Is Social Media Impacting Your Mental Health?

 14th Dec 2016

Trolling is nothing new.

For the uninitiated, trolls – as it names suggests – are members of social media communities who go out of their way to be unpleasant and generally hurtful (or trollish) towards other users. They delight in sowing misery and being generally unpleasant to people.

There are no doubt reasons for their behaviour and trolls should largely be pitied for the actions but it doesn’t change the fact that these individuals can inflict lasting harm to a person who is particularly vulnerable or suffers from low self-esteem.

However, what about those of us who aren’t specifically victims of cyber bullying? What impact is social media having on us day to day?

The explosion of social media into our popular culture has forever changed how we interact and share life events. News was once shared in letters, now it’s posted on timelines, tweeted or captured in a selfie.

Selfies-Social-Media-Mental-Health

There is a pervasive trend amongst some users to fabricate a faux reality about what an amazing job/partner/child/life they have. It’s a misguided reaction to their assumption that content shared by other users is the whole (amazing) story. That their lives are opulent, happy, stress free meanders down the river of life rather than the rock strewn rapids that everyone else navigates.

We forget that, like the media, we shouldn’t believe everything we read. This short video demonstrates the point rather elegantly:

The worrying thing is that Facebook themselves points out that the platform is intended for sharing special moments in our lives. Stories worth telling. We all have to do the dishes but how many of us want to see a Facebook update about it?

This humblebragging is causing a real and growing pressure on individuals – particularly young people - to have an incredible lifestyle full of adventure because that’s all they see from friends or role models. These unrealistic expectations are beginning to take their toll.

The irony of the situation is staggering and lost on so many.

Moreover, evidence suggests that engaging with social media during the night ruins sleep patterns and increases the chances of anxiety and depression.

This is especially true for teenagers who require more sleep than adults and as such there can be physical health implications too.

More troubling is that studies suggest that young people are using social media to assuage anxieties rather than speak to their parents or other members of their support circle. Considering the aforementioned trolls and humblebragging, it is little wonder that it often exacerbates the problem.

Whilst the intention of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is for users to share content that matters to them with friends, family and communities of likeminded people a great many people share content from a place of self-doubt and insecurity.

In fact the evidence indicates that people with mental health issues are not only more likely to share content but will do so as a means of gaining attention, seeking validation or boosting self-esteem.

Of course it’s easy to demonise social media as the cause of anxiety and depression in young people but studies have suggested social media is making it easier to identify.

For example, a study from the University of Missouri revealed that people with highly developed/detailed profiles but with few friends and few updates are more likely to suffer from anhedonia (an inability to experience happiness).

These people with social anhedonia were more likely to:

  • Have few friends on Facebook
  • Communicate less frequently
  • Share fewer pictures
  • Have a longer Facebook profile 

Study leader Elizabeth Martin, a doctoral student in MU's psychological science department in the College of Arts and Science, said, “Therapists could possibly use social media activity to create a more complete clinical picture of a patient. The beauty of social media activity as a tool in psychological diagnosis is that it removes some of the problems associated with patients' self-reporting.”

However, this potentially opens a wider ethical debate as to whether it is reliable and morally acceptable to rely on an individual’s social media profile in order to complete a clinical picture.

 Platforms like Instagram can make it easier to spot narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic traits that could be an indication of sociopathic behaviour, though in terms of narcissistic personality disorder, social media isn’t the cause but a means of expression.  It’s the perfect platform for curating one’s life and cultivating positive affirmations.

Of course there are many positives to using social media. It can combat isolation as Facebook and Twitter more or less guarantees you can talk to anyone wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.

It’s great for building communities and sharing hobbies and interests with likeminded people. This is a huge boon to people with anxiety, depression or those at risk of isolation as they still get human contact and the chance to share their enthusiasms but in a way that they feel safe.

Providing those communities are engaged in positive behaviours or past times then these should be actively encouraged.

It’s also great for talking about achievements. Whilst we could be accused of humblebragging, a big part of social media is making sure our friends and our followers are positive players in our lives. Who won’t look at our achievements with envy but be happy for us.

We’re not trying to establish a brand. We’re not the Kardashians or Donald Trump who have agendas and reputations to worry about. We shouldn’t shy away from talking about our lives providing we’re open and honest.

Encompass Dorset is a specialist charity working with people with learning disabilities and enduring mental health issues. If you or someone you care about could benefit from our services contact us today for more information.

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