The history of social media
Believe it or not, the internet did not start with the birth of Instagram and Snapchat. In the 1970’s the internet was filled with Bulletin Board Systems,
that were effectively online meeting places that allowed users to communicate. However, at the time, the internet was accessed via a modem and therefore calling rates were charged, limiting the amount of time that people would spend online.
Fast forward to 2002 and social networking has really begun to take off! Websites such as Friendster, Myspace, and LinkedIn have now emerged,attempting to connect us with old school friends and long-distance family members. All of these sites had their niches, with MySpace being aimed at music lovers and adolescents, and LinkedIn cultivating a more business-like approach to social networking.
Facebook opened its doors to the general public in 2006, having been limited to the Harvard Campus for the previous two years. Many other sites have come and gone, but Facebook has amazed to reign supreme. Social media sites allow users to share photos, stories, messages, and links to other websites with friends and strangers
Over the past two years, the use of smartphones and tablets has completely changed the way that we use social networking sites, and technology in general. Many photo sharing applications, such as Instagram and Snapchat, exist almost entirely on mobile devices nowadays.
The omnipresence of mobile devices means that we are never too far from away from being able to post an update or check on the lives of those that we follow. We can constantly keep up to date with our friends and family even when we aren’t able to see them in person.
The negative effects of social media on mental health
The rise of social media happened so quickly that researchers have slightly struggled to keep up with it. Despite the fact that there are not urged many longitudinal studies into the effects of social media usage on mental health, some short-term studies have been conducted.
When scrolling through social media feeds such as Instagram or Facebook, we are likely to see a steady stream of people’s highlight reels. Instagram especially is filled with other people’s best moments, the moments that they want to share with the world, and the moments that they have chosen the best angles and filters for. Most of us are aware of the "edited" nature of Instagram, but there are some who fall into the trap of believing that these photos represent someone's whole life.
Dr Tim Bono stated that “when we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control.” Many young adults and adolescents have grown up with social media being ubiquitous in their lives, and therefore have likely always been surrounded by the notion that they can check other people’s photos, updates, and posts constantly. This constant checking leads young people to potentially evaluate their own lives based on the polished lives of those that they follow online.
This comparison of real-life to social media posts can be damaging to our self-esteem. A survey of 1,500 people, conducted by Scope, found that using Facebook made over half of the participants feel inadequate and unattractive. However, it isn’t just our physical appearance that we compare to others online. Denti, et al (2012) found that when Facebook users compared their own lives with others’ seemingly successful careers, relationships and social lives, they feel that their own lives are lacking in comparison.
2. Body Image
As mentioned above, increased access to social media means that we are constantly being barraged by imaged of beautiful celebrities and perfect people. A constant comparison to the perfect can lead to a distorted view of what we expect of ourselves.
One study found that people who spend more time on social media are 2.2 times more likely than their peers to report eating and body image concerns. McLean et al. (2015) found that adolescent girls who shared more photos, such as selfies, online and used more Photoshop felt worse about their appearance and showed greater eating concerns.
Furthermore, de Vries et al. (2015) found that increased use of social media sites in general heighten body dissatisfaction due to an increase in comments regarding appearance from friends.
Even scarier still, there are websites and social media accounts that are entirely dedicated to promoting anorexia or bulimia to viewers. These websites encourage people to aim for perfect bodies, starvation, and nothing less. It is very difficult to police the entire internet and it is very unfortunate that such websites exist. But they do, and they perpetuate the rise of eating disorders, especially among young women.
Although the concept behind social media is that we stay connected with friends and family even when we can’t see them in person, the increased use of social media can lead to an increase in feeling lonely.
Researchers in Pittsburgh found that the more time young adults were spending on social media, the more likely they were to feel socially isolated. Through social media we can see what other people are doing and we can stay connected with them. However, we can also see the amazing holidays that they are going on and the parties that they are going to, while we sit and observe through a screen.
And thus, the acronym FOMO was born. Standing for “Fear of Missing Out”, FOMO is colloquially used to describe that feeling we get when we exhaust ourselves by going to every single social event that we are invited to, and more, for a fear of seeing it later, on Instagram or Facebook, and realising that we have missed out.
Furthermore, many children are now growing up with access to social media sites and mobile devices. They are therefore able to communicate with their friends after school via Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, or text message, without having to communicate in person. The upshot of this is that children may be missing out on key socialisation and communication skills that they need for later in life.
The positive effects of social media on mental health
Despite the mass of negative research results and the terrifying headlines in the news, there are some positive benefits of social media usage.
Social media allows isolated or marginalised people to reach out and connect with others. For example, those within the LGBT community make great use of social media to stay connected with their community.
Much of the research on the connection between social media and mental health has pointed out that increased usage of social media accompanies an increased risk for mood disorders and other mental health issues. However, much of this research is correlation all and it is often those suffering from mental health issues who turn to social media sites to feel less isolated, as they are able to talk to people who might have experienced something similar. The UK Mental Health Foundation says that it is “undeniable” that online technologies can be used to reach the most vulnerable people in society, as well as helping to reduce the stigma attached to seeking treatment.
Something that I have noticed in terms of social media and body image is that the use of social media by celebrities and socialites has increasingly allowed them to break down the barrier between them and their fans. Many more celebrities are using social media to change the perception that celebrities are somehow superhuman. Many celebrities show the more real side to their lives on social media; the school run, using spot creams, messy houses, kids running around and so on.
Most importantly, many are using social media to expose how much work goes on behind the scenes; photos of celebrities getting ready for events with multiple hair and make-up professionals, stylists, assistants, and so on has allowed their followers to see how much work goes in to getting them ready for an event. They really didn’t just wake up like that. Some celebrities, such as Lili Reinhart and Camilla Mendes, are even using their social media sites to show their magazine photoshoots pre- and post-Photoshop, calling out the mass media industry on promoting unrealistic body images.
How can we use social media to actively improve mental health?
Social media sites have been used recently to promote mental wellness campaigns, to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health, and to create online communities dedicated to reducing the isolation that so often accompanies mental health issues. Many Instagram feeds, such as @theblurtfoundation and @mh_stories_ share the recovery and struggles of regular people with mental health issues to minimise the stigma. They also share resources, information, and treatment options and inspiration with their followers.
With the prevalence of mental health and wellness topics on social media, we can no longer pretend that these issues don't exist in our worlds. These topics are put right under our noses and we now have to decide what we do with the ability to share such information with our peers and with strangers.
This improved access to mental health information has brought the conversation into our homes, hopefully making mental health a topic of conversation within families. Young people are now much more able to use the internet to arm themselves with knowledge about mental health issues, treatment options, and the signs and symptoms of mental health problems.
In conclusion, social media doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. It is here to stay and we need to learn how we can harness its power to improve our mental wellness and the mental wellness of others. We need to educate the young people in our lives about the optimised reality that many social media sites portray so that they may be better equipped to live in a world where social media and online networking seems to be gaining more and more power in our lives.
As with most things in life, it seems that moderation and taking everything with a pinch of salt is the key to remaining healthy within this online realm.
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