It can't have escaped your notice that social media is everywhere these days. Its ubiquity would also seem to be here to stay, and here we aim to show how it works, as well as the dangers it presents to mental health and how to spot them to keep your friends and families safe.

What Is Meant By Social Media?

The term social media means different things to different people, but the textbook definition is a collection of applications and websites over which communication, interaction, collaboration and content-sharing occur. It's also a means by which people stay in touch with others.

What Are the Benefits of Social Media?

While this article focuses on the potential negative impact of social media on mental health, it would be unfair to suggest that the modern is bereft of benefits in this regard. For example, the many platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter:

  • Allow lonely people to make friends
  • Bring communities of like-minded people together
  • Help groups of friends remain in touch collectively
  • Helps relatives stay in touch around the world

What Is the Overall Sentiment & Result of Social Media's Impact on Society's Mental Health?

In order to answer this question, we need to weigh up the positives listed above with the downsides to society's mental health. 90% of adults own a smartphone, but only 45% of adults see the existence of social media as being a positive influence in their lives*. That said, almost as many - 24% see it as mostly negative.

(*National Center For Health Research Study)

Anxiety, fear of missing out and loneliness are all drivers that can make modern people become obsessed or even addicted to social media. The dopamine rush that comes from a ‘liked’ post or even just validated can be hard to ignore for some.

This addiction is something that affects around 210 million people worldwide, having been described by some as being more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes. When said validation doesn’t arrive, the withdrawal can be every bit as real and difficult to deal with.

What Are the Biggest Risks Associated with Social Media & Mental Health?

Here we look at some of the biggest mental health crises and challenges of the last decade or so has seen off the back of social media:

Comparing Our Lives, Wealth & Achievements With Others

As can be seen in the Look Up, Look Down Research by the Journal of Communication Technology, those who view others as doing better than they are on social media will often feel down as a result.

You have to remember that there will always be someone doing better than you, but it's only social media that's making you see them.

Unrealistic Beauty & Physical Standards

Research by the New York Post has shown that as little as 30 minutes spent on Instagram looking at fit and sporty celebrities can cause women to negatively fixate on their own bodies, weight and appearance.

This is not a fair reflection of real life for most people, so it's best not to use these people as an acceptable standard.

Dangerous Viral Trends

Another issue on social media are what can be very dangerous 'challenges’ that people choose to engage in, like the crazy Outlet Challenge that involves dropping a penny in between the prongs of their phone's charger and plugging it in. This risks electrocution, house fires or worse.

According to a 2021 TikTok commission, over 70% of teens are aware of these online challenges. When combined with peer pressure and a desire to fit in, the dangers to the mind and body are obvious.

Given that many of these challenges are often meaningless or unpleasant, even if they're not dangerous, it's best to ignore them and not get involved.

Tech Addiction & Manipulative Software/Algorithms

It can be very easy to get addicted to what social media offers, as is demonstrated by an NCBI study that showed as many as 36.9% of all users experienced at least a mild issue.

We've all been there, unable to put our phones down, even when we would be better served to do so. It can be incredibly hard to disconnect, especially when the platform’s algorithm is designed to keep you watching in order to make more money.

If you want to find out more about this, a documentary known as The Social Dilemma is a great watch and details how social media corporations are seeking growth and profit very much as a top priority.

Trolling, Harassment & Bullying

The sad fact of the matter is that according to ONS figures, around 1 in every 5 children are bullied online, and social media is the main place it occurs. Being unpleasant to others seems to be a common pastime for some online, perhaps because it’s often anonymous and impersonal.

However, it’s not impersonal to the individual it’s happening to and can lead to the tragedy of teen suicide. The only antidote to the issue is ignoring the bullies or perhaps coming away from social media entirely.

It’s not an issue that disappears when a people reach adulthood either, as studies show that around 40% of young adults have been the subject to cyber bullying.

Unsuitable or Triggering Content

When using platforms like Tiktok, you don’t really get any warning for what you’re about to witness. That means you might only be a finger-swipe away from content that you might find triggering, disturbing or just upsetting.

The good news is that platforms like Tiktok have what’s known as a ‘Digital Wellbeing Mode’ that restricts not just what you can see but also the time you spend on it.

Call Out Culture & Public Scrutiny

Call-out is in full swing these days, with social justice movements like #metoo often having a positive influence. However, it can represent something of a kangaroo court at times, and when you’re the one being ‘called out’ (which often means verbal or written personal attacks) it can lead to poor mental health and even suicide risk.

The positive aspects of call-out culture that exist need to be encouraged if transformative justice and growth are to be achieved, but if you find yourself in the cross-hairs of someone for a comment or opinion you hold, it’s usually best to try and tune it out or step away from the discussion, rather than becoming consumed by it.

Radicalisation & Isolation From the ‘Real World’

You get all kinds of viewpoints on social media, which is one of its best features, if we’re honest. That said, it does mean that movements like Qanon and covid conspiracy theorists are lurking in the darkest corners, radicalising people who then exist in an echo chamber, disembodied from the real world.

Viewpoints from the many bad faith actors or other dangerous groups can fill your head with extreme ideas, fundamentally changing a person’s everyday behaviours and reality. The January 6th Capitol riot and mass US shootings are evidence of this.

