Hello and welcome to a more serious, informative blog post. During the start of year twelve, I spent a long time: researching; collecting data; collecting resources; developing paragraphs and discovering new things.. all surrounding the topic of social media.
Because year 12 me, who thought she was bionic, decided to do EPQ: also known as stress.
Anyway, despite the hatred I had for the concept of EPQ at the time, I have actually majorly benefitted from the research that I carried out for my essay topic and I would highly recommend taking this opportunity, especially if you are planning on going to University.
I managed to recieve a grade B from this essay (only one mark off of an A) which I am fairly happy with.
- All opinions are my own - dated 2018/19
- The bibliography of this essay will be listed at the bottom of the page
- This essay has already been submitted, marked, and moderated, and will be a part of my A-Level results 2020
- None of this essay has been changed since submission
So my chosen question title was:
“How does social media affect young people’s mental health- in particular, depression and anxiety?”
And in its full form, this is how I answered it:
Over time, the increase of social media use has soared through this digital age and has become a core part of our global society today. The use of multiple platforms such as twitter and Instagram are integral to our functioning as a coherent society with the expectation that individuals are literate in using such platforms.
Our reliance on said platforms is undoubtedly having a negative effect on our mental health and everyday lifestyles.
So what is Social media?
According to the English dictionary, social media is: websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.
I became very interested in this topic of social media addiction due to reading an extract from a book called ‘The Four Pillar Plan’ which includes a case study of a teenage boy struggling with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and feelings, with a loss of hope in life. Following a meeting with Dr Rangan Chatterjee (an author and doctor), the young boy was given the advice of reducing his screen time little by little until he was at a point of using it no more than 1 hour per day. The symptoms drastically decreased after a month of less screen time.
The average person spends nearly 2 hours per day using social media, which amounts to 5 years and 4 months of his/her lifetime. In that time a person could run more than 10,000 marathons or travel to the moon and back on 32 separate occasions. For teens, social media time spent could be up to 9 hours every day.
210 million people worldwide suffer from social media addictions and teens who spend 5 hours or more on their phones are 2 times more likely to show depressive symptoms.
However, these statistics about addiction may be unreliable due to the vast number of undocumented or undermined accounts of addiction which take place globally.
The term ‘addiction’ can be applied to many situations which could be just as dangerous and prevalent in society as things such as alcohol and drug abuse. I will go on to explore the definition of addiction later on within my essay and will look into the damaging effects of habitual behaviours and how it paves the way for addictive tendencies later on in life.
Dr Kuss and Dr Griffiths from Psychology Today reviewed the latest research on the topic and found that social media use for a minority of individuals is associated with a number of psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, loneliness, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and addiction.
A particularly prevalent issue surrounding Social Media today, particularly on photographic platforms such as Instagram, is the constant comparison of oneself to the display of other users’ lifestyles, appearances, material possessions and aesthetics, and also the comparison of forms of gratification such as likes, comments and follows. I will explore the idea of happiness being determined by the validation of others through the received popularity of posts one may have shared online.
Despite this constant online connection, we are seeing an increase in loneliness in today’s era of online life, which in turn can lead to the increase of mental health issues, especially among young and vulnerable teenagers today, who are growing up in a world of filters and captions.
However, without completely disregarding Social media and placing a label of horror upon it, i’d like to go through the ins and outs, ups and downs, and possible advantages of the use of these platforms. I want to journey through this topic in an objective and open-minded way, allowing all views of social media to ebb and flow throughout, discovering exactly how fine the line is between a healthy balance of social media use, and a detrimental use.
What is social media and why is it so addictive?
Firstly, let’s talk about what addiction is, what does it mean to be addicted? The Oxford definition of “addicted” is: “The fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity”.
The most common substances that come to mind when referencing addiction are: drugs, smoking, gambling and alcohol. There are also many more common addictive substances such as pornography, chocolate, exercise, fast food, sex, relationships, shopping, plastic surgery, gaming and self harm.
The common denominator of all of these substances, is the release of a brain chemical called dopamine which is a neurotransmitter, also known as the “feel good hormone”.
For example, with regards to social media, dopamine is released when we receive likes, comments, followers and more, releasing a feeling of love and appreciation.
Dopamine is highly addictive and often results in people revisiting the substance which triggered the release, on a more frequent basis, sometimes on an unhealthily regular basis.
