Is Social Media Bad For Mental Health?

17 October 2023 |
Episode 17 |
01:05:02

Episode summary

Do you worry that social media is making you feel anxious, depressed, self-conscious, or lonely? You’re not alone. But with conflicting media headlines, it’s hard to know what the true impact of social media is on our mental health – and what to do about it. In this episode, I explore whether social media is, or isn’t, bad for your mental health, why research into the link between social media and mental health issues is so flawed, and whose responsibility it is to safeguard your mental wellbeing when using social platforms. I examine what we know about the relationship between social media and changes in mood, depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, body image, and loneliness, and what to do if you suspect that you or someone you know may be affected. I also challenge you to keep a mental health journal for the week, to discover how your personal social media use is making you feel, and assess whether negative experiences are outweighing positive ones.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • Why research into the link between social media and mental health is flawed, and the reason that experts can’t agree whether social media is good or bad for you
  • The dangers of skim reading misleading news headlines about the impact of social media on mental health
  • Whether social media companies and national governments have a responsibility to protect us from the harmful effects of social media on our mental health
  • The important difference between causation and correlation, when it comes to discussing mental health issues
  • Why it’s difficult to measure the impact social media has on our mental health, and what data social media companies already have about the way their platforms negatively affect users
  • The highly individualised nature of your experience on social media, and why you must take responsibility for curating a more positive experience for yourself
  • What we know about the links between social media and changes in mood, depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, body image, and loneliness
  • The reasons why social media might be making you feel depressed, anxious, self-conscious, or lonely, and what to do if you’re concerned about yourself or someone you know
  • The definition of social media addiction and why it’s more than simply spending too much time online
  • How social media provides a space for online communities and text-based support that can benefit your mental health
  • My personal struggles with depression and anxiety, and how social media has both helped and hurt me
  • The 7 day social media and mental health journalling challenge

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:33] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you are having a great day. I hope you’re doing really, really well If you’re new around here, then hey, welcome! I’m Marisha, aka The Digital Diet Coach. And if you’re a regular listener, then it’s really great to have you back. Thanks for still rocking with me.

[00:00:52] A quick reminder, as always, if you want to know more about digital wellness and how to create healthier digital habits in your own life, make sure you hit the subscribe button on the platform that you’re listening on to make sure that you automatically get notified, every single week, when there’s a new episode. And that way you won’t miss any of the digital wellness hints, and tips, and goodness that I have coming up for you on the show.

[00:01:16] This episode is sponsored by my #TechTimeout Challenge which, for those of you that don’t know, is the only 30 day digital detox plan created specifically for busy women. And the best bit is, it is free. For 30 consecutive days, you ditch all of your devices, once a day, and you complete a single, simple offline activity instead.

[00:01:40] There are 30 activities. They last anywhere from 5 minutes to a few hours. So it’s really easy to fit them into your existing routine and around any plans that you might have already made. You will be focused on doing these activities and enjoying them, so much so that you won’t even notice that you are not using your digital devices or you’re using them less.

[00:02:01] All of the activities are proven to boost your physical, mental or emotional health because they are designed to help you reconnect to yourself. They’re designed to help you revive the relationships in your life that maybe you’ve lapsed a little bit, because you’re spending more time online than you used to. And they will definitely help you to rediscover things that you used to love doing, and maybe even some new things along the way.

[00:02:29] And I made it super easy for you because everything is planned out. All you have to do is sign up to download the guide. There are step-by-step instructions. You can print out the ready-made digital detox plan. You can plan out your own digital detox using the template if you want more control over the order that you do the activities in.

[00:02:49] And, obviously, I want you to win at this. So there are loads of hints and tips, and access to practical tools and resources to guarantee your success. So, as I said, all you need to do is download the guide. You head over to thedigitaldietcoach.com/techtimeout-challenge, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes, and then you’ll get your free guide. You’ll get access to all the tools and resources, and you can carve out a little bit of space free from your devices, each and every day, and start reconnecting with things that are more important to you.

[00:03:24] And I think that really makes me sometimes wonder like, okay, well, why do people want to do a digital detox? Why do people want to escape being on social media? And the truth is that sometimes it all gets a bit too much. Being connected all the time gets a bit overwhelming and one of the worst offenders in making that experience what it is, is social media. Partly because I think it’s the thing that we feel like we have the most and least control over.

[00:03:53] Technically, we should be able to put down social media whenever we want to. But somehow we find it the most difficult thing to let go of, the most difficult thing to take a break from or to quit completely. And, as you know, we’re in the middle of our mini-series on all things social media. And I’ve talked about a few of the reasons why this is, from external factors to the internal triggers that make us reach for our phones and fire up social media, even when we’re not getting notifications or people aren’t sending us links to viral TikTok videos.

[00:04:23] So, if you want to make sure that you have all the pieces of the big social media puzzle, then make sure you check out Episodes 13 through 16 to get a better understanding of why the social media platforms have been built in the way that they’ve been built. And how they have made use of behavioural psychology and neurobiology to deliberately get you going online as much as possible, for as long as possible.

[00:04:50] In the last episode, I talked about how much time you should be spending on social media and why it’s not a straightforward answer, because it depends on so many different factors, even though the research that’s most often cited says 30 minutes per day. And in the last episode, I asked you to ask yourself some questions in order to try and understand what the optimum amount of time on social media each day would be for you personally.

[00:05:18] And one of those questions was, how does social media make you feel? And I promised that I would come back this week and really talk much more in depth about how social media impacts our mental health. And the reason I dedicated a whole episode to this is because it’s a huge topic. It’s a massive source of debate.

[00:05:42] Social media and mental health often makes the media headlines. And, to be honest, the biggest criticisms that are levelled at social media platforms are centered on its potential effects on our mental health. So, really what we want to try and understand is, are all the positive benefits of community, and connection, and education that social media platforms do give us, outweighed by the negative, and the damaging effects on our mental and emotional wellbeing?

[00:06:14] Is social media bad for your mental health? And if it is bad, how bad is it? And if it’s really, really that bad, do the social media platforms and our governments have a duty of care towards us, their users and their citizens? Do they need to protect us and protect our mental health? Or is it something that we need to manage ourselves?

