The simple truth is that social media does in fact cause mental health issues. It’s not just the message. It is the medium.
A study from the U of Penn published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology states: “Most of the prior research that has been done on social media and well-being has been correlational in nature. Our study is the first study to establish a clear causal link between decreasing social media use, and improvements in loneliness and depression. It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that reducing social media, which promised to help us connect with others, actually helps people feel less lonely and depressed.”
“The first study to establish a clear causal link between decreasing social media use & loneliness & depression shows reducing social media helps people feel less lonely and depressed.”Tweet
In the debate on the negative effects of social media, it is unequivocally true that they are happening and there is a causal, not simply correlation, link between social media usage and mental health. People talk about this all the time and there are numerous documentaries such as The Social Dilemma and Plugged In : The True Toxicity of Social Media Revealed as well as countless articles and posts about it all over the internet.
However, I don’t find any of that surprising. Like the study said, it is ironic but not surprising that social media actually makes people feel less lonely and depressed. That study came out in 2018 and I could have told you that social media creates mental health issues when I was in middle school back in 2013. And that is precisely what I do find very interesting.
Every time a new technology or new media comes on the scene, parents freak out, often irrationally so. From books, to radio, to TV, to magazines, to the internet. Yes, even radio. There was a group of mothers called the Scarsdale Moms from Scarsdale, New York in the 1930s who campaigned against stories of violence on radio shows aimed towards children and their efforts resulted in real change. Parents freaking out over what kids are doing and new technology is nothing new. What is new and interesting, however, is the fact that now with social media, it’s not just parents who are complaining about social media. It is the kids, teenagers, and young adults – the digital natives like myself – who are noticing the ill effects and speaking out about it as well.
The Log Off Movement is run by a high schooler, not the mother of a high schooler. Where parents are involved, such as Collin Kartchner (may he rest in peace) and his movement Save the Kids, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories pouring in from middle and high schoolers themselves, not just the parents, about how social media contributed to or created mental health, body image, and self-esteem issues for them, often irrespective of how well or how poorly they were parented. Parenting is a factor, an important one at that, but it is far from the only or (in my opinion) the most important factor.
Parents freaking out over what kids are doing is nothing new. What is new is the fact that with social media, it’s not just parents. It is the the digital natives like myself who are noticing the ill effects and speaking out about it.Tweet
Is social media the only thing that causes addiction and mental health issues? No, it’s not. But the alternatives of TV, magazines, video games, arcades, and even radio have far, far less addictive potential. To say that “nothing would’ve changed, except the medium,” is not true. Yes, the medium would have changed and I believe that this would change everything.
Mental health issues haven’t just transferred from TV and magazines to social media- mental health issues have INCREASED from social media.Tweet
And if not everything, at least it would change mental health statistics. Another study I find very interesting is this one which shows that depressive symptoms and suicide rates in teens, especially girls, increased by 65% in just 5 years starting in 2010 compared to a 1.1% increase between 1990 and 2001. Mental health issues have not simply transferred from magazines and TV to social media, they have drastically increased. Clearly, as far as depression rates go, the magazines and TV in the 90s did not have anywhere close to the same impact as social media. Coincidentally, Instagram was launched in 2010.
But why social media? What makes social media worse for mental health than magazines or TV? My opinion is that there are several reasons for this.
1. Social media lacks natural stopping cues.
Stopping cues are subtle nudges that give our minds a split second to make a conscious choice to continue or not. In real life, a “nudge” to help people make healthier choices is to put healthy snacks at eye level and unhealthy snacks lower than eye level. Small changes that modify consumer behavior can be made to either help people make healthy choices OR to help people make unhealthy choices. The removal of natural stopping cues is a nudge that leads to unhealthy levels of social media usage. Infinite scroll is an example of the removal of stopping cues as well as auto-playing videos.
It also doesn’t help that the content on social media is infinite. You could spend an entire lifetime (or several lifetimes) trying to watch all the videos on YouTube or all the things on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter and still never come close to being done. At least with a magazine, there is an end. It may take a few hours to read a magazine cover to cover and then you put it down; there is no more until next month. The magazine does not get bigger and bigger the more you read it making it impossible to finish. With traditional TV, the new episodes of a show came on once a week and once that hour was up, that was all until next week.
