Social Media and Mental Health: What do you need to know?

It’s no understatement to say that social media has revolutionized the world we live in.

The way we meet, engage, discuss important issues, do business with each other, fall in love and stay connected can all be conducted on the many platforms and offerings that the digital realm of social media has provided. Today, over three billion people – approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population – use social media daily, cataloguing their lives and observing others. Since the first social media site in 1997, the social media community has grown exponentially, resulting in users spending hours online digesting social content, which has been good for site traffic and the bottom lines of social giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

But is it for us? A new series by BBC Future is exploring how social media’s impacts our mental health, for the better or the worse. As the investigation acknowledges, our ability to examine the long-term effects of social media are limited by its relatively recent arrival and mass acceptance. But there’s a growing body of science that is dissecting what social media is doing to our brains and what that means for our wellbeing. Here are a few of the studies the investigation has shared so far:

STRESS: A 2015 Pew Research study found that while Twitter can be a significant contributor to stress, the more that women used Twitter, the less stressed they were. While the study also found women reported higher stress levels than men, the de-stressing effects of Twitter usage were only concluded in women.

ANXIETY: A 2016 US study concluded that people using seven or more social media sites were more likely to experience high levels of general anxiety symptoms, compared to those who used up to two platforms.

DEPRESSION:  According to two studies that involved more than 700 students, the quality of online interactions, including social media were linked to depressive symptoms. Poorer interactions resulted in more severe depressive symptoms.

SLEEP:  In a 2016 study, University of Pittsburgh researchers found that the more often 18-30 year olds logged into social media, the more likely they were to suffer from disturbed sleep. Evidence has shown that the blue light emitted from device screens can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin – a hormone that enables sleep.

SELF-ESTEEM: Call it selfie sadness? Penn State University researchers found in a 2016 study that looking at strangers’ selfies resulted in a lower self-esteem for the viewer. The phenomenon was linked to viewers comparing their own state to the seemingly happy demeanor of the person in the selfie. In addition, frequent selfie viewing was linked to decreased life satisfaction.

RELATIONSHIPS: In a 2009 survey of 300 people between the ages of 17 and 24, researchers from University of Guelph in Ontario found that women were more likely than men to report Facebook induced jealousy after their partner added an unknown member of the sex.

So should we sign-off from our social media accounts for good? Hold on – while there’s a lot of evidence out there demonstrating that social media’s ills, there’s also reason to believe that it can have a positive impact. Like anything, it seems that moderation is key – a 2017 evidence review by the Education Policy Institute found that a moderate use of social media can have a “beneficial impact on young people’s emotional wellbeing.”

Social media platforms are also taking note of the growing concern about how social media impacts our mental health. In December 2017, Facebook announced it was enacting changes to its site to help improve the site’s effect on our wellbeing, including enhancing news feed quality, introducing suicide prevention tools and allowing us to “Snooze” a person, page or group for 30 days without having to permanently unfollow or unfriend them.

Social media has become an important part of our daily lives but that doesn’t mean we should let it control our lives. Go ahead and log on once in a while and focus on having positive interactions online and you’ll be much happier for it.

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