[00:06:37] And it’s an interesting time to be talking about this. Depending on when this episode comes out, but at least at the time of recording, in the UK we have an online safety bill that is on the cusp of becoming law. And the Online Safety Bill aims to make the online space safer by imposing rules on tech companies that will hopefully keep inappropriate and potentially dangerous content away from vulnerable eyes.

[00:07:02] It’s mainly an attempt to safeguard children. It wants to protect them from self-harm material, eating disorder content, cyberbullying and harassment. Slightly more serious illegal things, like child sexual abuse and images connected with that. Stopping underage children from being able to create social media accounts, which might expose them to grooming or other content that they shouldn’t really be seeing.

[00:07:29] Right the way through to selling drugs and weapons, or inciting or planning terrorism, as I said, sexual exploitation and grooming, hate speech, internet scams, revenge porn. Like, there’s actually quite a lot of bad stuff online and on social media. But, controversially, one of the proposals in the Online Safety Bill could actually force social media platforms to check private chats for this illegal content.

[00:07:59] And that undermines the messaging encryption that is currently in place on platforms like WhatsApp and Signal. Those encryptions stop messages from being seen by people outside the chat, including the people that work at WhatsApp and Signal, and all these platforms. And some of these platforms have even threatened to leave the UK if they’re forced to enable scanning texts and looking into private chats.

[00:08:22] So I’m going to be following it really closely to see what the privacy impact is and how it will be enforced, and whether that means that some of these tech companies will pack up and leave the UK. But I think it’s interesting to note that, although in practice it sounds like a really good move and a good thing to do to be protecting vulnerable people, especially children, from all of these horrible, toxic, nasty things that are online, there is opposition to it.

[00:08:47] Mainly that opposition does come from the tech companies and some of it is around privacy. But there is also a lot of support. People do think that the government and the tech companies have this duty of care. The thing I find really interesting is that lots of things are bad for you that are not banned or restricted, and sometimes these bans or restrictions are applied in a way that doesn’t even make any sense.

[00:09:12] Alcohol is bad for you in any quantity. A lot of us still drink, myself included, right? Alcohol is not banned. Smoking is bad for you. Smoking is not banned. We just put pictures, at least in the UK, we put pictures of dying lungs and dying organs on the packets, and tell people that’s really bad for you, you shouldn’t do it.

[00:09:31] At the moment, we are, at least in the UK, on the verge of, if it’s not happened already by the time this episode comes out, putting a ban on vapes. Again, mostly because of beliefs surrounding the damaging effects on children and how they think it’s kind of being marketed at children. And it’s interesting that vapes have already been banned or restricted in Australia, in Germany, in New Zealand, and in France.

[00:09:55] So there is this kind of uncoordinated or seemingly chaotic approach to what the government will or won’t get involved in, when it comes to health. And so I kind of find myself asking, why are we now looking at social media? Why are we looking at social media and why are we looking at it now?

[00:10:16] And I think what it really comes down to, especially if you look at some of the testimonies or the quotes from people who are supporting the Online Safety Bill, is that the experience that people are having connected with mental health and social media is significant, even if the research isn’t.

[00:10:34] People that are supporting the bill include charities, they are the victims of cyberbullying, and revenge porn, and sexual abuse. And, really sadly, even bereaved parents who say that harmful content has contributed towards their child’s deaths. And so, even if we put some of the commercial realities of putting this Online Safety Bill in place and having potentially tech companies leave the UK space, it’s really hard because there is no real consensus.

[00:11:05] There’s no definitive piece of research that unequivocally says social media is bad for your mental health, even if the experience suggests otherwise. And in fact, some of the findings on the effects of social media on mental health actually contradict one another. So, if you’re confused by conflicting headlines, then it’s not you. And it actually goes back years, and I think that we kind of need to unpick that a little bit.

[00:11:32] Sometimes the research is joint research, so for example in 2012, Facebook and Cornell University researchers were able to manipulate users’ moods by changing the content in their newsfeeds. Now, that’s obviously sort of ethically dubious. Technically it was legal, but the team didn’t get informed consent from users to start messing with their feeds. And so that research, when it was published, triggered loads and loads of criticism around about 2014.

[00:12:01] What that incident shows, is that there is actually so much information that social media companies can and do collect on their users, if they’ve got enough to be able to mess around with what you see, and have such a significant impact on your mental health and your mood.

[00:12:19] More recently than that, a few years ago, there was a leak. So, the Wall Street Journal published some internal research from Meta, which is the Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp parent company. It published internal research that was leaked by a whistleblower, and that research, and the slides that they shared, found that Instagram harmed the wellbeing of teenage girls.

[00:12:41] There were all these internal slides and this data showing that Instagram was linked with issues like anxiety, depression, suicidal thought, and body image issues. Now, unsurprisingly, it was a leak, Meta got very defensive and they minimised and dismissed their own findings. They said that the data was subjective, that it was taken out of context. They even put up their own version of the leaked slides, and I’ll see if I can link them in the show notes.

[00:13:10] But they put up their own version, which had annotations around all of the slides and data to try and give more context. But if you look at the annotations, they basically argue the point that I’m about to make, which is that the data is based on subjective perceptions of the research participants themselves.

[00:13:29] So, they were questioned through questionnaires, and conversations, and surveys. It’s a subjective perception of how you think the platform is impacting you. It doesn’t actually examine cause and effect or look at how frequently these negative thoughts and feelings come up. But it’s still worrying because it means that the tech companies, or at least Meta, are aware of the potential mental health impacts that their platforms are having.

[00:13:57] And in 2021, there were even court filings in the US showing that employees at Meta were aware of the harmful effects of their platforms, including Instagram, right before they chose to defund mental health teams that they have working within the business. And the whistleblower who was responsible for this, Frances Haugen or Haugen, I’m not sure how you pronounce it.

[00:14:20] Frances shared tons of documents about internal operations. And those documents show how much Meta or Facebook already knows about the impact of its platform on users. It knows how algorithm changes can make conversations on the platform angrier and more sensationalised. It knows how the platform can push users towards extremism.

[00:14:42] So, even if we don’t think that the government has a responsibility towards its citizens, certainly I would argue that the social media companies, the tech companies, if they have this knowledge and it’s, I think, quite clear cut or at least pointing in a certain direction, that they do have a responsibility towards their users.

