• Health & Wellness
Garrett McKenzie

Ella Laski '24 discusses social media's impact on mental health.  

Out of all the inventions of the 21st century, social media has become one of the most prevalent and at times, necessary in day-to-day life. Nearly every part of our lives is online now, and communication is no exception. According to a Pew Research Report, 72% of American adults have at least one social media account, as of 2019 (Pew Research).

The rise of social media, propelled by platforms like Facebook and Twitter, has been heralded as being able to connect people all over the world, and make it easier to find lost friends. It is all the more surprising then, that many have called out social media for making people less social. It is this puzzling paradox, which appears to have alarming consequences, that forms the basis for one of the most pressing modern debates: what is the true mental health impact of social media?

“What party?”
One of the first main arguments against social media is that it creates an unhealthy “fear of missing out,” or “FOMO.” This feeling is nothing new, but many say that its effect is exacerbated by social networks. As social animals, we want to feel included, thus feeling more valued. Missing out on an event can lead to a sense of feeling lost or purposefully shunned, regardless of whether or not it is true. Furthermore, when those closest to us take part in something we did not, we feel even more distanced.

It’s not like being left out of an event, either intentionally or unintentionally, is anything new. However, there was never a way to find out; no mechanism that allowed everyone to see who was and wasn’t included. Social media has filled this gap, and the mental health ramifications are very real.

One statement from McLean Hospital’s website says: “Missing experiences can create anxiety and depression. When people look online and see they’re excluded from an activity, it can affect thoughts and feelings, and can affect them physically. A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance. Social media use can affect users’ physical health even more directly. Researchers know the connection between the mind and the gut can turn anxiety and depression into nausea, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors." (McLean Hospital) This statement demonstrates the powerful impact of social media use.

Furthermore, teenagers and adolescents, who make up the bulk of social media users and whose minds are still developing, are even more susceptible to these unhealthy mental and emotional side effects. However, this is only one of the negative impacts of social media.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software,”  said Edward Tufte.

Another problem that has arisen with the growth of social media is people becoming addicted to it, much in the same way that they might get addicted to alcohol or drugs. Five-10 percent of adults in the U.S. meet the criteria for a clinical social media addiction, not including the many people everyday who don’t necessarily qualify, but still miss out on valuable in-person experiences in lieu of virtual ones (Addiction Center). This is due to social media being designed to be addicting. During social media use, the brain receives rushes of dopamine, thereby creating an action-reward pairing, with a likelihood for repeated behavior. This process is the same that people go through when becoming addicted to other stimulants, and the symptoms are nearly identical. Similarly to FOMO, teenagers are most at risk for this, primarily due to them being one of the youngest and largest groups on social media. As a result, many have called for increased, institutionalized restrictions on use of these platforms. Examples of clampdowns on what content can be posted have begun to grow in certain countries, but legislation specifically designed to prevent addiction is almost non-existent. In general, these platforms are easily accessible to anyone.

The generation growing up today is the first one to do so with social media. This means that there are little to no regulations in place, and even less understanding of its long-term effects. Many have compared it to modern day smoking, where it was heralded and common at first, but only later was revealed to be a major health risk. Only time will tell whether the good outweighs the negative when it comes to the use of social media, but there are definite signs already indicating that use of it needs to be watched closely. All in all though, everybody uses digital networking platforms differently. Therefore, it is important to monitor one’s own consumption of this product, and to be mindful of the pitfalls.

If you or someone you know is struggling with social media addiction, go to “Social Media Addiction,” from Addiction Center for more information.