The utilization of social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat has increased dramatically in recent years. This has become especially intense among adolescents and young adults. A recent Ontario study indicates that 80 per cent of young people use social media on a daily basis, with almost 50 per cent using it for over two hours per day.
What is the impact of social media usage on the mental health of young people? This is a pressing question for psychiatric researchers, who have conducted rigorous studies on the topic.
These studies produce consistent findings: heavy utilization of social media is associated with poorer mental health.
For example, a large-scale University of Pittsburgh study of young adults indicated that heavy social media users are almost three times more likely to be depressed than occasional users. Another study of young adults in Michigan showed that recent Facebook use worsens "how people feel moment to moment and how satisfied they are with their lives..
Here in Canada, researchers at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health analyzed data from over 10,000 adolescents. This analysis indicated that young people who use social media more than two hours per day are much more likely to rate their mental health as "fair" or "poor" compared with occasional users.
What you see on social media are heavily sanitized and filtered versions of reality.
Why is heavy usage of social media associated with worse mental health? Three inter-linked factors may be at play.
Firstly, heavy usage may negatively influence important aspects of physical health, which in turn affects mental health. For example, one study of adolescents indicates that social media usage can seriously disturb the quality and quantity of sleep. This study shows that many have difficulty logging-off and going to sleep. Others may deliberately wake up to check social media during the night. Sleep is crucial for the developing adolescent brain, and sleeping well has been consistently associated with good mental health.
Likewise heavy users of social media often remain slumped on a chair, shut up in their room, glued to their screen. This sometimes means that they are skipping meals or staying sedentary for excessive periods of time. Again, this is worrying given that regular exercise and a healthy diet have both been linked to good mental health.
Secondly, some research shows that so-called "passive use" of social media may be particularly bad for mental health. Passive use refers to the practice of quietly observing other people's social media profiles and pictures -- sometimes known as "Facebook stalking." One study shows that this can lead to envy and resentment, while another indicates that passive use provokes and intensifies a negative emotional experience known as "FOMO" (Fear Of Missing Out). This can lower self-esteem and well-being.
It is easy to understand why such passive use can worsen mental health.
Most people on social media portray themselves and their lives in an unrealistically flattering manner. What you see on social media are heavily sanitized and filtered versions of reality. The fleeting irregular highlights are often presented as the norm, while the everyday humdrum struggles (common to all people) are carefully omitted. This leads some passive viewers to make faulty social comparisons, falsely concluding that others are leading much more fulfilling, exciting and happier lives. This can invidiously gnaw at the viewer's psyche, making them feel inferior and inadequate. Again, this can worsen overall mental health.
Thirdly, so-called "active use" of social media has been linked to poor mental health. Active use refers to the practice of regularly posting pictures, videos, status updates, comments or posts. In doing so, many young people engage in strenuous impression management, filtering reality with the purpose of seeking the approval and admiration of others. In psychology, this is known as searching for external validation. Elsewhere, it is sometimes known as "fishing for likes."
Let's not forget that social media is in many respects anti-social.
Some research indicates that feeling compelled to portray a "my fun-filled life" version of reality can come at a severe psychological cost. It can be very damaging to a young person's self-esteem if posts and photos receive few likes or comments. The whole process may lead young people to question their value to others, sometimes resulting in an unhealthy self-scrutiny of body image, physical appearance and general lifestyle. This can lead to self-doubt and self-loathing.
In worst case scenarios, active use can lead to ridicule or attack, rather than compliments or praise. Taken to extremes, this can result in the well-known phenomena of cyber-bullying, which has been associated with suicidal behaviour in recent years.
What can be done to mitigate the harmful effect of social media usage? First, more should be done to raise awareness of its potentially damaging effects so people can make informed choices regarding online behaviour. Second, adults can start positive discussions with youth about self-acceptance, noting the dangers of social comparison and approval-seeking. Thirdly, a literal unplugging might be necessary, with modems or devices switched off during certain periods of time, either self-imposed or externally imposed.
Finally, let's not forget that social media is in many respects anti-social. Let's ensure the real social world plays just an important part in our lives as the virtual social world.
This will lead to happy and healthy individuals, as well as a happier and healthier Canada.
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