[00:15:01] And the thing is even independent research doesn’t really create a clear picture either. Recently, this year in August 2023, a study had come out by the Oxford Internet Institute looking at how wellbeing changed in 72 countries as the use of Facebook grew in those countries. That study, when it was reported on in the press, had several different headlines, and I’ll give you a selection.

[00:15:26] So, the BBC’s headline said, “Facebook’s growth not linked to psychological harm, study finds.” Sky News said, “Facebook might actually benefit mental health, new study suggests.” And the Metro, which is a paper in the UK, said, “Facebook, not bad for wellbeing. In fact, it’s good, says Oxford University.” And the problem is, is that these headlines are misleading.

[00:15:54] If you do go on to read the articles that talk a bit more about what the study investigated and what the authors have commented themselves in their analyses, you’ll see that it’s not as clear cut. But who reads anything except the headlines these days? When you dig deeper into that study, you find out that although the study wasn’t funded by Facebook and the researchers at the Oxford Institute were independent, the data was provided by Facebook, and that data covers a period of time from 2008 to 2019. So, the data is already four years old.

[00:16:31] You also discover that it looks at overall impact on wellbeing at a national level. They are really broad brush findings, they don’t show the impact on groups of people with particular vulnerabilities. So what this means, is it might miss negative impacts that could be quite significant for a small group of users, because this gets offset by positive impacts on larger groups of users, who make up a bigger proportion of the people studied in this research.

[00:16:59] For example, it doesn’t look at young people as a separate group, and by and large, children are not really using Facebook. It’s not the cool platform anymore. Facebook gave the researchers data and they divided all their users into two age brackets, 13 to 34 years old, and over 35. There is obviously a huge discrepancy between what someone who is 15 and 16 might be doing or might be impacted by, versus someone who is 32, 33, 34. You cannot lump them all together. And it also doesn’t mean that everyone over 35 has got the same set of experiences either. So this grouping gives you really huge discrepancies.

[00:17:45] The data also found there was slightly more positive association with Facebook use for males, as well as for younger people. But again, it’s defining younger people as anyone under 35, it’s quite broad. It doesn’t try to examine the risks that are presented by different types of content. So a funny meme is going to have a much different risk profile to material that’s promoting self-harm.

[00:18:09] And it’s very much like many other studies, a descriptive study. It doesn’t say anything about cause and effect. We don’t know how, if, or to what extent changes in Facebook use drives changes in mental wellbeing. But, as I said, who reads the articles? We just read the headlines.

[00:18:29] And I say all this to say, that I’m not going to spend this episode sharing facts and figures and trying to quantify the scale and the scope of the problem. In my very humble opinion, it’s not that important. The mere fact that it is a problem, that mental health issues are being associated with social media and what we do about it, as individuals, is the point.

[00:18:58] But before we get into that, I do want to be clear about why the narratives are so contradictory. Because you might feel conflicted by the things that you’ve read, and there will be people I’m sure offering a very different viewpoint that they will argue is based on the research. And the trouble, in my opinion, is that that research undermines what I know to be true from my own experience, and the experience of countless other people.

[00:19:24] So if we think about some of those studies that I’ve just described, whether it is the joint research between the platform and independent researchers, whether it is internal research that gets leaked, or whether it’s independent external research, you’ve already seen that there’s massive variability in what’s being investigated, and how and by who.

[00:19:45] Some of the studies, not the ones that we’ve talked about, but some of the studies will investigate causation, so cause and effect. And others will just investigate correlation, so is there a link or an association? But so many of them are flawed in the way that they’re designed and they don’t control for all the other variables that might impact the end results of the study, and that affects how much we can rely on what we find from those studies.

[00:20:12] And in trying to understand correlation and causation, so cause and effect, we have to look at the differences in the way that we collect and analyse data. So, the way that the studies are designed. Some studies will use what’s known as a univariate analysis and others will use bivariate or multivariate analysis.

[00:20:32] And I have to say here that statistics is not my bag at all, but stick with me because I think this is important to try and understand, and wrap your head around. Univariate analysis is basically the simplest form of analysis that we can do. You have data that just has one variable, so that variable might be a category, it might be age, it could be gender.

[00:20:55] And when you just look at one variable, you’re not dealing with causes or relationships. The main purpose of this type of analysis is just to describe the data and find patterns that exist within it. So if we take gender or age as our examples, you wouldn’t be looking at these two at the same time, and you wouldn’t be looking at the relationship between them either.

[00:21:17] Which means that you might conclude that, on average, more women using social media say they feel depressed than men, or more younger users say that they feel depressed than users over 60. But you wouldn’t be able to determine if a 15 year-old male was more or less likely to be at risk of depression than a 65 year-old female, based on the way that the data is collected and analysed.

[00:21:41] So we need more studies that are set up with bivariate analysis to find out if there’s a relationship between two different variables. So, something like, does anxiety increase with time spent on social media? And if we want to go even further, we need more multivariate style studies, where we look at the relationship between three or more variables. So, does anxiety increase with time spent on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, three completely separate platforms.

[00:22:13] And this choice of analysis is important because it really impacts the options that we give to the people that are participating in the studies. And depending on the options that they’re given, that can really have an impact on their perceptions and the way that they report their emotional states when responding to the questions in their study.

[00:22:32] These emotional states might not be opposites. They might represent different states along a spectrum. So, if you’re asked whether you feel anxious or not after using social media, which is two options, either yes, you do, or no, you don’t. It’s really different to being asked to rate your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10, or being asked how often you feel anxious after being on specific social media platforms.

[00:22:58] And this is really key because so many of these studies, almost exclusively in fact, involve people self-reporting on the state of their own mental health. Which means that there’s a massive amount of subjectivity already involved. And that makes it harder, depending on the way the study is designed, for researchers to actually standardise and categorise the results across multiple different studies.

[00:23:24] That’s made even worse by the fact that all of these studies seem to investigate the effects in different demographics, so different groups of people. They use different definitions of social media. Sometimes they focus on an individual platform like Facebook or Instagram, in some of the studies that we’ve talked about. Sometimes their definition of social media is multiple different platforms.