According to Psychology Today, People with low dopamine activity may also be more prone to addiction. This suggests that those with naturally lower dopamine levels are more likely to be susceptible to spending vast amounts of time on social media at the expense of daily life.
Simon Sinek, an american author and motivational speaker, argues that we have age restrictions on other addictive substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and gambling, yet we fail to have adequate age restrictions on the use of Social Media. Despite there being loose age restrictions on some platforms such as twitter, they are easy to get around and require no valid Identification. Therefore there are many underaged teens using these platforms, who at their young age are more vulnerable and susceptible to becoming addicted.
Sinek goes on to support this by saying that most alcoholics discover alcohol at a young age, and fail to develop the reliance and support from peers and friends, and instead rely on alcohol. It is a similar situation for Social media, children may discover the numbing and rewarding effects of social media as a teenager, and fail to develop further relationships later on in life, which leads to living a very isolated life.
Isolation plays a huge part in the mental health condition depression, with many sufferers pushing away loved ones, turning to substance abuse, or trying to battle it alone. With a lack of real face-to-face support or friendships, social media may become their only outlet.
According to Falck from Medical News Today “Vital brain functions that affect mood, sleep, memory, learning, concentration, and motor control are influenced by the levels of dopamine in a person's body. A dopamine deficiency may be related to certain medical conditions, including depression and Parkinson's disease.” With higher levels of dopamine from rewards such as drugs, alcohol and social media, the brain can develop a higher tolerance for the neurotransmitter which dulls the effects of dopamine, this could intrinsically linked to mental health issues due to there not being enough dopamine received.
The short bursts of 3-45 second videos, which can be found on many social media sites, offer instant gratification and quick bursts of dopamine, causing them to be highly addictive.
According to Healthista, ‘Part of what makes those behaviours so addictive is the uncertainty factor, but because we never know if the next post is going to make us feel good or bad, we become even more motivated to keep scrolling”
This contributes to the idea of FOMO (fear of missing out) which is a common reason why some people use social media, to catch up on the things they might have missed because they fear that they may miss out on some events or knowledge.
There are many other addictive aspects of social media, such as notifications. Seeing a notification pop up on a phone offers an instant hit of dopamine and makes the phone owner feel important and cared about, thus drawing them in to frequently check their phone and update themselves on social media.
This constant influx of push notifications can be incredibly detrimental to the functioning of your brain and cause high levels of anxiety due to the release of high levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol. Cortisol is said to tighten muscles, increase heart rate and cause palms to become clammy.
Daily Mail goes on to state that ‘Research by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, previously found that high levels of cortisol will create long-lasting brain changes, which can leave people in an almost constant state of fight-or-flight’, which, in other words is a constant state of anxiety and stress, in a state that cavemen would feel when a huge bear would approach with the intention to kill. That is not a comfortable or healthy state to remain in throughout life.These high levels of anxiety are extremely bad for our mental and physical health and can take a toll on everyday life.
According to Daily Mail (Daily Mail, 2019), “Scientists warn that constant notifications can distract you so much that productivity can drop by as much as 40 per cent without you knowing”. This is supported by research performed by Steve Bea, Doctor of Psychology at non-profit academic medical centre Cleveland Clinic. Steve states that “There’s this phenomenon called “switch cost” that occurs when there’s an interruption – we switch away from the task that we’re on and then we have to come on back”
This multi-task nature is also very detrimental to our brains and is proven to have a long lasting effect. Simon Sinek supports this when referencing a study with mice and a maze. There were two groups of mice, one group had a flashing light to mimic a computer screen, while the other didn’t. The mice with the flashing light were found to take three times as long as the mice that didn’t.
This addiction can be a major distraction from the real world around us, and as we’ve found, it can have a negative impact on work, relationships, education and development.
According to The Wisdom Post (Sophia, 2019), a few common signs of social media addiction are: “You waste your time looking at nonsense and procrastinating”, “you check notifications all the time”, and “checking social media is the first thing you do when you are free”. These are three very time consuming and distracting things which can eat away at hours of a life without subconscious realisation.
Instant connection and the dangers of cyberbullying
Let’s take Instagram for example: It is widely utilised for the purpose of communication, it’s a simple and rapid way to connect with others who may live further away or are unable to talk in person for any valid reason, allowing instant connection and communication despite any length, distance or barrier. This immediate online connection can encourage the development or production of friendships and relationships which, in turn may last a lifetime and provide a sense of happiness for those involved.
