The toxicity of social media.

Over the past two decades, online social networking has revolutionized the way we communicate and interact with one another. Friends and relatives separated through vast geographical distances are now able to interconnect with technical ease. Overall, it has been a masterstroke in technological advancement. However, these changes may affect particular aspects of human behaviour, perhaps even contributing to, or entirely causing the development of psychiatric disorders. 

Excessive use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram appear to be associated with the development of low self-esteem, especially in children and younger adolescents. This doesn’t appear to be straight forward though, as evidence is available to support the opposite. As a result, the impact of social media on our mental health has been a controversial topic for many years. Due to this potential link between ‘social’ interactions online and our mental health, I feel it is important to lay out my thoughts. I believe that excessive social media use can likely result in insecurity, feelings of depression and anxiety, and contribute to the development of unrealistic expectations towards other people, and the world we live in.

One of the first studies which indicated that general internet use significantly affects social relationships and community participation was published over 20 years ago, in 1998[1]. The authors highlighted that for participants who spent more time online, a reduction in communication with family members was observed. In addition, the user’s social circle also diminished – a social change which can contribute to loneliness, which in turn is associated with the development of depression[2]. Worryingly, a further study published in 2000 suggested that increased internet use may have negative effects on the social development of children[3]. An obvious point to note here is that when these studies took place, the majority of the social media platforms available today did not exist. For example, Facebook was not founded until February 2004, and thus internet usage was likely infinitesimal compared with today. 

Since the development of social media platforms, the time children and adolescents spend online has exponentially increased. Although they enable us to easily interact with a large number of people, these interactions are often shallow and will unfortunately never replace face-to-face communication effectively. In a study published in 2012, investigators reported a positive correlation in a high school population between social media usage and depressive symptoms[4]. Conversely, in a 2013 study sampling university students, researchers failed to find a similar correlation[5]. These conflicting studies therefore put forward the idea that children and young adolescents may be more susceptible and negatively affected by social media compared to older teenagers. This could be linked to different responses by different age groups to social media content and challenges. Importantly though, those sampled at university in 2013 may have grown up when social media wasn’t really a considerable factor in their lives. For example, when I was between 8-14 years old (2001 to 2007), I did not really care for social media. Instead, my friends and I would see each other face-to-face daily, often playing sports or various other games to pass the time. Thus, my social development and interactions occurred in a natural interpersonal setting. 

Then, Windows Live Messenger happened. Previously known as MSN messenger – which was developed in 1999 – it rebranded in 2005. It eventually took over the brains of the adolescents. Instead of meeting up after school, many kids would go home and spend their entire evening on Windows Live Messenger, talking to people FROM SCHOOL, many of which they would barely speak to in person. This shift resulted in the development of online cliques, and it sucked the life out of strong interpersonal relationships. It wasn’t all bad however, and I think in some situations it provided some positives. For me, I was terribly shy at school. Online messaging allowed me to talk to people I thought were interesting, and it facilitated me to ask questions about their interests without me seizing up with anxiety and fear.

More recent studies, wherein social media has become a central part of the majority of young people’s lives, further strengthens the argument that it could cast a shadow over our mental health. The first, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2018 asked 140 undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to either continue regular use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, or to limit their use of each to 10 minutes per day – i.e. 30 minutes total. To confirm the conditions were being met, the participants provided data from their phones to show their precise overall app usage throughout the day, rather than relying on memory – an often unreliable feature for scientific investigation. After the three-week study period was completed, the participants filled out a questionnaire to help the researchers understand how they were doing psychologically, with particular interest in depression, anxiety, loneliness and “the fear of missing out”, often abbreviated as FOMO. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study reported that participants who limited their social media usage to 30 minutes per-day felt significantly better, reporting reductions in both loneliness and depression[6]. This change was particularly pertinent for those who came into the study with higher levels of depression. Interestingly however, both FOMO and anxiety were reduced in both study cohorts, suggesting that the participants might have had the resulting benefit of improved self-monitoring. “Some of the existing literature of social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours,” said study author Melissa G. Hunt.

This is further supported by a 2019 study conducted at York University in Canada. 120 undergraduate women were asked to use either Facebook or Instagram to find a peer that they perceived to be more attractive than themselves or a family member who they didn’t believe to be, and then leave a comment on their post. Interestingly, the women who interacted with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards[7].  “Even if they felt bad about themselves before they came into the study, on average, they still felt worse after completing the task,” said study author Jennifer Mills. It is important to note here however that the women may have felt generally happier engaging with a family member compared to a peer, and this could complicate the data presented in this study. Nevertheless, it is important to note that making any kind of comparison – not just people that we consider more intelligent or attractive, but also people we consider less intelligent, smart or anything else for that matter – is associated with poorer wellbeing. A 2014 study linked this association, reporting that the connection between social media and depression was largely mediated by social comparison[8].