[00:23:47] And that all makes it really difficult for us to make cross-comparisons between studies, in order to basically validate and verify, and be able to replicate results and have some confidence in what we think it’s telling us about the relationship between social media and mental health.

[00:24:02] As you’ve also already seen, some of the studies are conducted by or funded by social media companies with data that is provided by themselves to researchers. And the optimist in me says that they want to understand what’s happening and contribute towards better understanding and user safety improvements in future, which is essentially what Meta said about the leaked Instagram slides.

[00:24:25] The realist in me believes that there’s always going to be a slight bias and a slight hidden agenda, because these companies have commercial and reputational interests to protect. Their whole business model, as I discussed in Episode 13, is dependent on people looking at content from as many people, for as long as possible, for as many hours a day as they can get. So there’s always going to be a slight conflict of interest there.

[00:24:52] And, as you’ve already seen, technology is moving so fast that by the time research is published, the landscape can have changed so significantly that the results are really not that helpful, especially when we know that the popularity of various social media platforms rises and falls.

[00:25:08] I think there is still a really huge user base on Facebook, but we need to understand the proliferation of newer platforms that have soared in popularity with, I’m going to get this wrong, I never know which one it is, but Gen Z. As the dominant platform that’s in use changes, and as all of these different platforms, including the older ones like Facebook, introduce new features, which might encourage us to engage more and spend more time, we don’t know if these features are for the benefit or the detriment of users’ mental health.

[00:25:43] Sometimes they are. Being allowed to turn off comments or turn off the visibility of likes changes the experience completely. It changes something that really can impact your mental health as a user on a lot of social media platforms. But there are also other things like viral looping vertical video, which obviously became super popular on TikTok, and then was adopted by all the other platforms. So, Facebook and Instagram have reels, YouTube has shorts. Something like that, which sends the amount of time that people spend on these platforms back up, needs to be investigated because that has a different impact on mental health.

[00:26:18] And there are also discrepancies in the time period that some of this data is collected in. Some of the studies collect data right in the moment. They’ll ask you how you feel immediately before, or after, or during using a platform. And some of them are collecting data over time in what’s known as a longitudinal study.

[00:26:36] And that actually might provide a more accurate picture of the cumulative effects of social media use on mental health. Because, as you know from previous episodes, we’ve been talking about these dopamine-driven feedback loops that encourage you to spend more and more of your time on social media. And so that could mean that a snapshot of how social media is making you feel today is actually pretty meaningless versus seeing the bigger picture.

[00:26:59] What does it mean if you actually spend several hours a day once versus spending several hours a day over a 30 day, a 60 day, a 90 day period? So we really need to see that bigger picture. And I think it’s also important to distinguish between the damage that we’re aware of when we feel a certain way in the moment, or we’re very obviously suffering with a mood disorder like depression or anxiety, and the damage that is much more subtle or that we might think is not really something to be worried about in the moment or in the short term. But, cumulatively, over time, is chipping away at our mental health and can become a much bigger source of concern further down the line.

[00:27:43] And I think if you start to think about what might cause you, as an individual, to give a certain answer to how social media makes you feel mentally, emotionally, you’ll also realise something else that the studies don’t capture. These studies aren’t sensitive to the type of content and the context in which it appears. So, if you were to see a stat, let’s say, that says there is a new post about self-harm on social media every 15 seconds, quite naturally you might feel alarmed by that. 15 seconds is a lot.

[00:28:16] But posts about self-harm can take many forms. They could be a cry for help, and the person that posted that post might get a lot of support after posting, and that can actually be a positive thing for their mental health. Seeing something like that could also be a really scarring or traumatic experience for the people that see the post. And, at a more extreme end, people could be posting and providing full blown instructions for how to harm yourself, which obviously in the wrong hands, or in any hands, could be completely disastrous.

[00:28:48] As someone who has personally experienced both depression and anxiety, I can attest to this. Because I can tell you that one of the Instagram accounts that I follow, @realdepressionproject – it’s the account of the Real Depression Project, I’ll link it in the show notes – I think, as an account, it’s an incredible source of support that I don’t think I would have found without social media.

[00:29:09] It was started originally as a Facebook page by two Australian brothers, one of whom has suffered from depression for a few years, and the other one who is a professional counsellor. They give really scientifically sound information, but their posts also really make me feel seen and they make me feel understood. They help me to articulate things that I’m thinking and I’m feeling, and they provide support tools for managing depression for both the people that are experiencing it, and those people that are around them.

[00:29:38] And their posts have been viewed over 10 billion times, which tells you that that support is needed, and it’s used, and that social media can be a force for good in mental health. I don’t want you to think that it’s all doom and gloom. Social media has definitely improved our access to other people’s experiences and also increased our access to expert health information. We’re able to read about, or watch, or listen to these experiences and, as I said, it helps us to understand them better and relate them to our own experiences, and make sense of what’s going on in our own lives.

[00:30:13] And when we’ve got expert information, that can also help improve our own health literacy and can be the kick that we need that prompts us to access more expert health information or services. Because we understand that something isn’t quite right and that it’s okay for us to reach out for help.

[00:30:30] We can also get a tremendous amount of emotional support from the people in our lives or from a community of people that understand what we’re going through. All of these online conversations can happen when face-to-face support isn’t possible or even desirable. 7 out of 10 young users report receiving emotional support in tough or challenging times via social media.

[00:30:53] And, even if you just think back to temporary situations, so thinking back a few years to the pandemic when people were really feeling isolated, or they were living away from friends or family and they didn’t necessarily feel connected, and they were feeling low or they didn’t feel like talking about it. You had these social networks providing a way for them to get text-based support from other people.

[00:31:18] We were able to check in on each other. And even if you weren’t checking in on, or you weren’t talking to people that you knew, the existence of groups and pages centred around certain mental health themes allows a sense of connection with people that are like-minded, and a place where you can share thoughts or share concerns, despite being millions of miles away.

[00:31:40] Or, if you are part of a minority group, in an offline capacity, so let’s think about people that have got rare diseases, for example. There’s not going to be a lot of people around them that really understand and experience what they’re going through. There are people that are finding community online support for exploring their gender or their sexual identities, or we think about groups that formed based on ethnicity during the Black Lives Matter protests.