With my favorite videogame, Lego Star Wars for Wii Classic, sure I could play for 4 hours straight but it gets tedious and slightly boring after a while, it lacks the newness of social media and other online video games. Also, each level that is completed and saved to the game provides a natural stopping point. Plus, that video game unlike many synchronous multi-player games that happen over the internet, there is an end. Eventually, after some time of playing, I completed the Lego Star Wars game; I unlocked everything and bought all the extras in the game so I literally could not get any more money in the game or spend any more money, it capped at 1 billion coins.
Notice that social media networks do not give their users control over their own nudges because it is not in their financial interest to do so.
2. Influencers & Body Image
I believe that the most important factor when it comes to mental health issues arising from social media, particularly body image issues with those issues happening mostly among girls and young women, although they certainly affect boys and young men as well, is the effect of influencers and the para-social relationships formed as a result of interacting with influencers.
Para-social relationships and the influencer marketing enabled by these relationships are a phenomena distinct from celebrity endorsements. Traditionally, celebrity endorsements worked due to a separate psychological phenomenon called higher-order classical conditioning, although the two phenomena and the categories of influencer and celebrity can and do overlap. Higher order classical conditioning is when the positive emotions associated with a certain celebrity are transferred onto an object. With para-social relationships, people come to view the celebrity or the influencer as a friend, despite the relationship being totally one-sided. Influencers on social media who are “normal girls” just like you and I are much more relatable than a celebrity in a magazine. We know the celebrity in the magazine has a full glam squad and enough money to get all kinds of cosmetic enhancements. Many celebrities maintain the façade of “not having any work done” while some influencers will tell us about their injections and plastic surgeries without trying to hide them.
Influencers therefore seem more “real” and therefore, the beauty standards created seem much more attainable. The thought process goes “I may not be able to ever look like Hollywood actress Gal Gadot or supermodel Tyra Banks, but since Charli D’Amelio is a normal girl just like me, then I could (read: should) be able to be just as pretty as she is. And if I can’t then I must not measure up.” Even if most girls and guys on social media are not as pretty as people who are influencers, the algorithms of social media will amplify the posts of the prettiest people who, by virtue of being pretty, get the most likes and follows and comments. The distribution and amplification of the posts from ultra-pretty people versus more average looking people becomes skewed.
The algorithms will amplify the posts of the prettiest people who by virtue of being pretty get the most likes, follows, comments. The amplification of posts from ultra-pretty people vs. average looking people becomes skewed.Tweet
On top of all of that, it becomes easy to conflate social media with reality because social media is mostly made of “real people” not supermodels and Hollywood actors like on TV and in magazines. When we read magazines, we assume the photos have been retouched and celebrities are so far removed from ourselves that we know looking like whoever is on the magazine cover is impossible. On Instagram, we can never be sure. Sometimes, people get “exposed” for using Facetune to reshape their bodies and filters cover “imperfections” but some people still use Facetune and other methods of photoshop, they just don’t make it so obvious. So on social media, what we end up with is a distorted version of reality that messes with our self-esteem.
3. Lack of face to face interaction decreases empathy, especially among children.
A study from the University of Michigan has determined that empathy has declined by 40% since the late 1970s with the decline being most pronounced in subjects after the year 2000. This decline in empathy has created a hypernormalized level of aggression on the internet, particularly social media. The nasty comments on social media would NEVER be directed at an audience through a magazine article. Never. And very, very few people would have the balls (or the ovaries) to look someone in the eyes and say, “You’re fat & ugly,” or “You should kill yourself,” to someone’s face. Just watch men reading mean tweets to female sports reporters and see how uncomfortable it is to say those things to someone’s face, even if it’s not coming from you. And to be clear, this is not just a female issue. It’s an everybody issue. Many kids get cyberbullied online, boys and girls, men and women, as well as people who don’t identify as either.
Technology can make us forget what we know about life. It is not too late to remember, to look up, look at each other, and start the conversation.Tweet
For MIT professor Dr. Sherry Turkle, who has been studying how technology impacts children since the 70s, the decline in empathy among people, particularly children is the result of a decrease in actual face time. “The philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas writes that the presence of a face initiates the human ethical compact. The face communicates, ‘Thou shalt not kill me,'” Turkle writes in her book Alone Together.
In her follow up book, Reclaiming Conversation, she says, “We want to believe that if technology has created a problem, technology will solve it. But in this case, when our thoughts turn to emotive robots or iPhone apps, we are forgetting the essential. We are the empathy app. People, not machines, talking to each other. Technology can make us forget what we know about life. It is not too late to remember, to look up, look at each other, and start the conversation.