Mental Health Training

Social Media & Mental Health, By Jane McNeice

Posted by on 2 Sep, 2018 in Mental Health |

Social Media & Mental Health, By Jane McNeice

“Social media! Social media is the cause of their mental health problems.” A phrase I hear so frequently when I deliver mental health training, particularly when I deliver Youth MHFA courses. Few delegates tend to challenge the statement, most in agreement. This generates lots of thought for me. Firstly, is social media really the cause of mental ill health? And secondly, if it has any influence whatsoever, what is it about social media that is so bad?

The world is changing, fast. One of the most significant changes in the last few decades has been the pace of technological change, in particular the growth of on-line media.  Select few are yet to be seduced by this technology – my own father who dips his toe in vicariously through my mother’s use – the majority of us are in to it hook, line, and sinker. A good portion of this on-line usage is social media – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and the likes. It’s these platforms that many delegates are suggesting cause mental ill health. So what exactly is it about the use of these platforms that they think ‘causes’ mental ill health? The most common assertion is that by using them we are left thinking that everyone else’s life is great and ours deficient in some way. Be that our lifestyle, our appearance, or perhaps whether the food we ate today was of the best type, quality, and presentation.

Let us take a step back in time 20 years, pre social media as we see it today. Terms such as ‘The Jones’ existed, with inferences that the so called ‘Jones’ had everything, and were perhaps viewed with some disdain for this. There have always been differences in lifestyles, appearances, wealth, class, always something capable of dividing the masses, or leaving one feeling inadequate. This takes me back to my academic days studying criminology and the fact that relative deprivation seemed to cause so much more criminality than absolute deprivation. This measure of where we were in comparison to the next man (or woman), but if we are experiencing equal deprivation, that’s just about tolerable. Today’s backdrop may have shifted somewhat, people perhaps having more fascination with wealth, appearance, lifestyle, and for some sadly an inability to discern the façade that much of this most probably is. And maybe to question the self-esteem of those who present the façade. Is the shift today that people now believe this is achievable for themselves, but in the past wasn’t? Maybe the question is why and what are we aspiring to, and why not just to be? And what is it about this that could cause mental ill health?

Social media being good or bad is very black and white, when in fact there’s a lot grey in between. Take the person who avidly uses platforms deemed more unhelpful to our mental health, maybe within this a newsfeed that is toxic to their mental health. This might include conflicts and acrimonious comment, lots of presentations of the ‘Jones’, and perhaps some abhorrent cruelty towards animals or treatment of others. Then take the person who doesn’t live close to their family or loved ones, social media is their life-line to support and connection. Maybe they are lonely and social media opens up a whole world of human contact that they don’t get otherwise. Maybe they are linked up to some helpful people, groups, or services that lift their mood and spirits. Maybe in fact they are part of an excellent on-line community that supports their own differences e.g. their mental health. Good and bad don’t really reflect the wide range of social media experience.

Given the potential for toxicity of social media, it would be fair to say that for some people social media may not be conducive to good mental health and wellbeing. Whether that is because they internalise other people’s lives and allow this to make them feel bad, or whether they take on other people’s emotions, and when seeing or reading certain posts this leaves them feeling bad. Relative deprivation and inequality are not new to today’s world. They’ve always been there, and for some impacted on their mental health. So what is it about social media that could create a powder keg for mental ill health as many of our course delegates seem to suggest, in particular where young people are concerned?

Never so much as today have materials, lifestyles, and perception of who we are seemed to mean so much to the masses. Maybe that backdrop alongside the growth in exposure to it via social media is what has made it toxic for some? Perhaps the most vulnerable to this are the young people of today. Are young people more seduced by its content, less discerning about it? The constant drip feed of ‘we are not worthy unless…’

The greatest success and problem of social media in relation to mental health is perhaps its ability to reinforce the ‘not worthy’ under-tone; a very loud message in some people’s newsfeeds. But this under-tone is created by human beings, so not the fault of social media per se, but rather the fault of how as a population we have come to use it – communications we send out; our levels of exposure to it, and how we hear, see, read, and interpret incoming communications. These of course are all based on our frame of reference.

How we interpret the communication comes from so much more than social media. How we interpret it depends on factors such as self-esteem, confidence, self-awareness, intelligence, life experiences, and influences from those around us, self-reflection, and so on. So in reality we need to focus on ourselves. If we are to criticise social media for mental ill health, the greatest criticism lies in its successful ability to bring messages (which could be unhealthy) to us and often – if we allow it to – which still points back at us. Its power as a method to reach people would have been perceived as nothing short of miraculous 20 years ago. I too share the benefit of this power in my own business, which would not have become sustainable without it. A business set up with no financial capital, just a lot of time and effort, and making the best use I possibly could of social and digital media to reach my audience. My personal use of social media is quite different, however, and has evolved in the last 11 years. From avid Facebook user, I now find much greater interest in Twitter and LinkedIn, and Facebook’s personal benefit to me now lies in the precious memories and pictures of family and friends contained there during the last 11 years, some loved ones sadly no longer with me. With the exception of a few posts here and there, gone are the days of perusing through long newsfeeds. This changed in part because I brought into question the merits of social media for my own mental health. I put the question back with me, not with social media.

For those supporting people with mental health difficulties, particularly young people who are in distress, where social media seems to be the cause or contributor of their distress, may be the benefit lies in having a supportive conversation about what, how, how much, and when they use social media, making the connection with this and their feelings. It’s useful for them to consider what they might change about this to help themselves to feel better. It might also be useful to discuss whether there is a supportive community on social media that might actually improve their mental health. Supporting them to recognise whether social media is in fact unhelpful, and if so what they can do to change it. The person themselves ultimately decides whether social media is good or bad. My hope for this article is that it contributes to someone’s healthy newsfeed and and helps them to consider positive changes to assist good mental health. Social media and on-line technology is of course essential for that to happen.