The Role of Social Media in Mental Illness

Those involved in the media know that fear sells; shocking headlines and sensationalist language grab and hold the reader’s attention. So when we are warned of a “depression epidemic” or “mental health crisis,” scepticism is understandable. Nevertheless, the statistics really are unnerving. According to the World Health Organisation, for example, the rates of depression increased by nearly twenty per cent between 2005 and 2015! If such statistics are accurate, the obvious question is what has changed? The financial crash of 2008 no doubt played its part, as has our increasing willingness to discuss mental illness. But the rise of social media may also be partly to blame.

Social Media

Before looking at its effects, it may be worth clarifying just what social media is and is not. “Media” is the plural of “medium” and refers to tools of communication. When the first newspaper was printed (in Germany in 1605) it was a new form of media, as was the first wireless and TV set. The Internet is thus an additional instrument of communication, or “media.” The “social” part refers to the sharing of that information. So the different web-based forms of social media enable people to communicate and interact by exchanging and consuming information.

Social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have certain things in common. First, the user has his or her own account, allowing them to share information and interact with other users. Next, most will have a profile page. This is a form of self-representation, usually comprising photos, a short biography, and so on. Then there is the “news feed.” When people connect with others on social media, they are declaring their intention to give and receive information. The news feed is the means by which this information is updated. So-called “like buttons” are also common, allowing people to up or down vote comments, photos etc.

The Gap Between Fantasy and Reality

The most obvious problem with social media is that you see and read mostly the edited highlights of people’s lives. Take Facebook, for example. Rarely do you see a photograph of someone first thing in the morning: no make-up, frizzy hair, inflamed skin. Instead, there they are in a designer dress, setting off for a wedding or dinner party, all smiles and confidence. Next, a photo of the loving couple laughing together in some vacation paradise. Again, you don’t see the bitter row at the airport, or their child throwing a tantrum as they strap him into his aeroplane seat, or the disgusting food at the hotel! In other words, you do not see real life.

And yet, though most people know this, it is still difficult not to fall for the fantasy. Just as propaganda works through a drip, drip effect, so social media, with its endless photos of perfect families squinting into the sun and children graduating from smart colleges, wears people down and persuades them that everyone else is living a far happier and more fulfilling life than they really are.

As a result, they either feel so inferior that they hardly bother to post anything themselves, or they try to compete, doing just what everyone else does – putting up a highlight reel! But this can also backfire. If you feel unhappy, you need to be honest about it, to talk face to face with those who love and care about you, to shed a tear, feel them squeeze your hand or pat you on the back. Putting up photos of you smiling with a man you no longer love or doing a job you hate will just intensify your loneliness and misery.

Of course, people have always put a positive spin on their lives. But doing so face to face opens up the possibility of empathy, humor and self-mockery. If you sense the other person may be sympathetic, or is having a hard time themselves, you are more likely to be honest. When you live and communicate through social media, however, such honesty (like a good moan with your neighbor about your husbands or kids) is harder to find and harder to practise.

Of course, people don’t only follow their friends and neighbors on social media. They also follow their favorite celebrities, which only intensifies the fantasy. Teenage girls are especially vulnerable. Again, this is nothing new. Even in the 1920s and 1930s teenage girls must have been awed and belittled by the beautiful Hollywood actresses on the local cinema screen. But at least they couldn’t follow the day to day lives of these flawless beauties on Instagram and Twitter, as they sunbathe on luxury yachts, collect awards, date film actors and stumble out of exclusive parties. Every day, a simple message is being reinforced: you and your life are inferior and inadequate.

It is worth adding that such fantasizing does not only involve life in the here and now. Social media also encourages mawkish nostalgia, with people posting photos of themselves at school or college, tagged with comments like “great days” and “what fun we had.” As usual, there are the smiling groups of friends, the college graduation day, the sunny vacations. In consequence, the viewer not only feels the present is disappointing but that their whole life has been inadequate!

The Loss of Intimacy

It is a bitter irony of the information age that though we communicate with a wider circle of people than ever before, we feel more isolated and alone. The essential problem is that social media allows us to skim the surface. Instead of having two or three close, intimate friends, many now have a couple of hundred Facebook followers, many of whom they barely know and never see. And the communication that does occur is fake and inauthentic. When you chat to someone on social media, you are aware that others are watching, or that the person you are chatting with may show your photos and messages to someone else. So, once again, you edit, even presenting a fake, idealized version of your problems!

Of course, some would dispute this, pointing out that just because someone commiserates or empathises through online comments and emoticons, that doesn’t mean they aren’t reaching out to you. This may be true, but the simple fact is that human beings did not evolve to communicate via social media. Intimacy depends on more than language. We establish intimacy through touch, facial expressions, tone of voice, and even smell.

The Age of the Narcissist

In his recent book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Will Stoor argues that if the self really is “a story,” as is often claimed, then that story is a lie – and a harmful one. Unfortunately, this view of life as a journey in which we take the star role has been encouraged by social media, potentially creating a generation of narcissists.

The selfie craze, for example, which began when the iPhone added a front-facing camera in 2010, has only intensified this narcissism. In the 1950s and ’60s, when cameras became popular and affordable, people would photograph someone else, often their partner, friends, or children. They would then wait a few weeks before getting them developed. Now, people photograph themselves, instantly upload it to their social media site, and then wait for others to comment – which they do, usually with fake enthusiasm and insincere praise! They have become their own paparazzi and created their own glossy celebrity magazine, only with themselves as the star. Many social media sites also feature a timeline, for example, or a profile page in which you can list all your achievements, from college degrees to the places you’ve worked. Some people even arrange their photos in chronological order.

All of this reinforces the idea that your life is an important journey, one others must be told about. Unfortunately, that often leads to what psychiatrists call inflation, where the ego swells and the individual comes to see his life as special and important. Of course, that does not mean you should take the opposite view. Good mental health depends on balance: valuing and liking yourself, but also recognizing how brief, fragile, and insignificant your life really is. The more wrapped up you are in your own successes and failures, the more likely you are to be miserable. If, on the other hand, you can lose yourself in the beauty of nature, the changing of the seasons, the wonders of science and art, you will be happy.

People will slump into the therapist’s chair exclaiming “I’m not happy,” “my life hasn’t turned out as I expected” or “I’m just not where I want to be.” No doubt there are times when the therapist longs to reply “What do you expect!? You’re not here to be happy! You evolved to live long enough to pass on your genes, that’s it. Anything else is a bonus. The vast majority of your ancestors were lucky to reach 40. Just be grateful for the brief privilege of conscious existence.” In other words, we have a distorted view of what life really is – and social media is feeding this.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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