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Social Media and Mental Health in Adolescents

Introduction

Today, technology and technological products are virtually everywhere, from the phones most people carry in their pockets to self-driving cars. Innovation is a significant part of millions of people’s lives, with the Internet making it possible for anyone to access multitudes of information within seconds or communicate with someone half a world away. Things that were unimaginable half a century ago have now become mundane, and many children are raised surrounded by iPads, smartphones, Alexa, et cetera.

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Furthermore, millions of children and adolescents have access to social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, to name a few. And while undoubtedly there are many benefits to modernization and digitalization, there are also various dangers that technology, and social media, in particular, pose for its young and impressionable users.

Social Media Use

The teenagers of today, born roughly between 2002 and 2008 as a part of Generation Z, have significantly more access to phones, computers, and the Internet at an early age than previous generations. The numerous social media platforms range from text-only-based ones such as Kik and WeChat to multimedia software like Instagram and Snapchat. Since the technological evolution has been incredibly rapid in the past few decades, growing up with all the new advances has been advantageous for Gen Z, who are often more adept users. There are many benefits that social media provides to its users, such as instant communication.

However, there are also numerous downsides, such as the addictive nature of social media apps, with four of the most popular ones being owned by the same commercial company, Facebook (Shead, 2019). Furthermore, the increased use of social media, which allows instant exchanging or gathering of unfiltered information, has been linked with increased depression, anxiety, and suicide rates among adolescents.

Cyber-Bullying

Cyberbullying can be any form of online harassment that causes psychological, emotional, and physical distress, similar to the more in-person forms of bullying. This form of harassment, often facilitated by the seeming anonymity, range from negative comments on posts to blackmail. According to Akram (2018), a large part of the young adult population has reported online harassment at least once within their lifetime.

Considering the self-reported nature of this statistic, the actual number could be much higher. The culture of entertainment through the shaming and scolding of others, also commonly referred to as Cancel Culture, might make some individuals feel alienated and lack support, leading to anxiety and depression. Moreover, since social media has only existed for a couple of decades, adults in the victims’ lives might not be experienced in dealing with such problems and hence will not be able to help. Furthermore, unlike traditional forms of bullying, the online variant allows people to create multiple accounts to harass their victim, creating an illusion of a much greater number of virtual attackers.

Catfishing

Since, as mentioned above, social media allow its users to create multiple accounts without identity verification, this often leads to a phenomenon known as ‘catfishing.’ In this case, the perpetrator creates an account with a fake identity, often with malicious intentions. The reasons for creating such accounts range from general fraud, often monetary, to predatory pedophilia. Nevertheless, whatever the reasons might be, being tricked online, where the young adults might initially feel safe, might cause them to become anxious or develop traits of paranoia. Furthermore, it might lead to trust issues, which in the longer term might make interpersonal relations for the individual concerned more difficult. Although the short-term effects of catfishing are not always that severe unless the victim agrees to meet with the perpetrator in person and is attacked in person, the long-term emotional and psychological damage is significant.

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Negative Body Image

Amidst the recent rise in the body positivity movement, there is still a large number of girls and boys that struggle with body image, especially since having access to the often photoshopped celebrities’ bodies. Statistics show that the rates of suicide attempts amongst young people have increased largely over the past few decades, with recorded links between increased social media use and suicide attempts (Sedgwick et al., 2019).

Furthermore, girls are more susceptible than boys (Luby & Kertz, 2019), often following many fitness and life influencers on Instagram and other social media and engaging in unhealthy comparisons with their own bodies. It can be difficult for young adolescents to distinguish between real life and the photoshopped and idolized photos online, which might result in insecurities. Furthermore, the many toxic communities online with similar insecurities might cause the young adolescent to develop an eating disorder, which is increasingly common and is linked with depression and anxiety.

Addiction and Diminished Social Skills

As mentioned previously, most of the popular social media platforms of the last decade are owned by the same commercial company. As the goal of the company is profitable, it is unsurprising that it strives to come up with tactics that would trick its users into using it more and more every day. Whether that is personalized content or new interactive features, social media undoubtedly causes addiction in its users, which often means that they spend more time online than with their family and friends offline.

This might lead to a deterioration of social skills, as the individuals fall out of the practice of reading social cues and body language. Furthermore, being aware that it is more difficult to be social offline might cause adolescents to become insecure and anxious about talking to other people in person. Then, they might retreat into the online world even more; as a result alienating themselves from other people. Since humans are social creatures, the lack of social stimulation and physical interaction might then lead to depression.

Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The question of mental health has been more relevant than ever over the past couple of years amidst the global pandemic. With millions of people locked away at home, many with no one to speak to in person for months, social media has become especially relevant. However, it has also led to millions of people worldwide struggling with their mental health, finding it difficult to deal with the extreme changes in their lives. Although it might be encouraging to see other people online struggling and helpful to stay in virtual contact with friends and family, it can also be difficult to compare oneself with those being productive. According to Gao et al. (2020), there is a prevalence of depression among social media users during the pandemic. Since, for many people, social media has acted as the main source of information about the outbreak, as well as about the news around the world, it might have caused deterioration of mental health.

Possible Alternative Reasons

Nevertheless, there are endless factors that affect the mental health of individuals, making it difficult to distinguish the particular reason for worsening mental health. Other reasons might include family troubles, genetic predisposition, social problems at school, or academic problems, amongst others. According to Berryman et al. (2017), social media as a stand-alone concept might not be responsible for mental health problems, as opposed to the concerns many have. Instead, the vital question lies in how the individual uses social media (Berryman et al., 2017). However, it can be argued that social media, although a relatively harmless concept on its own, is a breeding ground for the many problems listed above and hence does have a damaging effect.

Conclusion

Although there are yet to be longer-term studies on the effects of social media on mental health, it is already quite clear that unrestrained use of social media increases the chances of anxiety and depression. Young people all around the world are subjected to constant scrutiny by their peers, strangers on the Internet, and themselves. Furthermore, they are left to form opinions about all of the information they are exposed to without the necessary skills required to analyze it properly. Lastly, they might become addicted to the make-belief world of social media and fall behind in their offline social life. Therefore, social media, regardless of its advantages, should be used carefully. Young people and adolescents should not be granted access to social media in their most forming years due to its toxicity and potentially terrible influence on their mental health and development.

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References

Akram, W. (2018). A Study on Positive and Negative Effects of Social Media on Society. International Journal of Computer Sciences and Engineering, 5(10), pp. 347-354. Web.

Berryman, C., Ferguson, C.J. & Negy, C. (2018). Social Media Use and Mental Health among Young Adults. Psychiatric Quarterly, 89, pp. 307-314. Web.

Gao, J., Zheng, P., Jia, Y., Chen, H., Mao, Y., Chen, S., Wang, Y., Fu, H. & Dai, J. (2020). Mental health problems and social media exposure during COVID-19 outbreak. Plos One, 15(4), pp. 1-10. Web.

Luby, J. & Kertz, S. (2019). Increasing Suicide Rates in Early Adolescent Girls in the United States and the Equalization of Sex Disparity in Suicide: The Need to Investigate the Role of Social Media. JAMA Network Open, 2(5), pp. 1-2. Web.

Sedgwick, R., Epstein, S., Dutta, R. & Ougrin, D. (2019). Social media, internet use and suicide attempts in adolescents. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 32(6), pp. 534-541. Web.

Shead, S. (2019). Facebook owns the four most downloaded apps of the decade. BBC. Web.

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