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Health and Disease

Link Between Social Media and Mental Illness

In today’s digital age, many children are given cellular devices before they have even reached 12 years old. Upon receiving these new phones or tablets, children are immersed into an unfamiliar yet intriguing online world of viral videos, photoshopped images, and trendy lifestyles. While seemingly benign, this newfound online immersion can be detrimental to a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

By Lily Kangas

Published 9:23 PM EST, Tues April 20, 2021

Abstract 

As social media usage upsurges across the globe, our youth’s mental health is on a rapid decline. Social media has repeatedly been proven to be a direct link to a plethora of psychiatric illnesses including anxiety, depression, and various forms of disordered eating. Unfortunately, these mental ailments are only exacerbated due to widespread social-media addiction. That being said, there are ways to practice safe and healthy social media usage by training ourselves how to productively use these online platforms and limiting the use of social media throughout the day. 

Adolescents and Social Media

The technological revolution that brought us cell phones, laptops, and tablets motivated a cultural shift away from outdoor play and face-to-face contact and instead replaced these activities with social media. Today, platforms such as Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter have transformed the lifestyles of adolescents all over the world. And while at first glance, social media seems to be an innovative and exciting way to connect with new people, these online worlds often lead children to neglect other more important aspects of their lives. In fact, the majority of today’s kids would rather spend their days scrolling down their Pinterest feed than participate in extracurricular activities or finish their schoolwork, which can cause problems in many areas of the child’s academic and social life. This claim is backed by a survey conducted by the American Academy of child and adolescent psychiatry that showed that roughly 90% of American teenagers admit to having used social media excessively and another 50% that report being online almost constantly.  

Mental Health Among Social Media Users 

The excessive immersion in social media platforms among today’s youth has lasting consequences to one’s mental health. In fact, teens who use social media more often have been found to have a higher risk for:

  1. Depression: the prioritization of online contact rather than face-to-face communication has been associated with the depletion of various mood-stabilizing hormones such as serotonin, therefore leading to conditions such as major depressive disorder. 
  2. Anxiety: Social media has been dubbed a “fuel for anxiety” as it enables individuals with anxiety-related tendencies to negatively compare themselves with others and obsessively worry about how they are perceived through these online platforms. For example, if an anxious individual only receives 20-30 likes per post while her friend racks up 90-100, irritation thoughts may lead them to feel as though they are doing something wrong or that their peers dislike them. 
  3. Eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder: Most social media posts do not reflect reality. Famous influencers will often pose or photoshop their body to fit society’s beauty standards. Still, constantly seeing the same toned and seemingly perfect bodies often leads teenagers to feel as though they are an outlier and that their body is weird or unattractive. These thoughts are directly correlated with the development of body dysmorphia, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia. 
  4. Self-harm and suicidal tendencies: Evidently, social media plays a major role in the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, which inherently increases suicide rates. Studies show that social media is often an outlet for suicidal individuals to post or glorify self-inflicted injuries and other forms of triggering content. 

Supporting the above points, a meta-analytic study conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that the average teen today suffers a substantially higher rate of mental maladies than psychiatric patients in the 1950s. While there may be a plethora of distinguishing factors between modern-day society vs. society in the 50s, arguably the most prevalent is social media usage. In the past 70 years, technology has completely transformed the adolescent experience, and therefore must play a large role in our youth’s rapidly declining mental health.  

Addiction

After observing the many mental and emotional ramifications of social media, most would argue for its eradication, however, a complete nullification of such a widely used form of communication and entertainment is an inconceivable task, mainly due to its addictive nature. Studies show that a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that releases feel-good chemicals, is released when teens receive positive feedback on certain posts or comments, which rewards the habit and encourages them to repeat it. After repeating the action a second time, their brain continues to crave the dopamine rush, leading to a full-fledged addiction. In addition, the use of these online platforms is occurring on such a large scale that experts estimate that about 10% of users have reached the point of severe addiction. And unfortunately, while these individuals may recognize a decline in their mental and emotional stability, their addiction will force them to continue with the detrimental behavior. 

Safe Social Media Use

So, the question is, how can we use social media in a way that is safe and effective for our mental well-being? Well, first we need to evaluate which social media apps most commonly trigger our negative psychological response. For most, these apps consist of photo or video sharing platforms, as these forms of media are far more likely to arouse unfavorable comparisons or feelings of inadequacy. We can evaluate these responses by monitoring our anxiety levels on usage across all platforms. Then, we should ensure that the time spent on each of these apps is not impeding our other responsibilities such as school, work, chores, or time with family and friends. In order to do this, individuals should set screen time or set out specific rules for when social media use is permitted vs when you should be putting time towards something more productive. You should also make it a goal to take a set amount of 5-10 minute breaks for every 30 minutes online. Doing so will allow your brain time to snap back into reality and rid oneself of any intrusive thoughts or comparisons. Finally, you should take time in your day to ground yourself. This may be through meditation, time spent in nature, or even pursuing an interest. By grounding yourself, not only will you be putting less time towards social media per day, which will enable you to fight any underlying addiction, but you will also be taken to a much more rational mental state, therefore decreasing anxiety levels by a substantial amount. 

Lily Kangas, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References 

“Anxiety, Loneliness and Fear of Missing Out: The Impact of Social Media on Young People’s Mental Health | Centre for Mental Health.” Centerformentalhealth.Org, http://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/blogs/anxiety-loneliness-and-fear-missing-out-impact-social-media-young-peoples-mental-health. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.

Cherney, Kristeen. “What Is Social Media Addiction?” Healthline, 6 Aug. 2020, http://www.healthline.com/health/social-media-addiction#overview.

Intern, Nchr. “Social Media and Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Mental Health.” National Center for Health Research, 21 Aug. 2020, http://www.center4research.org/social-media-affects-mental-health.

Psycom.net. “Social Media and Teens: How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health?” Psycom.Net – Mental Health Treatment Resource Since 1996, 17 Nov. 2020, http://www.psycom.net/social-media-teen-mental-health.

Robinson, Lawrence. “Social Media and Mental Health – HelpGuide.Org.” Helpguide.Org, http://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/social-media-and-mental-health.htm. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.

“The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health.” Mcleanhospital.Org, http://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health. Accessed 30 Dec. 2020.

By Lily Kangas

Lily Kangas is a student at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. She is interested in all STEM fields, specifically medicine, neuroscience, and psychology.

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