The negative effects of social media have been well documented, with Facebook executives even admitting in a recent blog post that the platform may pose a risk to users’ emotional well-being.
But while some studies have linked prolonged social media use with symptoms of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, others suggest it can also provide significant benefits.
Amid all the conflicting research, The Week looks at whether the emotional risks of digital technologies outweigh the rewards.
The negative effects
A number of studies have found an association between social media use and depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating issues, and increased suicide risk, warn researchers from the University of Melbourne’s National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, in an article on The Conversation.
A survey of young people conducted by the London-based Royal Society for Public Health found that social media sites such as Instagram, which primarily focus on people’s physical appearance, are “contributing to a generation of young people with body image and body confidence issues”.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in July examined whether young people’s use of 11 social media sites – Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook and Reddit – correlated with their “perceived social isolation”.
“Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the more time people spent on these sites, the more socially isolated they perceived themselves to be. And perceived social isolation is one of the worst things for us, mentally and physically,” says Forbes.
A 2015 study by the University of Missouri found that regularly using Facebook could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user.
“Facebook can be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives,” said Professor Margaret Duffy, who co-authored the report. But if it’s used “to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship – things that cause envy among users – use of the site can lead to feelings of depression”, she adds.
However, care needs to be taken when making a direct link between mental health and social media use, warn the University of Melbourne researchers.
Most studies examining social media and mental health “aren’t able to determine whether spending more time on social media leads to depression or anxiety, or if depressed or anxious young people spend more time on social media”, they say. “The pathways to mental illness are many and varied, and to suggest mental health problems can be attributed to social media alone would be an oversimplification.”
It is also important to note that social media does not affect all people equally, the researchers add, as some individuals may be more susceptible to the negative aspects than others.
The positive effects
The same University of Missouri study that found a link between Facebook use and depression also found that people who use the platform primarily to connect with others do not experience the negative effects. “In fact, when not triggering feelings of envy, the study shows, Facebook could be a good resource and have positive effects on well-being,” Psychology Today reports.
There is also compelling evidence that social media can benefit people already dealing with mental health issues by helping them build online communities that provide a source of emotional support. The UK Mental Health Foundation says it is “undeniable” that online technologies can be used to reach the most vulnerable in society, as well as helping to reduce the stigma attached to seeking treatment.
Social media is “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better”, says Professor John Powell, a public health researcher at Oxford University, who has researched how social media can be used to support people with chronic illnesses.
Matthew Oransky, an assistant professor of adolescent psychiatry at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, also says many patients make social connections online that they could not find elsewhere, reports USA Today. This is particularly true of marginalised teens, such as kids in foster homes and LGBT adolescents, Oransky says.
Research suggests that the manner in which social media is used is key to determining if it likely to have a positive or negative impact on well-being. For example, active, as opposed to passive, social media use can be beneficial, say the Melbourne researchers. “Although browsing Instagram has been associated with increased depression, talking to others online increases life satisfaction,” they say.
So what is the consensus?
Experts appear to largely agree that social media is neither wholly good nor bad for our emotional well-being, and that its impact on our mental health depends on a number of factors, including how it is used.
And while the risks of these platforms should be acknowledged, so should their potential to help people, especially those already struggling with mental health issues.
Anyone in need of immediate mental health support can call the Samaritans free on 116 123