Social networking and self-esteem

As we should all be aware, self-esteem is a crucial factor in developing and maintaining a good quality of life. In a 2006 study, when compared to adolescents with high self-esteem, poor self-esteem in young adolescents resulted in overall poorer mental and physical health, often contributing towards higher levels of criminal behaviour and worsening economic prospects during adulthood[9]. The authors emphasized that the long-term consequences of self-esteem changes could not be explained by adolescent depression, gender or socioeconomic status. Thus, low self-esteem in young adolescents can have negative real-world consequences upon reaching adulthood. Whilst this study underlined that the consequences of poor self-esteem appeared independent of adolescent depression, low self-esteem is associated with the development of various mental illnesses including anxiety, depression and eating disorders[10-12]

Why is social media contributing towards reductions in self-esteem? One possible relationship between these social networking platforms and emotional destructivity appears particularly pertinent: narcissistic behaviour. So, what makes someone a narcissist? Someone who displays narcissistic traits often has a grandiose sense of self-importance, regularly displays a sense of entitlement and also requires constant praise and admiration. On the other side of the coin, a narcissist often intimidates, belittles and bullies others. As you may have already guessed, social media platforms are perfect breeding grounds for this sort of behaviour. Unfortunately, numbers of followers, comments and likes can all contribute to the inflation of one’s ego. As an example, I can say with confidence that many social ‘influencers’ are awfully narcissistic, and they often harbour millions of followers. The problem here is that

many of these followers are often young, impressionable and easily manipulated. 

Is social media a toxin or an escape?

Overall, I think the impact of social media on our self-esteem and mental health is considerably complex. Whether negative or positive, it entirely depends on who we interact with and what we follow. For example, a young teenager only following models on Instagram – who will often have their pictures photoshopped before posting them – will result in the development of a false sense of realism. Following motivational and educational accounts however, may not have the same negative impact. As an example, think about following Kim Kardashian and Michelle Obama on Instagram. Who do you think will be more likely to post things with a positive message? 

Because of this, moderating social media usage of the younger generation may be a valid option. Not to inhibit their freedoms, but just to check on their health and wellbeing, and determine whether any negative changes are directly due to what is seen on the internet. From experience when I was a teenager, I know that seeing ripped and well put together men online really knocked my confidence in my physical appearance. So much so, it still occasionally bothers me today. However, I learned to understand just how irrational I was being, but it took me a long time.

We do need to look at the other side of the coin, however. Something we should immediately consider is correlation versus causation. Social media usage may indeed be directly associated with the development of mental health disorders. Nevertheless, it is crucial to distinguish this from the potential that adolescents increase their social media presence due to poor mental health itself, perhaps as some form of digital escape from the real world – e.g. socioeconomic status or bullying at school. Conducting longitudinal studies – whereby you follow participants over several years – on psychiatric patients and healthy volunteers, comparing those who regularly use social media to those who do not would be a strong experimental study to definitively determine whether social media can be associated with declining mental health.

Another important consideration is that not all social media platforms are created equal. For example, Facebook is focused around updating personal profiles, wherein users can create comments and status updates, alongside uploading pictures and videos. Twitter on the other hand is primed towards the posting of short messages (“tweets”), often expressing thoughts and opinions. This doesn’t mean that Twitter users are less likely to be mentally affected though, it means that study comparisons should be made regarding mental health changes and the utilization of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and various other social media sites. It is important that these studies also present exclusion and inclusion criteria for participants. In some circumstances, people with personality disorders will spend more time on social media compared to the general population because computer-associated communication can enable them to become more socially successful. This could complicate the data, wherein it may become unrepresentative of the population.

Regardless of what you think of social media, all platforms – especially Facebook and Instagram – forcefully incite constant self-evaluation on a daily basis, often resulting in unnecessary competition and comparisons of one’s accomplishments with those of others – in some circumstances, people we may not even know. To top it off, social media directly results in the incorrect perception of physical, psychological and social characteristics of others, often resulting in the manifestation of jealously and frustration. If you personally feel like social media contributes towards your own negative feelings, try to take a week away from it, perhaps more. You’ll be surprised by how much better you can feel when you aren’t constantly worrying about what other people are up to. 



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