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Social Media and Mental Health: Harmful or Helpful?

Social Media and Mental Health

By: Anna Smiley and Carrollyn Ferderber

This month, we will dive into the connection between social media and mental health. Does social media harm mental health? Can it help? It is no secret that in entertainment media, “individuals with mental health concerns are frequently portrayed as victims, villains, or pathetic characters” (Smith-Frigerio, 2020). However, social media is a form of entertainment and communication through which the user curates posts geared towards their audience and chooses which social media feeds they consume. 

Not all the news surrounding social media portrays it in a positive light. In fact, one study states that social media is a “double edged sword,” through which individuals benefit from expressing themselves, but are harmed by a “link between social media use and psychological problems” (Keles et al., 2019). In fact, “a systematic review by Seabrook et al. (2016) reported a correlation between negative online interaction and both depression and anxiety,” and through their systematic review the authors noticed a “small but statistically significant increase” in children and adolescents who had depressive symptoms in regards to their social media usage (Keles et al., 2019). Similarly, the authors found, through their systematic literature review, that increased investment and addiction to social media led to higher incidences of anxiety and depression. For addictive behaviors towards social media, it was found that “low self-esteem compounded the impact of addiction on depression” (Keles et al., 2019). For all aspects studied (time spent on social media, addictive behaviors, activity, and investment), a complex yet substantial relationship between social media use and psychological distress was found. Additionally, the authors stated that adolescents are learning to self-regulate, and are thus vulnerable to peer pressure that can prevail on social media. However, the authors stated that there were some positive benefits to engaging in social media, including the support of friends near and far. The authors noted that the quality of friendships made over social media were more important than the quantity of friendships (Keles et al., 2019).

There are also demonstrable positive impacts that social media can have on mental health. For example, one article examines how organizations and individuals support those struggling with mental health by reaching out. In an article by Naslund et al. (2016), the authors demonstrated that online peer-to-peer support groups provide individuals with perceived benefits, but the methods of support were not detailed. Similarly, an article by Smith-Frigerio (2020) discussed how peer support was provided in three distinct ways: “connection, stories, and encouragement.” Connection and encouragement came in the form of uplifting comments that welcomed and encouraged audience members to “keep going.” Stories included narrative arcs (with an everyday individual’s experiences before, during, and successfully living after treatment) that the author thought was encouraging to “audience members to seek and stick with treatment, as well as working to break down public stigma about mental health concerns.” These methods of peer support helped ensure the success of the grassroots organization’s mission to make sure nobody they reached felt alone or isolated. 

In conclusion, social media can be both damaging and supportive in regards to mental health. It can be the catalyst for negative comparisons, body image issues, and loneliness. It can also be the means to positively connect with others, to learn, and for entertainment. When social media is used in moderation and with a realistic understanding of how it portrays others and one’s self, it may not cause harm to one’s mental health. We encourage all to evaluate how their social media investment is affecting their mental health and to set goals and boundaries to improve. 

Works Cited:

Keles, B., McCrae, N., & Grealish, A. (2019). A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 79–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/02673843.2019.1590851

Naslund, J. A., Aschbrenner, K. A., Marsch, L. A., & Bartels, S. J. (2016). The future of mental health care: peer-to-peer support and social media. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 25(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1017/s2045796015001067

Seabrook, E. M., Kern, M. L., & Rickard, N. S. (2016). Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review. JMIR Mental Health, 3(4). https://doi.org/10.2196/mental.5842

Smith-Frigerio, S. (2020). Grassroots Mental Health Groups’ Use of Advocacy Strategies in Social Media Messaging. Qualitative Health Research, 30(14), 2205–2216. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732320951532

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