However, this can be flipped to portray the more negative aspects of instant messages, posts, bullying, grooming, hacking and scamming, available to deliver from anyone who is “safely” tucked away behind a screen and message board. One solitary online message can change a reputation within seconds, ruin a relationship, ruin a life.
Cyberbullying has become a huge contribution towards mental health issues among teenagers in school.
According to YoundMinds “Children and young people who are currently experiencing a mental health problem are more than three times more likely to have been bullied online in the last year”, suggesting that online bullying can be extremely impactful on the mental health of young people today. YoungMinds conducted an extended piece of research including methods such as surveys, interviews, official statistics and gathering oral information from children, young people, major social media companies and more. This wide span of research increases reliability because of the consistent results they have gathered through different sources. It is valid academic research from a reputable company that specialises in Mental Health research.
However, when surveying children, there is a possibility that demand characteristics or investigator effects could have altered the results, since some children might have given untrue answers based on what they think the investigator would want to hear.
The impact of cyberbullying doesn’t just last for the time period in which it takes place, it lasts a lifetime. It can majorly impact self esteem, destroy a reputation, self image, business, relationship or person, this could explain why so many people who struggle with mental health issues are found to have been cyberbullied online in the past year.
For many people, they find it easier to say things online rather than in person which could increase the intensity of the bullying compared to what it might have been if it was face-to-face. Cyberbullying is an extremely upsetting and frustrating experience because in many cases, it is unknown who is doing the bullying, they could be hiding behind an anonymous account with no evidence of tying an identity to the username.
This makes it extremely hard to combat and prevent because there is no way of exposing them or stopping it, although the user could be blocked, they may be able to make another account and continue to deliver abuse and bullying online.
When I asked Molly Thompson (an online influencer and YouTuber) whether she has any negative experiences with social media, she replied “All the time, people commenting nasty things on my videos, or nit-picking things I’ve said in vlogs, it can be quite hard to look past, especially if you’re already having a bad day.”
I tried to reduce the bias in this interview by not asking leading questions, however there is a possibility that Molly could have exaggerated or embellished her answers in order to give an answer that she thought I might have wanted to hear. This could decrease the validity and reliability of my Interview research. However, since it is a primary, direct source, there is more chance of it being valid than if I retrieved the answers from a secondary source.
In an attempt to include some evidence for my research to support Molly’s statement, I thought i’d take a look at her social media comments section myself to see the range of positive or negative comments.
I found that when I looked at her YouTube comments, there were very little negative comments and the majority seemed to be supportive.
This could have been an unreliable way to search for evidence because I picked videos at random and looked at the comments section, which is not representative of the hundreds of comments on videos she has posted.; There is also the consideration that Molly could have gone through and deleted nasty comments, or blocked people from commenting before I could see them, therefore this research is fairly invalid.
However, upon taking a look at a few of her instagram comments, despite the majority still being positive, there were a couple of “nit-picky” comments and judgements of other people like she said. This may suggest that comments vary between different social media platforms and the type of audience that she has on each.
When posting content to social media, it offers so much for strangers to use as ammunition against a person, or to judge a person. It is also so easy to look at someone's life as portrayed online, and judge them by the small clip available, rather than seeing the whole perspective.
How comparison could consume a life
On these platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, teens for example, can access a wide range of entertainment and inspiration, especially from younger influencers such as JoJo Siwa, Zoella and many more.
For example, I managed to ask a few short interview questions of a YouTuber who I have previously watched, and enjoyed the content of, called Molly Thompson, also known by her online name “BeautySpectrum”.
When I asked her what the best bit about social media is for her, she replied
“Sharing my creativity with an audience that seems to genuinely care about this content I create!” which shows the incredibly positive and creative aspects of platforms like these.
The internet and Social Media are excellent sharing platforms to be able to share creativity, promote businesses, entertain, educate and inspire.
However, this easy access to all of these entertainment forms and viewpoints into the lives of inspirational people or ‘idols’ could create a dangerous gateway to comparison. For a lot of young people, media portrayal of: body types, pretty faces, photoshop, glamorous lives and wealth, could lead to low self-esteem and a longing to have lives like the glamorised influencers that they may see online. Many teens don’t realise that the things they see online are often a tiny snapshot of the best bits of someone’s day, with a filter slapped on, and a positive and pretty caption.