[00:32:06] Social media creates a space for these conversations to happen, for these communities to come together and work through things that are being presented to them. Challenges that are being presented in their everyday lives, for which they may not have the support immediately in their physical vicinity around them.

[00:32:24] And in a similar way, social media creates a space for self-expression and self-identity because, for the most part, you can represent yourself online, in your entirety, as accurately and positively as you like, by personalising your profiles and sharing content that expresses who you are and how you identify with the world around you.

[00:32:46] You don’t have to suppress that in a way that you may be forced to in your real life, in your immediate surroundings. And that identity that you give yourself is a really important part of development, especially for young people. And that healthy development is important for mental health and mental wellbeing. So from this perspective, social media is great.

[00:33:07] But we obviously can’t ignore the downside because there are downsides. What you see on social media, and therefore by extension what you experience by being there, is so personal. As we’ve already talked about, it’s a function of the algorithm. The algorithm is constantly updating itself based on who you follow and who you interact with. So how you think and feel, during and after using social media, is going to be highly dependent on the extent to which you do or don’t curate your feed and your followers.

[00:33:39] A couple of months ago, I was listening to Gary Vaynerchuk be interviewed on the Diary of a CEO podcast with Steven Bartlett. And he was saying that he doesn’t understand what people are talking about when they say that social media is a negative place that impacts on their mental health. He said his feed is lovely. It’s a really happy and really positive place, and that’s because it’s a function of who he follows and who he chooses to engage with. So the algorithm just keeps giving him more of the same, because it’s determined that this type of content is what’s most likely to keep him on the platform.

[00:34:11] But, if we’re honest, then most people don’t actually pay that much attention to or deliberately curate their feeds and their followers. When you first join a platform you might start out by following your friends and family, then you might follow your co-workers, you might follow a couple of brands that you like.

[00:34:30] But over time, you’ll find a really mixed bag of people that you don’t really know, or that you met that one time when you were at a barbecue. You follow people from the A list right through to the Z list. There are brands that you don’t actually recognise or remember following. Parody accounts. All sorts. And the thing is, who ever goes in and clears this all up?

[00:34:53] And of course, if you’re following negative, or cynical, or critical sarcastic accounts, like those that essentially promote negative thought patterns, or those that are promoting unattainable, airbrushed to perfection standards of beauty, then of course you’re going to keep seeing more of that. Which ends up creating a vicious cycle that’s really damaging to your mental health and self-esteem.

[00:35:18] And that’s the really obvious stuff, but it can be seemingly innocent or innocuous stuff too. And it’s something that it actually even took me a while to really register and realise. I have a couple of Instagram DMs with different groups of girlfriends, and in a few of those most, if not all of us, are single.

[00:35:39] As a heterosexual woman using Instagram, you’ll know it’s rife with trash talking about men, from quotes and memes, to little skits on reels. When you are single and you’re experiencing the not so fun world of dating apps, you can relate to a lot of that content. You’ve experienced the bad dates, you’ve experienced the toxic masculinity, the ghosting and the breadcrumbing. All the things that these posts are calling out.

[00:36:04] And so have your friends. So you end up sharing it with them in the DMs and then you all laugh about how real and relatable it is, and you chat about it. And then your friends share more similar content with you and you chat some more. And so Instagram basically starts thinking, well, you clearly just like to trash talk men.

[00:36:22] And so it keeps showing you more and more of this type of content. And they say that you do become your thoughts. I’m not saying that this is the reason that we’re all single. But I do think that it’s really reinforcing a very negative and unhelpful attitude towards men, and dating in general, if what you ultimately want is to get into a relationship.

[00:36:43] And I really didn’t realise that this was happening and really conceive of it as being a problem until I, at one time, was the only one in that group chat that was in a relationship. And suddenly all these posts weren’t relatable anymore. Yeah, I mean, they were kind of funny, but I just thought, you know, I’m really enjoying my experience of being in a relationship. I really care for my partner, this is not my experience anymore.

[00:37:06] But I was still getting shown all the same content, even outside of the DMs, just by the platform itself in my feed, because the algorithm was so trained on giving me what it thought I wanted. So you can see how there is a subtle undercurrent, I guess is the best way to put it, of things that are happening on social media that might impact your thought patterns, your thought processes, your emotions, and therefore your mental health.

[00:37:29] But if we put the smaller stuff to one side, I think the thing that really grabs people’s attention and grabs the headlines is the big mental health concerns when it comes to social media. And so, I want to spend the last bit of this episode really talking about that. What do you need to watch out for?

[00:37:46] And it’s important to recognise that many of these concerns, or these conditions, or whatever you want to call them, are interlinked and they feed off of or into each other. Mental health issues that are connected with social media appear to disproportionately affect younger people and women. So young girls are also, unsurprisingly, the most at risk.

[00:38:08] And this might be because the use of the main social media platforms is higher amongst women and younger users than it is amongst men to start with, but I would say that that makes it an even more pressing concern for this audience. So I would be vigilant, for yourself and for those around you, for any of the signs or symptoms of the following…

[00:38:28] The first is suicide and self injury. So thoughts of, or actual, harm, that most likely results from users experiencing one of the other mental health issues that I’m going to discuss, over a prolonged period of time without it being addressed. Again, there’s no cause proven, so there’s no data or research that says that social media causes suicide or it causes self injury and self-harm.

[00:38:55] But, there was a landmark inquest last year in the UK, in which the coroner ruled that a UK teenager named Molly Russell died not by suicide, but as the result of an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content. And when they looked at her devices, Molly had viewed masses of content related to suicide, depression, and anxiety.

[00:39:22] So this is obviously a really huge one. And if you, or anyone you know, is or is thinking about self-harming or experiencing suicidal thoughts, then this is an emergency. Don’t sleep on it. I will put the links to some sources of support in the show notes. You are not alone, and help is available. And if you don’t see something local to you, please, please get in touch with me; hello@thedigitaldietcoach.com, DM me on Instagram, just don’t give up. I will help you find the support that you need. Mental health is really very close to my heart.

[00:40:00] The other big watch out from social media is anxiety and sadness, low mood, depression. And again, we can’t definitively say that social media causes anxiety or depression because the research simply isn’t there, but I think we can say quite confidently that there is a correlation between them. Excessive use of social media has been linked to higher rates of depression, particularly in young people.

