Research

Analyzing the Impact: Social Media and Mental Health 

May 15, 2024 946

Sage, the parent of Social Science Space, has curated a selection of free-to-access social and behavioral science resources that promote understanding about the current issues surrounding mental health. Let’s delve into the research to learn more about the profound effects that social media has on our well-being. 

In recent times, our reliance on social media has grown significantly. Today, it serves as a crucial means for communicating with our friends, our loved ones, and our communities. 

The impact of this increased online connectivity is difficult to decipher. On the one hand, we risk encountering harmful content on social media that makes us feel upset, anxious, or distressed. On the other, many feel empowered to talk more openly about their mental health online. 

Understanding the link between social media and mental health becomes even more challenging when we consider the variety of platforms available to users; how people engage with social media can change dramatically from website to website. 

The social and behavioral sciences supply evidence-based research that enables us to make sense of this shifting online landscape. We’ll explore three freely accessible articles (listed below) that give us a fuller picture on how TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and online forums affect our mental health. 

Part One: Who uses social media? 

Over recent years, TikTok has become one of the world’s most popular social networking platforms. “TikTok therapy,” as Avella’s research informs us, is one of the largest communities on the site, with over 23 billion views on videos tagged “#therapy.” 

Mental health professionals use TikTok to share well-being information with users. These content creators, who are commonly women in their thirties, comprise a range of mental health practitioners, including social workers, licensed professional counsellors, and psychologists. 

Users of Instagram and Snapchat, on the contrary, are less likely to encounter mental health content. These sites, as Flynn, Mote, and Morse observe, are often framed as “fun” or “highlight reel” social media platforms where members connect by sharing positive news and personal photo and video content. 

Their research shows that adolescents commonly use Instagram and Snapchat to connect with peers. In children’s online circles, there are often immense pressures to create positive posts that swerve difficult conversations about mental health. 

At the other extreme, online mental health forums allow people to open up about mental health struggles. 

Forum members, who, as Drioli-Phillips, Oxlad, Feo, Scholz, and LeCouteur reveal, are often adult men and women, engage anonymously in mental health conversations to talk about challenges to their mental well-being. 

Part Two: What are the effects of social media use? 

The articles we’re highlighting unanimously point to one resounding fact: social media platforms play a significant role in shaping how we talk about mental health online. 

Therapists are more open about their mental health struggles on TikTok than during in-person therapy sessions. Therapeutic content on TikTok feels relatable because therapists stress the similarities between their experiences and those of viewers, that therapists too take psychopharmaceutical medications, suffer with anxiety, or struggle with addiction recovery. 

While TikTok can help to foster genuine conversations about mental health – well-being content is immensely popular on the site – it also has its limitations. 

Users engage with TikTok content through an algorithm instead of “following” particular channels. TikTok therapists can feel pressured into following viral trends to game the algorithm and gain visibility for their videos. 

What’s worrying is that professional and non-professional self-help creators use the same site-wide memes to frame their videos. Users are exposed to scientific and unscientific mental health advice in one long stream of For You Page content, where the lines between helpful and harmful advice become blurred. 

On TikTok, therapy content can inadvertently legitimize nonfactual, and potentially harmful, mental health advice. TikTok encourages us to talk more about our mental health, but this can be as harmful for some as it is helpful for others.  

In comparison, Instagram and Snapchat give users greater control over the content they view. People use these apps to connect with family and friends, and users’ feeds reflect real-world social circles. 

Worryingly, Instagram and Snapchat can create harmful patterns of behavior among teenagers. 

This is because many adolescents feel pressure to conform to the expectations of their friends while online, perhaps the latest incarnation of an old social media concern, “Facebook envy.” A 2018 survey revealed that 49 percent of teenagers reported creating social media posts about their achievements. In contrast, a paltry 13 percent posted about personal problems. 

The perceived need to share “highlight reel” content on these platforms limits children’s abilities to talk about their mental health. Notably, four in 10 teenagers feel pressure to only post content that creates a positive online persona. 

With mental illness in adolescents rising at the same rate as screen time, there is a clear correlation between children’s social media use and their mental well-being.  

Content shared on Instagram and Snapchat creates the impression that positivity is the only route to happiness. With an emphasis on “fun” interactions, these sites afford little room for adolescents to talk openly about real-world issues. 

If some sites limit users’ abilities to talk about their mental well-being, there are others that, by design, encourage members to talk freely about their personal problems. 

This is never clearer than in online mental health forums.  

Studies have shown that the anonymity available to users of online forums may be linked to lowered inhibitions. 

This shows up in observations surrounding men’s mental health, which is, overall, an under-researched field. 

Men are more likely to discuss sensitive issues surrounding their experiences with anxiety in anonymized online spaces than in clinical settings. Social norms around masculinity, such as expectations that men should be emotionally self-regulating, restrict their capacity to discuss anxiousness with healthcare professionals. 

Mental health researchers value the data available in men’s online accounts of living with anxiety. Online forums provide researchers with unprecedented access to men’s experiences of ongoing mental health crises, away from pressurized clinical environments. 

The information on such forums is already beginning to help improve the quality of men’s mental health services. 

The Verdict. 

Social media has both positive and negative impacts on our mental health. These effects, as research suggests, seem baked into the underlying philosophies of social media sites: the guiding principles that set the terms of online engagement.  

Sometimes, social media features can encourage conversations about mental health, creating safe spaces where people can open up about their struggles. Other times, sites prioritize fun, less serious subjects, limiting the quality of mental health talk online. 

Social media is a powerful tool that enables us to connect with people around the globe.  

Navigating this complex digital world can be challenging, and social and behavioral science research encourages us to be mindful when using social networking sites. 

A complete list of available free-to-access resources can be found on the Mental Health Awareness microsite. 

Joe Sweeney is a corporate communications at Sage. Prior to working for Sage he earned a master’s degree in English literature, with a focus on photography, architecture, and fiction writing from 1900—present.

View all posts by Joe Sweeney

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