Social Media and Mental Health: A Battle For the Ages
Navigating the Internet while keeping things in perspective.
Written by: Kristina Markulin
Social media has always had a contentious relationship with mental health. Conversations on topics such as burnout, wellness and self-care have exploded on social media over the past couple of years. Pandemic aside, society has experienced a large shift in how mental health is framed in our media, and that extends to social media. The interest in mental health has skyrocketed as a result of self-isolation. Visibility and acceptance of mental health struggles and disabilities has increased.
Visibility is a double-edged sword.
Visibility is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the increased discussions have brought more information to those who need it. However, this increased awareness at the same time has increased the potential for harm.
One thing that social media is good for is finding community. On every app there’s a place people can go to find people like them and people who share the same struggles. For example, Twitter has a community of ADHD advocates who create content about living with ADHD and even share tips on staying organized, motivated, etc. Accounts like @adhdalien, @blkgirllostkeys, and @danidonovan produce both educational content well as share their personal struggles that arise from living with ADHD. Their content is focused on making life easier for ADHDers, and helping others better understand being neurodivergent. There are similar communities for other forms of neurodiversity as well, such as autism and DID.
Most people, neurodivergent or neurotypical, receive mental health education from stigmatized media and one-inch blurbs in health textbooks.
While in recent years mental health education in schools has improved, a majority of people only know superficial information about mental health and mental illness. Most people, neurodivergent or neurotypical, receive mental health education from stigmatized media and one-inch blurbs in health textbooks. Finding a community online that is not only understanding, but validating, is a powerful thing. These educational resources are not only welcome, but sometimes necessary.
Social media, although not a replacement for therapy or mental health treatment, can be valuable in helping people understand themselves and their conditions.
Social media, although not a replacement for therapy or mental health treatment, can be valuable in helping people understand themselves and their conditions. Finding others who experience similar struggles creates a sense of comfort that might be denied to people in their offline life. With the pandemic, the stresses and worries we share as a society have been amplified to the nth degree, so the community is welcome.
Finding others who experience similar struggles creates a sense of comfort that might be denied to people in their offline life.
Visibility might have increased, but stereotypes and preconceptions haven’t gone away. Preconceived notions still fuel online discourse, and they have real-life consequences. Conditions like depression or anxiety, as well as disabilities like autism or ADHD, don’t manifest the same way in every person. Everyone’s unique, and that uniqueness can be used to ostracize those who don’t fit the mold. Common stigmas that set back mental health awareness persist online. Just because there are positive communities for neurodivergent and disabled people, doesn’t mean ableism has been deleted from the internet. Social media doesn’t care who congregates at its pulpit.
The Really Bad
But there’s an elephant in the room: social media itself. It’s an open secret that social media use takes a toll on its users. Scrolling through hot take after hot take on Twitter, watching mind-numbing TikTok after mind-numbing TikTok, gawking at someone else’s seemingly perfect life on Instagram — it all does something to us. Social media warps the way we perceive ourselves and the world, gives us unattainable beauty standards, makes us think we don’t perform our struggles correctly or just outright lies to us to generate outrage (I’m looking at you, Facebook). Social media is challenging media literacy, not only of adults, but of teens and kids as well. Children are highly susceptible to media and media messaging and are more inclined to believe what they see online. Except this time, instead of the belief that the Boogeyman will go after them if they don’t forward this email to 20 friends, it’s impossible beauty standards, toxic positivity and invasive advertisements.
On Sept. 14, 2021, The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” It’s a bombshell that confirms what many people already suspected: teen girls are negatively affected by being fed manicured images of a false life. As reported by Georgia Wells, Jeff Horowitz and Deepa Seetharaman, internal documents from Facebook stated that “among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.” Despite this, the public face of Instagram has repeatedly downplayed these effects — it’s hard to champion mental health on a platform that consistently makes it worse.
Granted, these issues aren’t unique to Instagram. Social media algorithms work for engagement, not accuracy. Twitter’s going to make sure you keep doomscrolling until 3 a.m. instead of sleeping (which any mental health advocate will tell you is a must). Whatever keeps you on TikTok longer will populate your For You page, regardless of whether it’s executive dysfunction tips or videos of teens claiming they were at Hogwarts for six months. The dilemma is as unexpected as it is infuriating.
Social media, like it or not, is central to modern life. Social media has many functions, but its main focus is not to educate. Educational creators on the internet dedicate their online presence to spreading important information on any topic, including mental health. But social media’s primary function is to keep you on the site for as long as possible, and well-balanced, educated thought does not get as many clicks as a college student not quite looking surprised when his girlfriend shows up unexpectedly. Social media, by design, is addictive. With the world we live in, that addiction is usually built on annoying, angry or sometimes even tragic ground. Sometimes, the best thing to do for your mental health is to dig yourself out of the rabbit hole and take a break.
But it could be worse: you could be using Facebook.