In support of this, Molly noted how easy it is to fall into a trap of comparison.
When asked what the worst part about social media is, she said:
“How easy it is to compare your life to other peoples seemingly perfect life, this is especially easy on Instagram, when everyone’s lives are so filtered!”
This has been prevalent in the past with issues such as the overuse of size 2 models and photoshop leading to young girls under-eating, or having low self worth because they wish to look exactly the same as a touched up, front cover bikini shot of a posing model.
As a result of being exposed to so many ‘perfect’, ‘ideal’, or ‘dream’ images, snapshots and video clips. In many cases, people begin to lose their perspective of the real world. Some may lose self confidence, begin to feel very self conscious, lose motivation or hope in themselves because they don’t match up to a certain aesthetic, begin to hate things about themselves, become overly angry or frustrated by how far they may be from their ‘ideal’, and much much more.
These are all symptoms of depression, and could lead to serious mental health problems if left unnoticed or untreated.
YoungMinds found that 38% of young people reported that social media has a negative impact on how they feel about themselves, compared to 23% who reported that it has a positive impact. This was exacerbated for girls, with 46% of girls stating that social media had a negative impact on their self-esteem.
This comparison also applies to likes or comments when compared to other social media users.
Healthista say “When we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control.” . Healthista are an online health blog who work closely with a wide variety of health experts and specialise in using scientific evidence. I believe that this is a valid and useful source of research and information support.
This statement suggests that we base our self worth on the validation from others, received via social media likes and popularity on these platforms. Many people begin to envy those with seemingly perfect lives and high popularity rates online as a result of their seemingly perfect lives.
These likes and comments also offer a feeling of love and worth when received, and can trigger the release of as brain chemical called dopamine which I previously talked about with relation to Simon Sinek’s research. Dopamine is known as the “happy hormone”, so if someone isn’t receiving the amount of likes that they hope for, they may begin to feel worthless and unloved, causing low mood and sometimes depression. This could be due to a lack of dopamine (scientifically), or just the way they perceive likes as determining how worthy they are as people.
Mental health portrayal in the media and Molly Russell case study
On the topic of glamorisation, there is still easy access to harmful material on sites such as instagram, portraying images of self harm, and messages of encouragement in pursuing these detrimental and dangerous activities. A prevalent and contemporary piece of research support on this topic is the heartbreaking story of Molly Russell.
Molly Russell was a 14 year old school girl who was found dead in her room in November 2017. Molly showed no previous signs of depression or suicidal thoughts and seemed to have packed her bag for school the next day, in order to plan ahead, suggesting that her suicide may have been a very spontaneous action.
Confused about what probed Molly to taking her own life, her parents took a look at her social media platforms, specifically Instagram, and were horrified at what they found.
Molly seemed to be following numerous sites, owned by people with depressive symptoms, which portrayed a range of things from: posts, pictures, and messages about depression; to self harm content and images; to messages and images of suicide; and even posts which encourage and explain ways of going about taking one’s own life.
Following this realisation and discovery of their daughter’s search history, her bereaved parents are now fighting for much stricter rules and bans against content of this nature on Social Media platforms. Molly’s father says “I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter”.
To test how easy it is to find such material on instagram, I typed the word “depression” into the search bar. A depression hashtag was the first option, which I clicked on, resulting in a pop up message saying “Can we help?” with the two options of “get support” or “see posts anyway” so I did what most young people with the intention of viewing this material would have done and decided to click the option of seeing the posts, which was quite literally as easy as a simple click of a button.
This hashtag was flooded with a plethora of posts, some of hope and encouragement to stay strong, but the majority were sad or negative posts, quotes, pictures, and sometimes even comedic “memes” and posts which make jokes out of depression.
Anyone who decides to use this hashtag can see things such as:
“I have more scars than friends” and “I hate myself all the time. I feel like I’m so worthless and irreplaceable”, and those were only the hashtags.
When I scrolled through the profiles with the trigger word ‘depression’, I was overwhelmed by thousands of posts, although some of which may not have directly encouraged depressive thoughts and topics, they certainly made the mental health condition seem ‘relatable’ and glamorised. The sad and selfish thing is, this glamorisation of mental health conditions is in some cases, a way for accounts to gain popularity or likes.
