ‘best bits’. Add to this the level of self-worth (or lack of), confidence and happiness that we achieve from how many likes or shares we get from the content we share, and you can see that life online is full of dangerous potholes. This increasing need for more likes, more followers and so on is similar to the pattern of drug addiction; your brain releases a chemical called dopamine which generates an organic high and is the same reward system used in addiction. This causes people to need their phones and tablets more and more, meaning that being away from them can induce a new trigger for anxiety.

Teenagers have reported to counsellors that when they have tried to turn off their phones for an hour or so, they can come back to increasingly panicked and even hostile messages from ‘friends’ who have felt shunned at not being able to be constantly in contact. But this need for constant technology can also affect sleeping patterns and a sleep-deprived brain is even more primed for anxiety, making it a constant cycle of damaging behaviours.

All this creates a very gloomy outlook for using social media, but there is evidence to show that it can also have a positive effect on our mental health. Facebook itself released statements earlier this year saying that if the site is used in a healthy way, that is, for keeping in touch with friends and family in a measured way, then there is evidence to suggest that can make us feel more connected and in touch with people. And people what are already suffering with mental health problems are especially likely to find benefits – finding people with similar issues and knowing that they are not alone. This is a similar trend for young people who struggle to find similar people elsewhere – for example, LGBT youths or children in foster care.

When you are feeling anxious around social media, choose to use it for self-empowerment by following mindfulness accounts and unfollowing shaming streams, aggravators or food obsessive accounts. Instead just follow loved ones and people you admire and be more proactive in switching technology off and arranging to meet someone in real life.

If you feel that social media has had a damaging effect on your mental health and you need to talk to someone about it, visit the National Counselling Society’s website to find the right counsellor for you.