In the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to exist without multiple social media accounts. Because most of our lives are shared through services such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, even the most introverted individuals must have some type of account if they want to stay in contact with their family and friends.
For many, the normalization of social media has been a great asset to an industrialized society. After all, social media makes it possible to reach out and share photos with family and friends who are across the world without having to pay for anything other than an internet connection. Social media services have also become platforms with which people can launch their careers, with famous songs such as “Old Town Road” only gaining popularity through the popular social media platform TikTok.
Though it might seem contrived, the relationship you have with social media can have an influence on your mental health. When we share our lives with the internet, we can begin to see how the internet affects our lives, leading us to compare our lives with others and make adjustments to our behavior.
To help you understand the relationship between social media and mental health, we’ve created a guide to the issue.
Before we go into this article, it is important to note that if you or anyone you know is experiencing mental illness hardship, you must seek the attention of a medical professional. Though the internet can be used for learning about mental illness, the only way to treat it is to consult a doctor.
If you are currently in a crisis situation and are at risk of hurting yourself or others, here is a list of suicide hotlines that are there to help you.
If you’ve ever seen any political content on Facebook, you probably understand how nasty it can get. Due to the semi-anonymous nature of the internet, many people feel as though they are able to say whatever they want, often resulting in many digital fights to break out on social media services.
Though this type of argument is often framed as engagement and discussion, it can often leave users feeling stressed out and attacked. In some cases, it can even turn into terrible harassment, traumatizing victims with constant vitriol that encourages them to log off entirely. Controversies such as 2014’s Gamergate have shown that the potential for media and certain critiques to go viral can have a direct result on the mental health of victims, making it more difficult for them to feel safe online.
On top of this, the premise of certain social media sites revolves around comparing your life and achievements to others. By being able to selectively share portions of yourself with others, sites like Facebook can feel like contests, subsequently affecting how people perceive themselves.
In terms of making people question their own self-confidence, perhaps no social media application is more tumultuous than Instagram. With many influencers photoshopping images of themselves and promoting products without properly acknowledging the sponsorship, the platform encourages a type of lifestyle that is inherently inauthentic.
Though social media platforms are often portrayed as wonderful places where people can connect with each other, they can actually make people feel lonely. By encouraging people to think about their relationships with others while simultaneously watching their every move, social media can sometimes feel like less of a genuine connection and more of a type of voyeurism.
Comparing likes on Instagram can also make people feel lonely by encouraging them to wonder why their content doesn’t get as much engagement as other posts. The arbitrary nature of social media algorithms can also make people feel social media anxiety when their new post doesn’t do as well as their previous one, a factor that is almost uncontrollable.
“Cancel culture” is a term referring to a specific type of social justice culture that is facilitated by social media. The dynamic of cancel culture typically involves individuals who have hurt others on emotional or physical levels being taken to task by social media users. This often involves some form of public post about the person that is spread around quickly on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Because many of the subjects being “canceled” are people who have abused their power, the goal of cancel culture is to take their power away from them and hold them accountable.
Though there is nothing wrong with the premise of cancel culture, the idea has been distorted throughout the years to not provide commentary on people abusing their power, but rather people doing things that others don’t agree with. People who perpetuate the cancel culture argue that it is holding people accountable, but with little restorative viewpoints or justice included, it only appears as though the end goal is to ostracize people who have done questionable things. This mentality is inherently at odds with other societal practices such as forgiveness and systems that help rehabilitate people. It might seem completely unrelated to school, but you would be surprised at how many students interact with each other through cancel culture. For example, certain situations that might otherwise be mediated by a third-party are now discussed entirely on social media platforms in a way that resembles public shaming rather than restorative justice.
In early January, the YouTuber Contrapoints (Natalie Wynn) released an in-depth analysis of cancel culture that interrogates the foundation of social media justice. The video also goes beyond defining the phenomenon and offers alternatives to cancel culture, with Wynn sharing her own experiences dealing with suicidal thoughts and social media anxiety as a result of being harassed online.
