The ups and downs of social media and the impact on mental health

Over the past decade and more so in the past few years, social media has had a big impact on the way in which we communicate with each other. There has been a variety of research that has looked at whether or not social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have a positive or negative effect on mental health.

Most of us are aware that apps like Instagram can be a wonderfully inspiring platform to be a part of however these social media networks may also have a negative influence on how we feel about ourselves…

I find with a lot of my clients, that they fall into the trap of comparing themselves to other people on social media which may bring out their inner critic.

Several studies have suggested that the prolonged use of social media, may be associated with signs and symptoms of depression. Additionally, some research has indicated that social media usage might be associated with low self-esteem, especially in children and adolescents. But, other studies have presented opposite results in terms of positive impact of social networking on self-esteem. The relationship between social media use and mental problems to this day remains controversial, and research on this issue is faced with numerous challenges.

I am delighted to have the lovely Sarah, who is currently studying Medicine, to share her personal views on the role of social media and her experiences in regards to mental health…

 I started my Instagram when I was in Year 9 in high school, which was 6 years ago when I was 14 years old. I initially created the page to share my passion for health and fitness, so I focused on posting motivational quotes, healthy recipes, workout tips etc.

Over the years, my account became really popular and I was lucky enough to amass a large following! My followers began to take interest in MY fitness routine, MY diet and what I was doing personally. As such, my account shifted to become more about myself and MY lifestyle.

When the account became more personal, it began to have a detrimental effect on my mental health. I would compare the posts of myself to my other posts or to other influencers and stress over why “I didn’t get as many likes” or “as many followers”. Ultimately, I blamed in on the way I looked – I tricked myself into thinking that I just wasn’t as “fit” or “pretty” as them. To change the way I looked, I began to excessively restrict my diet and cranked up my exercise routine to an unhealthy, absurd level. This amalgamated into the development of a pretty serious eating disorder & exercise addiction which almost took my life.

Ever since I revealed my diagnosis and I shared by recovery, the role of social media on my mental health has done a complete 180o. For a long time, I was terrified of sharing what I was going through. I was terrified of revealing that I had an eating disorder because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. I thought that my followers would think I was “weak” and that I “did this to myself”, so I only ‘had myself to blame”.

In actual fact, the response from my following was SO positive and supportive. Everyone just seemed to want me to get better. There was no blame, only understanding. Thus, I find that my following played (and still plays) a MAJOR part in my recovery.

Whenever I have doubts about the way I look or whenever I start comparing myself to others, I just have to read the comments on my photos. Seeing something like “You look so healthy and full of life” or “It makes me so happy to see your recovery” encourages me to push those depressing thoughts away and remember that I perfect the way that I am. I don’t need to look like someone else. I don’t need to be anyone else.

 I’ve also taken steps to unfollow accounts that idolise a certain body-type (think girls with 6-packs or thigh gaps) and instead, only follow accounts that celebrate ALL body types.

This is just one example of the ups and downs of social media and that is NOT to say it will be the same for everyone and have the same level of impact. Along with the research linked in this blog and with Sarah’s contribution, it simply demonstrates the potential power of platforms such as Instagram and it is so important to remember that at the end of the day – social media is not the real world. It is also important to note that your ‘Instagram world’ may depend on the people you follow… If the posts on your feed are not making you feel good about yourself, perhaps unfollowing them is a good idea.

If you are someone who struggles with the negative effects of social media, please seek help from a qualified professional.

References

Pantic I, Damjanovic A, Todorovic J, et al. Association between online social networking and depression in high school students: behavioral physiology viewpoint. Psychiatria Danubina 2012; 24:90–93  [PubMed]

Jelenchick LA, Eickhoff JC, Moreno MA. “Facebook depression?” Social networking site use and depression in older adolescents. The Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 52:128–130  [PubMed]

Blascovich J, Tomaka J. (1991) Measures of self-esteem. In: Robinson JP, editor; , Shaver PR, editor. , eds. Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 115–155

Kuss DJ, Griffiths MD. Online social networking and addiction—a review of the psychological literature. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health 2011; 8:3528–3552 [PMC free article]  [PubMed]

Other resources

https://www.mind.org.uk

https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/how-to-access-mental-health-services/

https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk

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