To me, this seems like a direct source of why anxiety and depression could be affected by Social Media use when young and vulnerable people see ‘relatable’ and encouraging posts about such serious issues.
For example, if someone were to view this material, and find someone else online who relates to their own feelings, it creates a sense of belonging and relieves the feeling of loneliness.
It could be argued that it is at the fault of the viewer, if they come to harm or psychological damage through viewing these photos. However it could also be counter-argued that it is the fault of the person posting encouraging material.
Either way, there is an obvious way of regulating problems such as these, which is for the Social Media company to block, remove or ban these accounts completely.
If the company knows how to put up a warning notice on target words such as “depression”, they must have some realisation and understanding of the harmful content which circulates their platform. As the vector which allows the sharing and viewing of harmful material, they are responsible for controlling the way the public uses it.
Loneliness, turning to a friend… or a phone?
According to Healthista ”Even if we are physically with another person, we often are so wrapped up in documenting the experience for our followers to see, or checking our phones to see what others are up to, that we neglect the opportunities to develop authentic connections with the people we are actually with.”
This is a very common issue among many people, people go on their phones and use social media in circumstances such as meetings, lessons, presentations and social gatherings. Social media is a distraction from what is really happening around us, and although it may seem as though we have hundreds of friends online who ‘like’ what we do, we actually may be struggling to make real, personal friendships and relationships.
Sherry Turkle states that “we’re getting used to a way of being alone together”, people want to be in a certain place, while connecting online to another different place, because they want control over who and where they can be. Some people go to a social gathering, with so many new opportunities to physically connect in person and develop relationships, however they are too busy trying to connect with more people online.
I recently conducted an opportunity, volunteer, random sample of 60 participants aged 13-20 I first asked whether anyone had ever wanted to delete social media, 70% of participants said yes, while the other 30% said no. Out of the participants who said yes, I asked why they wanted to and 5 out of the 19 people who replied said they they spend far too much time on social media and it takes up too much of their life. This suggests that many teen social media users do actually realise how negative social media is for them, but they continue to use it anyway because of things such as ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) and adhering to social standards because they feel they have to be on social media in order to fit in.
It also shows that some teens are aware of their overuse of social media as being a distraction, however they may not realise how it affects their real life friendships.
When communicating online, it is much easier to say something that you might be too nervous to say to someone in person and it is incredibly easy to pretend to be someone you’re not. This devalues the relationships that are made and built over social media, it also distracts from those that one may have in person.
Social media could also distort reality of how someone feels and people can easily get the wrong ideas of each other. A writer on Greatist blog wrote “I equated my insufficient presence on his page to insufficient love for me. Surely, if he loved me, he would shout it from the rooftops of the interwebs” It can begin to make relationships deteriorate when you’re posting more about your significant other online than you are spending real and valuable time with them in person.
It’s as though some people are trying to live their lives through social media and trying to portray their relationships as something they’re not. This is especially affecting our teens of today as they grow up discovering relationships with the intense rise of social media, it can easily go wrong without the control of face-to-face confrontations.
From my research and analysis of my question “How does social media affect young people’s mental health in particular, depression and anxiety?” I have concluded that Social media is a platform which offers many benefits, but also is easily addictive and harbours many dangerous attributes if used incorrectly. However, I have decided that the most important thing to focus on with regards to social media, is balance. Balance is the key point which needs to be taken into consideration when using social media, it is a very useful and fun area of the internet, however it can quickly turn bad and cause many detrimental side effects such as depression and anxiety.
These mental health issues can be caused through: comparison leading to self esteem issues; notifications offering cortisol, leading to stress; cyberbullying, which is proven to often lead to mental health issues and low self esteem; addiction caused by dopamine which can lead to substance abuse and isolation; and being too glued to your phone to notice the real world around us, which also leads to isolation and lack of relationships, which can lead to mental health issues. Social media is a world full of filters and smiley faces, and sometimes people mix the lives of reality with those online which is a recipe for disaster. Overuse of social media can be incredibly harmful to the mind and body and has even caused people to commit suicide. It is an issue which needs to be taken much more seriously and spread among the world we are growing up in, a world where people are born into creating an online persona.
Teens are especially being targeted by this as they grow up, plunged into the social media scene while trying to juggle it alongside education and sometimes failing to do so. We need to help the teens of today and show them how to help themselves.
The world of fakery on social media, funnily enough, needs a reality check.
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