Social Media and the Rise of Mental Illness… Let’s Talk About It

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Being born right before the turn of the century puts me and many others in a very unique situation. We are technically #90skids if that even matters but we also are heavily influenced by technology and popular culture from the early 2000s onwards. According to some textbooks, a person like me born in 1998 is technically a millennial. Other textbooks label people my age as generation Z. Regardless of where we fit in, there is something that affects us and people younger than us in ways that older generations simply can’t relate to. I’m talking about growing up in the age of social media and all of the problems that creates for people as they are entering some of the most crucial stages of development. I want to share this article to start a conversation on social media usage and hopefully help some people out who feel like they can relate to some of the points made. To start this conversation off, let’s dig into some facts about social media usage and mental health.

Some Stats and Facts about Social Media and Mental Health

According to the National Center for Health Research, there is no substantial evidence linking social media’s growth in popularity to the rising number of children and adolescents with mental health issues. That being said, the two have been rising at the same time and that fact alone deserves attention. Here are some eye-opening insights from the article:

  • (According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Report) Over 50% of 18-24-year-olds use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. 45% of 18-24-year-olds use Twitter.
  • In 2016, an estimated 44.7 million adults aged 18 and older in the U.S. had a mental illness. 
  • Within the above group, 18-25-year-olds had the highest concentration of any mental illness at 22.1% of people affected
  • Pediatricians have coined the term “Facebook depression”. This term is defined as teens and preteens exhibiting classic symptoms of depression due to “the intensity of the online world.”
  • According to research by a San Diego State psychology professor, teens that spend 5 or more hours per day online were 71% more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide compared to teens who spend only 1 hour a day online.

Should we all just stop using social media? Is it the plague that parents and high school administrators warned us about? Well, no, not exactly. The article suggests that for some children, social media can strengthen current relationships, boost self-confidence and build social skills. There are obviously good and bad aspects of social media usage but it is important to be aware of both as you use it in your daily life.

My Observations

Like I mentioned earlier, I think that I am in a unique situation being born in 1998. My childhood was filled with summer days spent outside playing sports, hanging with friends and a bit of gaming, too. Of course, kids today still do that stuff but it seems like more and more they always have a screen companion with them. For me, social media didn’t enter my life until the end of middle school. It was 8th grade when I had one of my first personal devices. I had an iPod Touch and my friend had asked me to get this new app called Instagram. I had no idea what it was and Instagram was still in its earlier stages. For me back then, it was just another app. I didn’t think much of it and didn’t use it much. I say all of this to contrast with today’s middle schoolers who are bombarded with social media outlets. From Instagram and Snapchat to TikTok and Facebook and Twitter being huge still, that is a lot for a young mind to handle. Below I will go into detail on a few more observations I have witnessed from my personal life and my thoughts on them:

Social Media Models and Influencers: Setting Unrealistic Expectations

It is no secret that social media represents the best versions of ourselves but this aspect of social media usage is put on steroids by social media influencers. While these pages are entertaining and exciting, it can communicate a certain message to younger audiences that is damaging to personal self-confidence and body image. I feel like this may affect young girls more than guys. These girls may look up to the way Instagram models look and feel like they have to also achieve that perfect physique. This could lead to unhealthy eating practices and eating disorders.

The same goes for guys. As much as I would love to look like Chris Hemsworth, I just don’t think it is in the cards for me right now. And that is perfectly okay. The unfortunate thing, though, is that both young guys and girls may sometimes feel lower self-esteem or self-worth because they aren’t living the same lifestyle or look the same as their favorite social media influencer. I would love to go on a new adventure every week a la Victoria Justice but that is simply unrealistic.

Likes and Isolation

One of the most rewarding and addicting aspects of social media is the “likes” system of each social media. Each platform has its own version of it and it is almost a standard feature of social media nowadays to have some sort of system to show that you “like” a post or a page. This aspect of social media can also be self-destructive, though. There will always be a page or a post that gets more likes or love than yours does. The comparative aspect of social media is where feelings of self-doubt come in. I feel like, again, this affects young girls more than guys. For some girls, if they don’t get as many likes on a selfie as their friend or as their last post did, they may feel that they are not pretty enough or somehow possess less value. This is, of course, not true and no one’s self-worth should be measured in the number of likes you get on a selfie. For a great illustration of this idea, I encourage you to check out the show Black Mirror on Netflix. In season 3, there is an episode called “Nosedive”. It was a huge eye-opener for me and partly inspired the idea for this article.

Another aspect is social isolation. I know I have experienced this phenomenon before. This goes back to the idea of when you post on social media, you usually only post the most exciting aspects of your life. So, for many people who are constantly on social media, they may see all of their friends out having fun going on adventures and they may be at home doing nothing. This creates an immense feeling of social isolation and is where I believe some form of Facebook depression comes in.

Cyberbullying, Subtweeting and Other Forms of Online Harassment

Social media can get toxic and nasty rather quickly. For some young people, they feel the need to subtweet a person they have a disagreement with. This is a passive-aggressive form of attacking someone online and usually causes more problems than it solves. This can happen between friends, significant others, exes or enemies. Either way, it causes drama and can even evolve into a Twitter storm.

This leads to the idea of cyberbullying. This is something that high school administrators have had difficulty keeping up with, as most of it happens off of high school campuses. Unfortunate and unacceptable things such as threats, leaking of sensitive and private images and more are happening to high school kids today, and it is hard to catch many of these things. It is a lot easier to insult someone from behind a computer or phone screen than it is to say things in person and this results in a lot of negativity and tearing down of one another online. This only worsens depression and anxiety in some kids and results in things like suicide in extreme cases. As a society, we have to stand up to this and make it clear that online bullying is unacceptable. It is yet another challenging aspect of adolescent life that our parents and grandparents simply didn’t have to face.

Conclusion

Social media will go down as one of the most transformative inventions of the 21st century. It, along with the rise of the smartphone, has completely changed the way in which we interact with friends and celebrities, consume content and news and look at ourselves and others. Social media has of course completely revolutionized the PR, marketing and advertising industries as well. Social media is not going away and I will continue to happily Tweet and Snapchat vlog away to my heart’s content. But I also think it is important to be aware of the negative aspects of social media and to stay woke to poor uses of social media a la cyberbullying. We can all do better and I am hoping that this article has opened some new insights for you as it has for me in writing it.


Photo of Zach FerenchakZach Ferenchak is a current junior studying Emerging Media at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He serves as Chapter president for Capital University PRSSA. His dream is to one day use his communications skills to support creators in the Gaming or Technology industries. Feel free to follow his Twitter, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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