[00:40:26] Anxiety and depression, as words, are thrown around a lot these days. So not everyone who uses these words to describe how they’re feeling is having what would be classed as clinical anxiety or depression. Anxiety is a feeling of unease, like a worry or a fear. It can be mild, it can be severe. And everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life.

[00:40:49] So, for example, you might feel worried or anxious about sitting an exam, or having a medical test, or attending a job interview. During times like that, it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious. But some people find it really hard to control their worries and those feelings of anxiety are more constant, and they can start to affect their daily life.

[00:41:15] And in particular, because of the way in which information is so quickly and graphically shared on social media with no gatekeepers or warnings, sometimes and oftentimes with a lack of fact checking, the content that you may be consuming or you might be exposed to on social media can be anxiety-inducing and cause a lot of stress and distress. If not because of what it actually directly contains, then just simply because of the frequency with which you’re forced to keep seeing it.

[00:41:45] A lot of the content that was shared during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and during the height of the protests around the Black Lives Matter movement was really difficult and really traumatic to watch. But, for many of us, that’s all that there was. At various points in that period of time, we weren’t allowed to go outside. So we weren’t really spending time with people doing other things that we normally would. We were spending even more time than we were before scrolling through social media for updates and news, and sharing amongst our community some of the awful abuses that we came across under the guise of raising awareness.

[00:42:19] And it’s incredibly difficult to keep viewing this kind of content, or keep being exposed to acts of discrimination, without it making you feel anxious about what might happen to yourself, or those people that are around you. So anxiety really is something that I think skyrocketed in the last couple of years, as a result of social media and the content that we see there.

[00:42:41] Similarly, depression is more than simply just feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days. Most people in their lives will go through periods of feeling down, but when you’re depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months rather than just for a few days. And there are people that think that depression is trivial and that it’s not a genuine health condition. And I’m gonna say really clearly that they’re wrong.

[00:43:06] It’s a real illness. It has real symptoms. And depression isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s not something that you can just snap out of and, you know, pull yourself together. But it can be treated, it can be addressed, it can be managed with the right treatment and with the right support. And a lot of people that experience depression, myself included, can go on to recover from their depressive episodes or learn to manage depressive episodes in a way that means it’s less disruptive to their normal lives.

[00:43:35] So, if you think that you might be experiencing either anxiety or depression, go and talk to your doctor. A lot of people worry about wasting the time of medical professionals or they trivialise their feelings. And if this is you, and you, I don’t know, need a little bit of extra reassurance that what you’re experiencing qualifies you for that medical time and that help, you can also try taking the self-administered patient questionnaires.

[00:44:01] There’s the GAD-7, which is for anxiety, and the PHQ-9, which is around depression. And that will help you to get a sense of the severity and impact of the way that you’re feeling. It will help guide you towards understanding and not trivialising the things that you’re experiencing, and maybe give you a bit more confidence in going to seek out help.

[00:44:20] And as someone who’s experienced both anxiety and depression, and as someone who tends to retreat into myself during bad episodes and often end up relying only on social media for company and connection, I can honestly say that, barring a few accounts like the Real Depression Project that I was talking about earlier, spending time on social media doesn’t make me feel better. It actually makes me feel worse.

[00:44:44] Most of the good stuff that I can get from social media during those periods, so support or information, or just laughter and distraction from my own thoughts, can be accessed through other sources that wouldn’t necessarily expose me to some of the things that can make me feel worse. Which is basically seeing everyone else I know, and people that I don’t really know, living what looks like their best life and going out and about without a care in the world.

[00:45:12] When I don’t feel so good in my own skin, that really makes me feel more broken and it makes me feel like I’m a burden. And it’s something that ends up, well I’ve discovered, ended up, perpetuating these episodes of low mood, because you get stuck in a cycle. So that digital fatigue paradox that I spoke about in the last episode is really, really true.

[00:45:31] And even Instagram’s own findings suggest that most people are using Instagram to distract themselves when they’re having a hard time. So it’s really important to understand that, even if you do find support and help or things that you relate to and that resonate with you that help you to articulate how you’re feeling, I still think it’s worth seeking professional help from a medical professional.

[00:45:56] And it was really only when I was doing my coaching certification, and I was experiencing one of these episodes and one of these periods, that I had that awareness from trying to understand digital wellbeing and all the things that play into it. The awareness that I got from that helped me to consciously start changing my habits and it made a world of difference. It’s something that I talk about in one of my masterclasses because it was so profound.

[00:46:21] Forcing myself off social media and back into the real world to get healthier sources of dopamine and to break that vicious cycle was critical. But so was getting professional help. So if you suspect that you are experiencing depression, you suspect that you’re experiencing anxiety, both, please, please make an appointment to see your doctor or contact one of the support sources included in the show notes. It will really, really help you.

[00:46:47] The next sort of biggest issue centres around body image issues and self-esteem, and this is a huge one for women and for young girls. We’re already under so much pressure about the way that we look. For anyone that saw the Barbie movie in the summer, which is a big movie of the summer, you’ll remember America Ferrera’s big monologue. And that was so well received because it really articulated the mixed messages that we’re constantly receiving about the way that we should look as women.

[00:47:17] In that leaked Instagram slides that the Wall Street Journal published, we saw that 30% of teen girls in the Instagram survey felt that Instagram made dissatisfaction with their body worse. And there was one of the respondents, it was a British female that responded to the survey, and she was quoted as saying, “You can’t ever win on social media. If you’re curvy, you’re too busty. If you’re skinny, you’re too skinny. If you’re bigger, you’re too fat. But it’s clear that you need boobs, a booty, to be thin, to be pretty. It’s endless and you just end up feeling worthless and shitty about yourself.”

[00:47:54] And I think instinctively and intuitively a lot of us know and feel this. Even the most confident women can’t help but compare themselves to other women when they’re constantly bombarded with images of women that have had their clothes picked out and their hair and makeup done professionally, who’ve been then shot by a professional photographer with amazing studio lighting, and then that image has been photoshopped and filtered to death.

