Type. Click. Click. Click.
– An average day on the internet
Concerned behaviorists, psychologists, sociologists, and experts have been indulging in a long winding debate about the presumed connection between mental health and social media. For centuries, humankind did not have the ability to transcend the physical boundaries imposed by space and time – now we do. In the millennia that mankind has lived on this planet, instant communication and networking were simply inconceivable – now we do it every day, every waking moment. This profound change in human interaction must have some effect on human
behavior, thinking or feelings, right?
Much of the data reported on mental health is patchy and does not present a fully reliable picture. A thorough report in 2017 by the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation (IMHE) has reported that 300 million people suffered from anxiety and 160 million have a major depressive disorder with another 100 million with dysthymia (a milder form of depression). Some researchers argue that the prevalence of mental health has not risen in our time, rather the destigmatization of mental health reporting has led to a spike in the number of reported numbers. However, across the board, there is a general acknowledgment that it is difficult to ascertain a direct correlation between behavioral health and social media usage because there is a very under-researched area.
Let’s examine some research on the connection between behavioral health issues and social media usage:
A study by the University of Pittsburgh found that spending time on social media correlated with negative body image feedback. People who spent more time on social media had a 2.6 times higher risk of having eating or body image concerns as opposed to other people who spent less time. Another study by UCLA Brain Mapping Center found that receiving likes on social media stimulated the reward center of the brain, thereby, allowing instant gratification which, if not provided, can mentally unsettle you.
The trend of selfies gave rise to the pressure of putting pictures on social media that meet the unrealistic expectation of body image. With a mathematical model, it has been found out that self-photographs are distortive – the short distance the pictures are taken at show a distorted image. In a shocking turn of events, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons reported that 42% of the surgeons’ patients seek cosmetic procedures for better selfies and photographs to be posted on social media.
Social Media Addiction:
This may be an entirely new phenomenon that can be connected to other behavioral health issues but it is important to talk about the new kid on the block: Social Media Addiction. It is believed that it affects 5% of young people, including teens and adolescents. Have you ever experienced an urge to check your social media again and again? Many people do. This urge is mainly caused by instant gratification and the dopamine production that is elevated by social media activity, especially getting ‘likes’. People develop a desire for this hit of dopamine, beginning to showcase a pattern of relying on it promptly refreshing social media feeds after every little while.
The problem occurs when this validation is not received. Moreover, qualitative studies have shown that compulsive use of social media affects sleep cycles and performance at work and school. It further causes a loss in the ability to relax and can cause fear of missing out (FOMO) which is characterized as a desire to stay continually connected to others. For a more detailed account of the damaging psychological impacts of unhealthy social media usage, you can read this article by the Centre of Mental Health.
Alienation & Depression:
Turns out that social media is not so social, because according to The Cigna Health Insurance Company loneliness/alienation is an epidemic that often acts as a factor in exacerbating mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety. The study they conducted found that 46% of respondents reported always feeling alone. Young adults who use social media for more than 2 hours a day have twice the risk of experiencing social anxiety that can progressively get worse without any intervention.
An individual case of a patient who had a shy personality showed that her use of social media of up to 60 hours a week – which she thought was helpful – actually culminated in her feeling more miserable and rejected socially. For her, social media accentuated her loneliness, making her lonelier, instead of helping her connect. Janette had to eventually take the aid of blocking the applications to stop social media usage that was making her feel lonely, depressed and anxious.
There is another aspect of social media interaction that needs to be addressed i.e. the decreasing amount of face-to-face interactions. Although we continue to connect online, in a simple – perhaps cost-effective – manner, we have counterintuitively become more antisocial than ever before. Studies show that people have less interest in physically interacting with people, although more gratification is drawn through physical meetups between friends instead of online. Dependency on online interaction not only increases the percentage of non-verbal communication but also impacts language and socialization skills which end up making us feel more profoundly alienated.
The Final Verdict?
Behavioral health issues are by and large a multi-process syndrome where many stressors combine to have a cumulatively detrimental effect on a person’s being. Whilst it is difficult to declare with a sweeping statement that social media harms people’s lives, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence highlighting the cognitive dissonance that is rampant due to social media and is deeply connected to behavioral health.