A new study gives supporting evidence for something many already know intuitively: Social media can be detrimental to mental health. Understanding the risk factors of social media is essential for moderating personal and family use of platforms that have the capability to create more harm than positive connections.
The study, conducted by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, offers essential empirical evidence affirming that social media, when used in excess and for performative, nonsocial purposes, creates widespread misery among users.
This lends further confirmation to the findings of the 2017 American Family Survey conducted by the Deseret News and BYU, in which a scant 5 percent of respondents said having a cellphone positively affects family relations. It also found a positive correlation between the amount of time spent on a phone and the increase of trouble experienced in relationships.
The Royal Society for Public Health report complements that data by identifying key insights to help users and families live healthy lives in a digital era. First, it underscores the crux of the issue: Regular social media use, particularly on image-driven platforms like Instagram, make a majority of users depressed and anxious.
Second, it identifies the scope of the problem. The overwhelming majority of youths on social media experience anxiety and depression at a rate that has increased by 70 percent in the past 25 years. This correlation raises a red flag.
The constant quest for validation in the form of “likes,” the unrealistic nature of curated content online and the proliferation of cyberbullying exacerbates dissatisfaction, depression and anxiety. The researchers of this study call this a “compare and despair” mentality, which is ubiquitous among youths who spend more than an hour on Instagram every day.
As the report notes, “individuals may view heavily photoshopped, edited or staged photographs and videos and compare them to their seemingly mundane lives” fueling a sense of inadequacy. By consuming content that is performative — edited, planned and strategized to project a personal brand — young people were more likely to feel anxious and insecure.
The good news, however, is that social media — when used for social purposes — can positively impact mental health and create happiness among users. Specifically, the report found that people who said they use social apps strictly for interpersonal communication, such as Apple's FaceTime, report a 91 percent satisfaction rate with the time they spent on the app. Social media users should seek to prioritize real, personal connections via digital platforms. Engaging with people, not simply posts, is what will ween users off of destructive trends of comparison.
Social media companies must take responsibility for promoting positive engagement with their platforms. For example, companies can do more to identify and block cyberbullies. They can also find ways to identify edited and photoshopped content — flagging it for followers that they are consuming unrealistic images.
We also maintain social media companies can use their capabilities for good. Instead of using textual analysis to produce more targeted commercial advertising, platforms might consider developing methods for identifying people struggling with mental health or other serious ailments and point them to helpful resources.
The solution to this problem begins with moderation, restraint and thoughtful engagement with social media. But platforms also should do more to help users live healthy digital lives, assuming responsibility for the fact that the products they have created are more “addictive than cigarettes and alcohol,” and potentially just as life-threatening.