[00:48:19] It’s hard not to compare yourself and not to feel a certain type of way. And even if someone isn’t a professional, all the tools that are increasingly available on the platforms to filter and retouch our photos is affecting the way that the masses show up, especially with the growth in AI. You can literally even take a picture of yourself and make it look like you’re in a completely different body or in a completely different place.

[00:48:42] And we know that it’s not real, but it doesn’t stop us looking at ourselves differently and making comparisons, instead of celebrating the many shapes and sizes and shades that all of our bodies come in. And if you’re already feeling a bit self-conscious about the way that you look, so maybe you gained or you lost a little bit of weight, maybe you’re on your period and you feel bloated, maybe you’ve got a spot or you noticed four new grey hairs, whatever it is, being bombarded by these images of so-called perfection is obviously going to make you feel worse.

[00:49:15] But for some reason, we keep following and scrolling anyway. And in the most extreme cases, this sort of fixation on our body image can be a contributing factor to the development or worsening of eating disorders like bulimia, and anorexia, and other disordered eating patterns. It can lead to body shaming and psychological distress. It’s got people undergoing expensive and unnecessary, invasive cosmetic surgeries in a quest to conform to these really unrealistic beauty standards.

[00:49:47] And I’ve lost count now of the number of posts or videos I’ve seen about botched surgeries of people travelling to, I think, Turkey and Cyprus, and some of these other places. Where, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are legitimate clinics, but they’re traveling because it’s cheaper to get these cosmetic surgeries there and it’s going wrong.

[00:50:05] I think there was one really massive controversial one the other day, where this woman basically realised that she’d gone for BBL, for a Brazilian butt lift, I think that’s what it stands for. She’d gone for a BBL and then realised that they’d taken one of her kidneys. It’s hard not to believe that social media doesn’t have a role to play in shaping the way that that woman felt about her own body image, to the extent that she then believed that this is something that she needed to do.

[00:50:32] And I spoke in Episode 2 also about the promotion and the proliferation of weight loss drugs. So there’s a drug called semaglutide, which is marketed under various different brand names, and it was developed for patients with type 2 diabetes and obesity. And yet somehow it’s fallen into the hands of everyday women, and celebrities, and influencers. And all of these people are really happy to flaunt their super skinny bodies and push the products, but they don’t talk about the very real and serious side effects.

[00:51:00] And I think without social media, a lot of that exposure wouldn’t be as possible, or at the very least it wouldn’t be as widespread. So I think social media has a lot to answer for when it comes to body image and self-esteem. But social comparison isn’t just about the way that you look.

[00:51:16] It can be about perceptions of the life that everyone else around you is living. It can be about their educational or career achievements. It can be about the family milestones, so getting engaged, and getting married, and having kids. It can be about the financial status that you think they have based on the number of holidays that you see them taking, or the houses they buy, or the cars they’re driving.

[00:51:38] And all of that can make you feel a certain type of way too. Everyone knows that social media is a highlight reel. When we post ourselves, most of the time it’s highly curated to perfection. But that doesn’t stop us from believing that everyone else’s lives are 100% fabulous, 100% of the time based on the content that they post. And so, by extrapolation, we conclude that our lives aren’t what they should be and they may even be subpar.

[00:52:08] But if you think about it, it’s just not normal to have this much of an instantaneous window into everyone else’s existence. And it breeds masses of discontentment and creates self-doubt that slowly erodes our self-esteem. And the thing is, the only way to mitigate the effects of social comparison is to get off social media. But of course, you’ll know from listening to the previous few episodes that this is much harder in practice than simply putting down the phone and walking away, because of the way that your neurobiology has been hacked.

[00:52:38] Another big issue that can impact mental health is cyberbullying. 7 out of 10 young people say that they’ve experienced cyberbullying and 37% of them, which is a huge number, say that it’s happened on a high frequency basis. Social media has given bullies constant contact. It’s given them the opportunity to abuse their victims from afar, outside of school hours when it comes to young people, and instant messaging has made it possible for you to rapidly spread hateful messages within networks.

[00:53:11] And the end result is the victims of this bullying are much more likely, if they’re young, to experience poor academic performance, but in general more likely to experience depression and anxiety, self-harm, loneliness, all these things that we’ve already talked about. Which, if you’re young in particular, again, affects your personal and social development, potentially affecting you in later life.

[00:53:34] Cyberbullying and online harassment doesn’t just happen to kids, as we’ve said. People can be very quick to pile into the comments section and pass judgement or critique people that they don’t know for their actions or words. We can be quick to share pictures and footage that was never designed for public consumption but suddenly goes viral, putting a spotlight and throwing attention on someone that never really wanted that attention.

[00:53:58] I’ve seen people argue that celebrities put themselves in the spotlight so they’re fair game. But it does happen to ordinary people too and that’s without getting into the issues of free speech, and people sharing what is effectively hate speech towards certain groups in society without fearing any repercussions. Because social media platforms don’t, in my view at least, appear to be doing enough to combat this type of content.

[00:54:24] And I’ll be talking about why we’re all so mean and so extroverted online, in ways that we wouldn’t dare to be in person, during next week’s episode. Because, again, another big topic and quite a fascinating one. But a big component of it is the distance, and the anonymity and dehumanisation of people online. So we forget that there is a real life human with feelings on the other side of the screen, reading, and absorbing, and taking to heart the things that are being said about them.

[00:54:52] Now, I’d imagine that my listeners are really, really lovely people, and we’ll talk about regulating our own social media behaviour in more detail next week. But if you do witness cyberbullying, report it to the platforms, whether it is specific posts, or it’s specific users persistently harassing or bullying other people. It’s currently the only way that anything can be done.

[00:55:14] And maybe even consider reaching out to the person that’s affected privately because a little bit of kindness really goes a long way. It’s just a personal opinion, but I always advise against jumping into the comments as an act of defence because it’s often futile and it falls on deaf ears, so you’re just wasting a lot of energy.

[00:55:33] And it’s somewhat related to this because people that are experiencing a lot of harassment and bullying do tend to kind of retreat and feel quite isolated and alone. But, loneliness is actually one of the biggest mental health concerns for social media users. For all of the connection, and interaction, and engagement that the platforms enable between users, people feel lonelier than they ever have before.

