Social Media and its Impact on Mental Health

Social Media and Mental Health- Introduction

Facebook, Twitter, blogging and many more variations are no longer “new kids on the block”.  Many researchers in the mental health fields have taken an interest in the impact of social media on mental health and the results are interesting – identifying both positives and negatives (such as depression).  The impact of social media as a way to communicate does not just influence the younger generation who do not know of a world without the internet.  All age groups have taken to its use to some extent. But using social media has its risks.  There is increased exposure to bullying, harassment and the language of hate to name but a few.  How this is tackled at times may need an appreciation of complexities that younger or even older users may not contemplate.  Such skills, etiquette and social awareness may need to be developed as a networking society as a whole.


The Research

The Social and Psychological Impact of Online Social Networking APS National Psychology Week Survey 2010 – Mathews and CameronOver 1800 Australians took part in this survey and (51%)  reported accessing sites several times a day and feeling a need to log on at times throughout the day. Participants also believed that they wasted time on these sites.  Most –  70% spent less than two hours a day on social media activities.

All age groups used social media.  As might be expected the frequency  of use decreased with age.  More than half (53%) found that social networking sites increased their contact with friends and family  and increased their participation in social activities (26%). The increased social participation lead to an improvement in self-esteem and mental health.  More sociable individuals spend more time using social media so “virtual” sociability reflects “real life” sociability.

Just over a quarter (28%) indicated that they had a negative experience such as bullying, unwanted contact and the posting of inappropriate or distressing information being the most common. 


Marilyn price-Mitchell PhD reported her findings in Inside The Digital Lives of TeensThis research gave a more detailed insight into the impact of social media on younger people. She found that overall teens experienced social media in a very positive manner.  It had positive effects on their emotional well being leading to  increased confidence, improved social interactivity, more sympathy,less depression, less shyness and increased popularity.  But about 5% experience the media in a negative manner.  The perceived benefits of using social media included keeping in close touch with friends, improving their relationship with students from school and connecting with others with similar interests.   

 She also discovered that despite the preconception that teens are “always texting” they do prefer face to face contact!  And surprisingly they wished they could spend more time with their parents but felt that the parents spent too much time using social media.   

Larry Rosen PhD has been examining the mental health of social media users for many years.  Earlier studies reported more negative findings such as young adults with a strong Facebook presence tended towards narcism antisocial tendencies and aggression.  Overuse was identified as causing anxiety and depression.  Excessive use of social media was also linked to poorer achievement at school.

More recent work by Rosen documented in  Rewired: The Psychology of Technology has been far more positive.  He has focused on “virtual empathy” – trying to share/understand an others emotional state in a digital environment.  He has identified that real world empathy was 6x more useful in making others feel supported, but spending more time on social media such as Facebook/Twitter increased the users virtual empathic ability, and high virtual empathy was the best predictor of real life empathy.  This once again reflects that those who are more social on a day to day basis are probably high frequency users of social media.

Earlier research gave a more negative view of social media and its impact on mental health.  The use of social media has been embraced by all especially the young.  There are many positive aspects to its use mainly through increased social connectedness and increased empathy.  The speed and spread of information can be of great benefit.  The downside is that such information may lack credence as the veracity of its source may be questionable.  The ability and skill to look to the source of information will become essential to protect oneself from bad information such as the infamous “Morgan Freeman is dead” Facebook status.

Markway and Markway in Shyness Is Nice   raised the problem of comparison.  They believe that in general Facebookers may tend to reveal good news positive stories.  When these are compared to the viewers real world experience which includes both positive and negative events/emotions, one may have the perception that ones own life is worse – “the grass being greener on the other side”.   From my own experience the ability to raise negative issues through social media often leads to positive responses from others which can be supportive.

The final issue to raise is that of online bullying.  Fortunately schools in Australia      have developed social media policies to give guidance in how to prevent, minimise and tackle online bullying.  Such education is essential for the young and may be useful to older individuals as well.  A recent incident in the US gives insight into the complexities of the matter and it was described very clearly by Matthew Ingram When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying? 

The incident involved some teenage boys making offensive racist comments via social media. The back lash that this invoked was large and ferocious and lead to bloggers naming and clearly identifying offending boys and the schools with which they were associated.  Ingram argues the case well for a more measured response. He suggest that those that organised the response had the resources and ability to be more incisive in their action – contacting the schools directly for one – rather than pursuing the “naming and shaming” course that was taken.   The fervour of the “vigilantes” indicated that there was little if any consideration  or appreciation of the situation of the “offenders” and that there appeared to be “no room for online mistakes”even those committed by children.  This response and attitude does need to alter. We all need to learn to use such media and many will make mistakes as they gain familiarity with its nuances.  Clearly the urge to assess and respond quickly is part of the attraction of social media.  In some circumstances such a response needs to be tempered or may be even given in a totally different way altogether. 



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