Social media is the buzz word of the modern world. It is everywhere, and young people are all but born with internet devices in their hands. Over 40% of adults across the globe are signed up to one of the social media platforms. Research estimates that each user spends more than 2 hours a day checking the sites, adding their contributions and potentially, as we will learn, damaging their mental health. Social media can have a detrimental effect on our mental health, but most people wouldn’t even consider the internet to be the cause of their blue mood, feelings of anxiety and general dissatisfaction with life. Let’s look at how the two factors are more deeply entwined, more than anyone could imagine, and see if there are any positives to balance the negatives.
Feeling in a Bad Mood?
Austrian research carried out in 2014 suggested that social media could be in part to blame. Most people that responded to the survey confirmed that they felt in a bad mood after just 20 minutes of Facebook use. When asked if using the internet for browsing or shopping made people feel down, the answer was a resounding no. It seems that social media was to blame. Unsurprisingly, this new medium has become the subject of many studies, and one carried out by the University of California suggested that the mood effect can also be spread much like a computer virus. Negative posts complaining about things like poor weather or a sad news story, affected the mood of people who were in countries not directly involved. The sun could be shining but after reading friends rant about the cold and rain, that user was more likely to feel blue.
Are you Anxious?
GP’s have seen a surge in anxiety over the past decade. More people are reporting to their doctors with feelings of panic and fear over daily life. Could social media be contributing? Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that this indeed could be the case and attributed the worst levels of anxiety to multi-platform users. Those who were active on over seven social media sites had higher levels of anxiety than those who only use two or less. It is dangerous scaremongering, and while no conclusive evidence has been offered, some content can lead to crowd mentality panic. Without stopping to check authenticity or validity, stories of killer viruses, diseases that will strike all in their path and other lousy life events spread at a viral rate and everyone panics. Combine this with perfect people living their perfect lives and users feeling as if they cannot possibly keep up, or have a life that matters, and you can begin to see the issues. If you are a social media user, you will be aware of just how often fake news takes control of the platform. We are now seeing all world events, in real time, as they unfold. In the past, the news channels would have been the only way to find out what’s going on around the world and could be avoided. Now users log onto social media and find their timelines or walls swamped with doom and gloom stories. It seems entirely reasonable to attribute a portion of anxiety to social media.
Drowning in Depression?
Of course, there is a close link between anxiety and depression, so much of the above applies equally to those who suffer from depression. If social media pushes an image of the life you should have, it is no surprise that people started to feel down and depressed when their own lives do not mirror this apparently perfect image. Feeling of inadequacy can easily spiral as people try and meet this virtual perfection. Of course, there is no policing of social media to ensure people are telling the truth. Images are augmented, airbrushed and touched up, and this can have a devastating effect on someone struggling with their body image. The link between social media and depression does seem to be more of an issue in younger people, and studies have tended to focus on this impressionable age group. It is hard to gain positive life experience when being consistently met with a barrage of criticism and imagery that suggests the user is not good enough. It seems that this distorted view of the world is taken as the truth and the result is a significant dent in mental health.
Struggling to Sleep?
Mental health is not just about conditions and labels for those conditions. How we live, our whole lives impact on our mental health and another surge for GP resources has been swathes of people reporting sleep issues. Not being able to sleep has a massive effect on everything we do. It appears the reliance on social media can indirectly be linked to a lot of sleep problems. Social media can be like having a welcome friend. In the middle of the night if you are struggling sleep, logging into social media and finding virtual friends to chat to can seem like a lifeline and many people cite these companions as an aide recovery from their feelings of anxiety and depression, however they may inadvertently be making things worse. Accessing social media requires an internet connected device, from laptops, to tablets and smartphones, our devices all have one thing in common. They use LED screens and give off blue light. Research in this area has been able to show that blue light prevents melatonin production conclusively. Our bodies produce this vital hormone needed for sleep, but if we do not take time away from this light, especially at bedtime, we could be sabotaging sleep without realising.
Device manufacturers are trying to offer responsible steps by creating night mode on many devices, which changes the tone of the screen to remove as much blue light as possible, but this may not be enough. It becomes a vicious circle, people are not able to fall asleep, so they reach for their devices to find friends to interact with, and the light from the device prevents the sleep further. If you are struggling to sleep, the best plan would be to shut off all internet and television devices an hour before bed. Lower the lighting in the room and read or listen to music before heading to bed.
Where is the Good?
It is all damning evidence and paints a pretty weak picture of social media when it comes to our mental health. So, has anyone been able to offer any proof of anything positive? Thankfully there is some good. On a fundamental level, people have been able to get help from mental health professionals thanks to people on social media stepping in to help. Unfortunately, there are many cries for support across all platforms, and while some are not genuine, plenty of people have been at breaking point and made a last-ditch attempt to get help before taking matters further. Strangers have saved the lives of people in other countries because they were on social media at the right time. Calls to local police forces have seen people rescued and taken to hospitals just in the nick of time. But, these stories are hearsay, and although there is no doubt they happen, have any studies been able to confirm a positive side to social media and mental health?
There has been a survey for that too; almost 2,000 people involved in a study, on social media and stress, responded and the results showed that for women, having a rant on social media, and the support that garnered from friends and strangers alike, did help to diffuse the feelings of stress. The effect was not shown in men.
When it comes to spotting depression, Microsoft has been leading the way by using social media as an early detection tool. Currently, the analysis of language, style, responses to others and emotion shown in posts can predict potential depression cases even before symptoms are shown in over two thirds of cases. It is an interesting use of social media that could be helpful in the future for early detection and treatment of those who are experiencing mental health issues, and there is no doubt this project, and others like it, will continue to expand.
There is little doubt that social media has become a robust platform. Relationships can be made and broken, the lonely can feel isolated, and the poor, inadequate. On the flip side, friendships are born, people feel brave enough to talk to strangers, and for some people, this virtual world offers an escape from loneliness. Most things in life provide good and evil, and social media seems to be no exception. There are plenty of benefits to personal and working lives on offer through social media channels, so condemning it would be hasty. It also shows little sign of dwindling in popularity, so the best course of action is to be aware of the potential pitfalls and as with most things acting in moderation.