[00:55:57] And there are lots of reasons for this, which we will explore in a couple of episodes’ time, as part of this series. But even if you are not being bullied or harassed, these feelings of isolation and loneliness can still arise because you’re spending hours a day on social media as a substitute for real life connections. Because what it means is that you’re not investing as much time in developing and nurturing your friendships and relationships offline.

[00:56:24] And when that happens, you can start to feel disconnected from people that are actually in your real life, but feel artificially close to people that you don’t really know, because you have this window into their day to day lives, and maybe exchanged a few messages via social media. And when you then don’t get invited into the real lives of your social media friends, it can leave you feeling rejected.

[00:56:47] So, let’s say you see pictures of a party that you haven’t been invited to, even though you’re following or connected to everyone that attended. It’s a completely extreme and made up example, but you can see how this could lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, and feelings of depression and anxiety. So, you can start to see how all of these experiences and emotions are interlinked, and how precious our mental health is. How easily it can be affected by these different interactions on social media.

[00:57:18] Before we close out, it would be remiss of me not to mention social media addiction itself as a specific mental health problem. As with depression and anxiety, the term is thrown about a little bit more freely than it should be. I include myself in that; I’m pretty sure I’ve described myself as being addicted to social media in the past. But social media addiction is a very specific problem that requires professional help in the same way that substance addictions do.

[00:57:45] Someone is addicted to social media if it’s totally consuming their life, and all their resources and all their time are being directed towards social media, whatever the cost. It’s excessive and compulsive use of social media that is uncontrollable, even when that use is having an impact on other areas of that person’s life.

[00:58:06] It might be causing really noticeable mood changes. You might see that there are withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop using social media. And even the excessive use might be a source of conflict in your life with the other people around you, because they think that you’re spending too much time there. Which might mean that your relationships are breaking down, it might mean that you don’t care about or you’re not showing up for work on time, or at all. You could be spending money in pursuit of spending more time on social media. You could be failing to keep up with your normal responsibilities, like running a household and paying bills, or just even maintaining basic hygiene.

[00:58:47] Social media addiction is a behavioural addiction. It’s very serious and it’s problematic. When social media has got to the point that it’s causing that much disruption in a person’s regular life, and potentially causing disruption for the people around them, it’s something to be taken seriously.

[00:59:05] Now, thankfully, that isn’t most of us. As I said, a lot of us throw around the term quite casually, without really understanding that it has real connotations. Psychologists estimate that between 5-10% of US citizens would meet the criteria for a social media addiction, so it’s probably not you if you’re listening to this. But if you are concerned that this sounds like you, or it sounds like someone you know, then again, do seek help.

[00:59:31] I’ll put some links in the show notes because this is very much something that there is a growing awareness of amongst the healthcare community, and there are constant efforts to develop more interventions and support. So the space is constantly evolving and, again, there is help available.

[00:59:48] If you’ve resonated with any of these feelings, or thoughts, or experiences, or conditions, then you’re probably wondering if you should be on social media at all. Or whether there’s a way to stay on social media and stop or limit the effects that it’s having on your mental health. And I hate to sound like a stuck record, but stick with the series. I will be covering all of those things and more in some of the upcoming episodes.

[01:00:12] In the meantime, I think part of understanding what the right course of action is for you, is understanding the extent to which social media is impacting your mental health, and the frequency with which it is doing it. So that you can make an informed decision about how you’ll use social media moving forward.

[01:00:30] A single suicidal thought connected with your use of social media is one thought too many. Whereas feeling a little bit lonely or a little bit anxious from time to time, or having the odd moment of self-consciousness about your body, is likely to mean that you don’t need to be as drastic. Especially if there are also positive benefits to your life and your mental health from the way you’re using social media.

[01:00:54] So before we wrap up, it’s time for this week’s challenge, which I hope will help you to assess the situation for yourself. I challenge you to spend the next week journalling about your social media use and how it makes you feel. Each day, I want you to take 5-10 minutes and write down what thoughts and emotions are coming up for you, as a result of the time that you’ve spent on social media.

[01:01:17] And make sure that you note down which particular platforms you’ve been using and how long you’ve spent on them. If you find it easier, you can use smiley or sad faces, or make a scale from 1 to 10 to represent how you’re feeling or how you rate your mental health on any given day. But after 7 days have passed, I want you to review what you’ve written or what you’ve scored yourself, and look for patterns.

[01:01:41] Are there certain thoughts or feelings that are coming up again and again when you’re using specific platforms? Are there certain thoughts or feelings that you see are associated with viewing specific types of content? Do you see any links between the amount of time you’re spending on social media and your corresponding mood?

[01:02:01] And I think it’s important to point out and remember that we all have, as humans, a negativity bias. And I’m fully aware that in this episode we’ve been focused on a lot of the negative mental health impacts of social media, but we have touched on some of the positive effects too. So make sure that, as much as possible, you note down any positive experiences you have too, like connecting with friends or family, or laughing at cat videos, and how this has made you feel.

[01:02:27] Because you can then reflect on these patterns to try to identify which parts of your social media experience are serving you and supporting your mental health, and which ones aren’t. And you might then consider changing your behaviours to stop, or at least restrict or limit, the way that you use social media.

[01:02:45] This is going to be super individual and super personal, but you probably will find that you’re not alone and I, of course, am always really curious to hear about your experiences and what you find. So, the place to let me know what you discover,, and to connect with other listeners taking part in the challenge, and discuss all the things that we’ve talked about in this episode is, of course, The Digital Diet Lounge, my dedicated community space for all things digital wellness.

[01:03:12] I will put a link to it in the show notes, and you can find the show notes over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/017. That’s it for this week’s episode. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it, as always. And that I’ve helped you to understand what social media may or may not be doing to your mental health, and why you may be reading conflicting narratives in the media.

[01:03:37] But most importantly, with the challenge, because we’re all about actions, hopefully I’ve given you a way to assess whether your personal social media experience is damaging your personal mental health, so that you can start to become more conscious and intentional about the way that you use your favourite platforms.

[01:03:55] I’ll be back next week to talk in more depth about how we behave on social media, and why even the nicest of us seem to find our inner Regina George and get all mean girls when we go online. So make sure that you subscribe, or follow, or whatever the button says on the platform that you’re listening on, so that you don’t miss a thing.

[01:04:13] I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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