A gif of a hand ripping a sticker that reads 'Social media seriously harms your mental health' off of a mobile phone

How bad is social media really for our mental health?

When we talk about potential negative effects of social media, we assume it’s bringing new harm to an otherwise healthy and happy individual. But whether social media is the cause or a symptom remains unclear, argues psychologist Lucy Foulkes.

In August 2019, the models Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber posted photos of the same black-and-white phone case. In the style of a warning on a cigarette packet, it read: “Social media seriously harms your mental health.” They shared these photos on… ah yes, social media. This added to the pervasive public message we have long received that these platforms damage our mental health. But is it actually true?

The good news is that there’s not much of a relationship between the number of hours you spend on your phone (or social media specifically) and mental health. Several large-scale studies in the UK and US, with thousands of participants each, have now shown that the link between screen time and mental health is either non-existent or so miniscule that it’s not worth being concerned about.

This is reassuring, but it’s also an oversimplification. On average, spending more time on social media doesn’t affect mental health, but that doesn’t mean no one is being harmed by using these platforms. There are still legitimate questions to be asked about whether some aspects of social media might affect some individuals in a negative way.

There are concerns, for example, about whether seeing posts about self-harm and disordered eating might encourage or normalise these behaviours. There are concerns that scrolling through images of people supposedly more attractive and popular is making individuals unhappy and anxious. There are concerns about the effect of cyberbullying. More broadly, there is a concern that even if social media in and of itself isn’t causing a problem, spending so much time on it might offset ‘better’ activities like exercise and hanging out with friends face-to-face.

'The assumption is that without the phone, the [person] would be alright; but social media use doesn’t happen in a vacuum.'

These are all fair concerns, and there is some empirical – and plenty of anecdotal – support for all of them. But this still isn’t getting at the heart of the issue. When we talk about potential negative effects of social media, we assume that it’s bringing new harm to an otherwise healthy and happy individual. The unspoken assumption is that without the phone, the kid (or adult) would be alright; it’s social media that’s creating the problem.

But social media use doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To really understand what social media might be doing for some people, we need to also think about who the individual is, and what’s happening in their life outside their phone.

Everyone who goes online has their own particular vulnerabilities and ‘real-life’ social experiences that influence their relationship with social media in an important way. Some people who wait anxiously for likes on their TikTok video or Instagram post may already be particularly anxious about their appearance and social approval. The people who seek out online content about self-harm may already be predisposed to exploring this behaviour (because they have always had difficultly managing their emotions, for example). The vast majority of young people who are cyberbullied – as many as 99% – are also being bullied at school.

This is not to say we should ignore the role of phones in mental health. We just need to refocus our attention. First, we need to better understand what existing factors might make people more vulnerable to the potential risks of going online. Second, we need to understand whether social media behaviour is simply a mirror of these individuals’ offline worlds, or whether social media is really making matters worse.

For example, we need to unpack whether people self-harm regardless of what they see online, or if some individuals self-harm because they saw it online – i.e. these posts escalated their emotional distress into something physically harmful. Evidence from small interview studies, in which researchers ask people who self-harm about the role of social media in their behaviour, indicate the latter might be the case. But it’s difficult to assess with larger-scale studies, because it’s unethical to experimentally expose people to these images and then monitor whether they harm themselves.

Similarly, researchers need to examine whether the nature of cyberbullying – such as its 24/7 pervasiveness, wide audience and potential anonymity – makes it meaningfully worse than ‘only’ being bullied face-to-face. Intuitively, this makes sense. But decades of evidence tell us that real-world bullying alone can have devastating long-term effects on mental health. We therefore need to understand the extent to which social media brings additional risks to these already vulnerable people – without forgetting about the aforementioned factors beyond phones that have always increased the risk of serious psychological harm.

I’d also suggest we need more balance on this topic. Yes of course, we need to continue to understand the potential risks of social media, but not by ignoring its benefits. Dare I say it: for at least some people, social media is fun; it can actually be good for mental health.

There was a rather sheepish recognition of this once the pandemic hit. Commentators who had once been so quick to blame social media for mental health problems suddenly realised that, actually, it’s a pretty good way of communicating and connecting with others, and this is vital for mental health.

'Dare I say it: for at least some people, social media is fun; it can actually be good for mental health.'

Research has shown, for example, that all the key components of teenage friendship – things like sharing your personal feelings, and having fun with each other – can also be seen online. Social media can also be an opportunity to explore and understand your sense of self and identity, which is particularly important in adolescence and key to mental wellbeing.

In the public debate on this topic, social media is too often treated as an add-on to people’s ‘real’ lives – something that we might be able to turn off, if only we could find the switch, the right proof of its harms. But the truth is that social media is now a fundamental part of socialising, especially for young people; online components are now threaded into the very fabric of social interactions. Social media is real life now.

For individuals who have a difficult relationship with these apps, we need to ask careful questions about why this is and what can be done to mitigate harm – on an individual level but also from the social media companies themselves (in 2020, for example, Instagram implemented new technology to reduce the number of posts relating to self-harm). But for many others, I think we can relax a little, and enjoy the pleasure and benefits that these platforms often bring. My message to Gigi and Kaia: the relationship between social media and mental health is complicated – so it might be time to buy a new phone cover.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

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