Many of these conspiracies feed off of each other, too, so they can end up representing a vicious circle that it’s hard to get out of, leading to a loss of friends and more loneliness. So, if you’re worried about a friend or family member who’s fallen down one of these rabbit holes, it might be time to have a chat with them and get them some help.

The effect of these countless mental health pressures can be seen in all walks of life, and it’s something that led Hollywood actor Tom Holland to quit social media. In his words, "I got caught up, and I spiralled when I read things about myself online, and ultimately, it was very detrimental to my mental state, so I decided to take a step back and delete the apps”.

What specific mental health risks are attached to TikTok usage?

Launched relatively recently in 2016, Tiktok is a Chinese platform that offers short video content that averages between 20-40 seconds. Unfortunately, the platform is rife with inappropriate content like racism, misogyny, homophobia and body-shaming.

When experienced with no external context, it can be easy to be made to think that the whole world is made up of successful, lithe, beautiful people. It’s also easy to get caught up in extremist views in what can be something of an echo chamber.

What specific mental health risks are attached to Facebook usage?

With 3 billion monthly users, Facebook is the biggest and most established social media platform. It’s one that allows you to make literally thousands of ‘friends’ while posting in long-form, playing games and getting involved in discussions.

Keeping up with everything that’s going on can really take its toll on your mental health, leaving little time for anything else in your life. Harassment, calling out and bullying all happen on a regular basis on Facebook, as does seeing the relative success of others.

What specific mental health risks are attached to Instagram usage?  

Around since 2010, Instagram is a social media platform that centres around high-definition images of people and their lives. It’s like all others in that the topics can be varied, but it tends to focus on having the perfect body, personality and lifestyle.

Sadly, studies have associated Instagram with a range of mental health issues, ranging from self-esteem to body image problems to social anxiety. What’s more, Instagram capitalises on the desire of people to enjoy social belonging, gently encouraging them to keep scrolling.

What specific mental health risks are attached to Twitter usage?

In existence since 2006, Twitter is a social platform that restricts you to 280 characters, symbols or glyphs. It’s a way for people to comment on world events, talk about their own lives or whatever is on their minds, and it’s used by 206 million people daily.

The trouble with Twitter is that it’s often used by social anxious people in an attempt to replace those in-person interactions. What this means is that they’re typically looking for external validation or approval, but when they get the opposite - abuse - it can have a profound effect on their state of mind.

What specific mental health risks are attached to Snapchat usage?

Introduced in 2011, Snapchat is a photo-based social platform that allows users to create, edit and add art to their pictures. The software also allows effects, colour filters, and stickers to be added for totally personalised images that you’ll want to share.

The main problem with Snapchat as it pertains to mental health is that it’s another option that people can spend multiple hours each day engaging with. The trouble is that studies show that those who spend more than 3 hours on social media risk poor mental health, including depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

Does Social Media affect adults different to teenagers? Are there any risks more common in younger/older people?

While the mental health problems suffered by Millenials are well documented when using social media, they’re not the only ones using them. In fact, people of all ages do, so how are there any increased risks for older people? Well, the elderly are certainly more susceptible to being scammed and duped into spending money.

However, they’re also much more likely to become consumed with content they find on social media. For instance, those over 65 are typically 7x more likely to share misinformation than younger people. And while adults may be more resilient in the face of bullying or abuse than children, the effects can be just as devastating.

What should I do if I feel myself struggling with any of the above?

If you find yourself experiencing any of the problems we’ve mentioned here, the first thing to do is to limit your time on social media - coming away from it entirely if you can. Try and replace some of the time you spend online with something in the real world to put you back in touch with non-digital matters in your life.

If you continue to struggle, then it might be time to talk to someone. At My Black Dog, we offer peer-to-peer support for anyone struggling with their mental health. Believe us when we say that sharing a problem or even just talking about it can have such a positive influence on a person that it shouldn’t be ignored.

However, if you experience any feelings of wanting to harm yourself, we’d recommend talking to the Samaritans, who can offer you the help you need.

What should I do if I am worried about a friend or family member struggling with any of the above?

That can be a tricky one, as they might not even realise they have a problem until you point it out. There may be some denial - it’s quite normal - but when they’re ready to talk about things, set aside some time with no distractions and let them share whatever they’re comfortable doing, no matter how much or little.

Don’t try and fix things immediately, diagnose them or second guess what they’re saying and always listen more than you speak. Listen actively and then talk about self-care and the availability of mental health support as mentioned above.

Getting the Mental Health Support You Need

As we can see, social media is something that pervades the modern world, and it can have a significant impact on how a person feels. At My Black Dog, we are a charity that offers support to anyone struggling with their mental health, and it’s all completely free. We’re not Doctors or therapists, just people who understand.

To find out more about us and what we’re about, please visit us today at www.myblackdog.co and to start talking to someone, simply tap the speech box on the right-hand side of our homepage, which will connect you to someone eager to help.

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We are an online mental health charity. We are not doctors or therapists, not counsellors or psychiatrists, we are mental health volunteers who understand; people who have ALL experienced mental health issues.