Social media is becoming a larger and larger presence in today's world, and as it does, questions begin to emerge about how social media is really affecting us. Younger users, especially, can be very susceptible to the mental health effects of social media. The question then becomes: are these effects positive or negative?

Social Media can Have Both Positive and Negative Effects on Mental Health

Recent studies on the topic have given some conflicting answers. Professor of Psychology, Larry Rosen, for example, points out that Facebook 'likes' are an example of "virtual empathy." That is: kids, teens, and adults alike feel social support from 'likes' on Facebook. While Rosen stated that "real-world empathy is six times more important than virtual empathy in making someone feel supported," his study also found that "being better at dispensing virtual empathy was the best predictor of being able to express real-world empathy." So, social media can make us feel loved and supported and provides an outlet for empathy, all very positive contributors to mental health.

At the same time, however, other studies are giving opposing answers. Moira Burke conducted a study examining the effects of Facebook usage on feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness. She found that "passive consumption of Facebook … correlates to a marginal increase in depression," and stated that using Facebook without actively interacting with friends increased feelings of loneliness and isolation. Similar results were recorded by a popular Stanford study, which concluded that people often feel more hopeless and depressed after looking at Facebook due to the tendency to overestimate others' happiness.

Sherry Turkle's book, Alone Together, examines the subject and addresses the "presentation anxiety" that can arise from over-managing your Facebook profile. She points out "that the site's element of constant performance makes people feel alienated from themselves." The mental effects of social media could be one of the factors contributing to growing depression rates in recent years, but that's not the only aspect that has many worried.

Self-Harm and Instagram's Move Towards a Safer Environment

A 2011 Reuters study found that as many as 1 in 12 teenagers self harm. This is a staggering percentage, especially taking into account that self-harm is a very strong predictor of those that may go on to attempt suicide. Self-harm is classified as cutting, bruising, or otherwise hurting yourself as a way of coping with emotional and mental issues. Teenagers who have self-harmed often state that it's a method they used to "not feel lonely, angry, or hopeless". It's important for teens who have self-harmed or thought about self harm to find safer coping methods and outlets for emotion.

This is where social media can play a terrifying role - many subsets of Internet culture have been criticized for promoting unhealthy behavior and romanticizing mental illness. It doesn't take more than a cursory Etsy search to find pins and patches proudly proclaiming the words "Teen Suicide," and Instagram and Tumblr are constantly populated with images of self-harm. It's easy to see that these images, frequently portraying self-harm and destructive attitudes in a positive or romantic light, can be a dangerous influence for teens and pre-teens struggling with mental health issues.

Instagram attempted to tackle this problem several years ago,enforcing explicit rules to curb harmful posts and images. The network stated that images which promote eating disorders and self-harm can, if reported, cause an account to be banned without warning. Though it's up to users to report these images, Instagram also added a feature which presents users with a warning and a link to a self-harm support site if users search through tags such as "suicide" and "self-harm".

Other Social Media Sites are Working to Prevent Self-Harm

Thankfully, it's not just Instagram. With the increasing concern about the effects of social media, many big-name social networking sites have taken measures to fight possible negative effects and consequences. Most of the biggest social media sites have implemented features similar to Instagrams.' Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook all have notices directing users to helpful websites or providing phone numbers if users search terms related to depression, suicide, or self-harm. These networks often also partner with and promote services such as 7 Cups of Tea, a free online therapy service to provide listeners and assistance for struggling users.

Whether these social media companies are doing enough is a difficult question to answer, and one that may become critical to consider for the mental health of younger generations going forward. In the end, uncontrolled social media can no doubt be harmful and can ultimately become a dangerous negative influence for those inclined towards mental illness. However, the internet can also provide a very valuable support space. It can be a place to share experiences and find others struggling with similar issues, and a strong support group of understanding peers is often crucial to recovery from depression and mental illness.

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Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW
Abigail Powers Lott, Ph.D.
Daniel Segenreich M.D., Ph.D.
Nancy A. Pachana, Ph.D., FAPS, FASSA


Date of original publication:

Updated: March 16, 2017