#SocialMedia and #MentalHealth: What’s the evidence?

by Dr Priya Rajyaguru
social media and mental health

You can’t go very far without hearing about social media these days, particularly in relation to mental health. A recent Google search of ‘social media, mental health, headlines’ acquired around 56,600,000 results, a number that continues to grow on a daily basis.

Dominating headlines like:

Depression in girls linked to higher use of social media

3 Ways Social Media Is Making Us Feel More Lonely

Teenager explains how Instagram and social media ‘fuelled the fire’ of her anorexia

And more recently,

Social media ‘more addictive than drugs and alcohol’, warns Prince Harry

As a doctor and psychiatrist working in child and adolescent mental health, I take social media very seriously. I need to. It’s an important environmental factor uniting nearly all the young people I meet and so talking about it has become a fixed element of my routine. It’s helpful perhaps that my first foray into this world arose when I was just a medical student at a time when Facebook was the only social networking site broadly known about. Since then the social media universe has most definitely expanded, and at quite an alarming rate. In just over a decade we now have a plethora of social media platforms each differing in concept and function. From a subjective perspective, there certainly seems a definite presence of social media in the lives of the young people we work with that may or may not play a role in their mental health journeys. Untangling the situation from an objective stance, however, is less straightforward. As an early career researcher, I’m interested in the scientific evidence behind some of the glaringly bold headlines we read and in particular whether Prince Harry is correct in his surmise?

The Science

In many ways just as fast-paced social media technology is, just as cautiously spoken the academic world has been. In healthcare, we aspire towards evidence-based practice. This means drawing interpretations based on science. This is important because it helps to ensure accurate and reliable information providing a solid foundation for assessment and treatment.

When it comes to social media and mental health research, there has been a lag. While social media in its most recognizable form was born sometime in the early 2000’s it wasn’t until later that decade that studies started to look at this area with greater interest. As publications continue to grow, it’s important to acknowledge that for the most part, this research topic is in its infancy.

A Problem

There is an enormous amount of variability between the studies investigating social media and mental health making it very difficult at times to gain a reliable, consistent view. Studies differ by sample size and type (some have looked at university students, others at clinical groups, some at younger age subjects others at older age participants), different assessment tools (with varying definitions of social media) and diverse mental health outcomes of interest make comparisons challenging. Alongside this some research uses data obtained years before analysis, meaning by the time a study is published the pattern of use described is no longer, strictly speaking, accurate. Above all else these studies are usually based on observational data focusing on one specific time point (giving us no insight into the longer term impact of use); so at best all we can comment on are trends and patterns, not causality. This is important because more often than not we are lead to believe social media is a cause of mental health problems (which from a scientific perspective at least, we can’t quite say).

However technicalities aside, as a clinician I fully recognize the complexity associated with its use especially among our younger members of society. It’s clear that in some cases, social media does play an important role contributing to mental ill health.

Possible effects on mood, anxiety and body image are observed in some scientific data and accompanied clinically by concerns regarding the addictive quality of such technology. Prince Harry’s comments recently made headlines but the concept of diagnosable social media addiction remains scientifically unclear.

What we do know is that this technology is very clever. It has an intuitive way of learning our preferences, providing dopamine worthy content as we scroll through our feeds. For some, this can be so powerful that the constant reinforcement may create a habit that’s very hard to break.

Is social media really more addictive than drugs or alcohol? The idea seems to originate from a 2012 study in which participants rated their desire to use ‘media’ (including social networking, checking emails and watching TV) more highly than a variety of other desires like using tobacco or alcohol. While an interesting study it had a number of flaws including the combined analysis of overall ‘media use’; so the effect of social media specifically was impossible to ascertain.

The future

As the discussion surrounding social media and mental health continues it’s with good quality research that our understanding will become clearer. It’s essential that conversations between healthcare, academia and the social media industry are initiated and perhaps to some extent have started -it was recently revealed that Instagram may make changes to better support mental health. Either way such technology is here to stay, so finding a way of coexisting seems quite essential.

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