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Social Media and Mental Health

Social media has a huge impact on our lives and it’s only set to increase in the future. The effect of social media particularly on teenagers crops up again mainly for the negative impact it can have leading to poor mental health.

Over the past 10 years social media has quickly embedded itself as an integral part of our lives, for better or worse, and can have a significant impact on our mental health if not managed correctly.  In terms of internet usage, the highest users of social media are 16-24 year olds (96%)*

So, is social media bad for our mental health and wellbeing?

There’s no doubt social media has changed our lives – accessing information is easy and quick, finding products, services, opinions, reviews, real time reports on news and sports and watching informative, music or amusing videos on You Tube is now a normal part of most people’s everyday lives.  Accessing information is easy and we are used the instant response and wide variety of information out there.

Businesses and individuals have more avenues to promote their products and services, reaching a wider audience, allowing creativity and detailed targeting.

There are many great apps out there which assist us with everyday tasks, provide support and advice, teach us a new skill or simply offer a break and a bit of entertainment.

Social media can be positive for our wellbeing – it gives people a voice, allows self-expression, connects us and can power social change. With young people in particular, this ability to communicate and build an identity is important and increases a sense of worth and belonging.   It can be motivational, inspiring, answer questions, pose questions, offer opportunities and provide an online support network.

Of course, it’s the negative impact of social media that draws the most attention – particularly in relation to young people. There’s a dark side to social media that cannot be ignored which includes negativity; false information, cyber bullying, trolls, oversharing and unfortunately pro-hate groups for pretty much everything.  Everyone now has a voice and an opinion but some don’t use this in a positive or constructive way.

A recent study by the Royal Society of Public Health on Social Media #StatusofMind shows that social media is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep and has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.

The study also ranks the main 5 social media platforms in terms of their positive and negative impact on young people’s health and wellbeing with You Tube ranking the most positive and Instagram the most negative; the main factor for Instagram being the negative is the effect on body image.

Fear of missing out, peer pressure and constantly comparing to others are commonplace on most forms of social media and are key factors which can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem, increased anxiety and depression.  Using social media as a life comparison tool is not healthy; we should avoid constantly comparing ourselves to other in terms of appearance and life status, we need to remember many images are digitally manipulated and people tend to overexaggerate and overshare – what we see and read is not necessarily a real reflection of someone’s life.

Many people place over reliance on likes for their posts and images and use this as a measure to determine their self-worth.  Constant approval seeking is not good for mental health, it can become a vicious circle as we post to validate but if we don’t get the response we are hoping for or, even worse negative feedback, this then fuels worry, anxiety and makes us more self-critical.

The negative impact on sleep is also a major concern; social media can be addictive; the use of electronic devices too close to sleep has also been proven to disrupt sleep due to the blue light emitted from these devices delaying the release of sleep-inducing melatonin. Lack of sleep leads to poor mental health and vice versa.

We must be mindful of how we use social media to ensure it is a positive addition to our busy lives. Many of us would admit we are perhaps a little addicted to social media, and are guilty of letting it encroach on our time to the detriment of close relationships and our overall mental health.  It’s just as important to try and build an offline community; have face to face conversations, and allow ourselves time away from our ‘devices’.

The Royal Society of Public Heath #StatusofMind report makes some great recommendations including:  introducing a pop up heavy usage warning; an icon to show when an image has been digitally manipulated; more education in schools and for professionals who work with young children around safe use of social media; address the issue of ‘fake news’ particularly in relation to health information and further research into the use and effects of social media.

As with most things in life, it’s all about balance and moderation. Social media doesn’t have to be bad for our mental health if we are aware of the negative impact it can have on our state of mind and find a happy medium in terms of how much time we spend on it and how much reliance we place on it.   Our attitude towards social media and how we use it is crucial to ensure it benefits our mental health rather than damages it.

Liz McGee, Marketing and Communications Officer

*Office for National Statistics, internet activities by age group 2017

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