One of the most negative effects of social media is that there are not many ways to verify whether or not certain information is factual. Though the term “fake news” has become somewhat of a joke over the past few years, there are quite serious ramifications for believing everything you read online. For example, the 2016 United States presidential election brought with it a lot of confusion as to which news articles were actually telling the truth.
Due to campaigns that targeted users with fake accounts and inaccurate sources, companies and hackers were able to influence the way that some people perceived the world around them. This ended up fueling the spread of misinformation, something that affected many innocent people in the United States.
These fake news stories might feel like they are only available on social media, but they can also affect real-world environments. If certain students see white nationalist propaganda on Facebook, it is very likely that they will carry those beliefs with them to their interactions with other classmates. With a lot of false information, what started out as a Facebook post ends up being a news story with a serious outcry over the treatment of minorities and other oppressed social groups.
Despite the negative effects that social media can have on mental health, there is a case to be made for people feeling more comfortable with their mental health. Communities on websites like Tumblr and Twitter have provided a lot of solace for those who are struggling, allowing them to speak with others who share similar experiences. With many social media stars sharing their own experiences regarding mental health, more and more people are feeling inspired enough to start improving their lives through proper treatment methods.
For example, people like Susanna Harris have perpetuated the Twitter hashtag #PhDBalance that encourages Ph.D. candidates to be conscious of when they are overextending themselves in a way that is actually unhealthy for them. These types of positive online interactions can pave the way for individuals who might be confused or overwhelmed by mental illness that they can’t yet recognize.
Recently there has also been a very positive community surrounding those who not only talk about mental illness but encourage others to see medical professionals and receive proper care for it. In an internet environment that is so often filled with misinformation and other types of “fake news,” it is refreshing to see people consciously advocate for each other and help others feel better.
The most important thing to understand about social media is that it is constantly changing. In recent years, the controversies surrounding social media have caused companies to rethink how their platforms work. For example, YouTube is a website frequently polluted with misinformation, so the administrative team has created a system to provide context for each video that is uploaded. If a video talks about something like World War II, YouTube now automatically recommends sources on the event to help the viewer contextualize what they are watching.
In a similar way, Facebook is also implementing built-in “fact-checking” services that help users distinguish between credible and fake sources. These types of tools are incredibly helpful for making social media a genuine exchange as opposed to the spread of misinformation that it has become over the years.
Instagram is also planning to remove likes from their service, encouraging users to not value their success based on how many people like their content. In a world where it is also possible to purchase likes to inflate your engagement ratio, this seems like a smart move to create a healthier social media atmosphere.
There are also many books being written on the negative effects that social media can have on one’s mental health. If you want to read some books about social media and mental health, we recommend The Effect of Social Media on Mental Health & Personality and Social Media and Mental Health. These books about social media and mental health are the first steps to understanding the issue and eventually providing alternatives to unhealthy internet habits.
No matter what you’re dealing with, there is always help available. Like we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are many suicide hotlines you can call if you are dealing with a mental health crisis. If it is not an emergency and you just want to have a check-up, we recommend that you make an appointment with a medical professional so they can properly diagnose your situation and help you get the care that you need.
If you are struggling at school and don’t know how to find a doctor, most schools have built-in mental health programs that can help you take the steps to feel better. We recommend speaking to a teacher or other administrative figure who can redirect you to the appropriate resources.
At the end of the day, social media can have both positive and negative benefits on one’s mental health. However, this doesn’t mean that the negative effects mean that we must stop using social media. Instead, it is better to maintain a healthy relationship with social media, using it to connect with people we don’t normally see while also not allowing the limited viewpoint social media presents to influence how we view ourselves.
If you or someone you know is experiencing significant hardship due to social media usage, it is essential that you reach out to a medical professional for further guidance and treatment. We hope this guide has been helpful so that the next time you catch yourself feeling sad due to the number of likes a photo got on Instagram, you can begin to understand the relationship between social media and mental health.