Anxiety and The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health
Recently the Royal College of Psychiatrists advised their members to consider the impact of social media on all children they assess for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
To be honest I like to think that most psychiatrists, like other mental health professionals, were already doing this with both children and adults, because these days social media use, apps and other online sources form part of most people’s everyday lifestyle in some way. So if you are doing a thorough job of discussing with someone when they experience their anxiety, what triggers it, what exacerbates it and what can ease it, technology is probably going to be in there somewhere.
That’s not to say that all social media and online stuff is necessarily harmful to mental health, yet it makes sense to consider whether it is either a negative or a positive thing for you.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the Mail Online about some practical ways to manage anxiety. One of the things that I mentioned was about cutting down on social media time because it can, amongst other things, add fuel to anxiety and insecurity and exacerbate low self-esteem issues.
I can remember several comments (gotta to love a good Mail Online comment!) pointing out that anxiety and depression were around before social media was even a thing and so don’t cause it. Which of course is probably true in many cases.
Yet that doesn’t mean it is neutral with regard to your mental health. There are many mental health professionals and experts pointing to all the data showing anxiety and depression levels rising in younger generations and the potential link to online activity and social media.
For example, data from America suggests that the increase in mental health disorders is being primarily driven by adolescents and young adults (I cover this in more detail in this article: The Rise and Rise of Anxiety & Depression) and that more research is needed to understand the role technology, and social media and sleep disturbance play in this rise amongst younger people.
It may be that increased time online and on social media, and less time with others face to face, is impacting on well-being and mood across many age groups. General internet use, online bullying behaviour and the ability to use the internet for suicide related purposes are all potential contributors to the rise in anxiety and depression.
And as the Royal College of Psychiatrists say, there is growing evidence of possible links between harmful content or excessive time spent online and poor mental health. Access to harmful content could impact on existing mental health issues and problematic technology use could be related to problems such as lack of sleep or disrupted sleep, poor performance, low mood, and behavioural or eating difficulties.
I’ve worked with many people who check their work e-mails last thing and night and then get too stressed and anxious to sleep, or who wake in the night and do a similar thing. And it’s easy to get ‘sucked into’ social media so that you spend more time than you intended to on it, sometimes as a distraction, rather than being active or taking action on the goals you have for yourself in your life.
Some people, particularly with existing anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, find that all the posts showing others doing things, socialising and having fun make them feel worse because they can’t or aren’t doing things they enjoy. Even despite knowing that much of what is posted is filtered and selective, it can feed into thoughts of being a failure or not good enough or inadequate. This in turn can exacerbate all the thoughts and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Again, it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t true for all. Recently I worked with a lady with anxiety who told me that seeing photos on social media of other people going places and happily doing things inspired her and lifted her mood and mindset.
Another area which can either help or hinder mental health issues is online forums and groups. There are many, many groups devoted to mental health and anxiety on social media platforms. Some people find these helpful as a safe space to post about their own thoughts and feelings and to get support from others. It can also help reduce isolation by raising awareness that the anxiety and depression you ar experiencing is not unique to you and that many other people have mental health problems.
Yet on the flip side, all the talk or anxiety and triggers can add to your own anxious and low thoughts and feelings. You may find more to overthink about and worry about, including things you hadn’t even previously considered. There are often online ‘trolls’ who appear on these groups and can post hurtful or upsetting comments directed at you. And other people discussing what hasn’t worked for them to treat their anxiety and depression could potentially put you off seeking support that might help you even if it didn’t work for them. By definition the people in these groups are people who haven’t found a way of managing their own issues that works for them and so may not have anything that can help you manage your anxiety and depression symptoms and this could lead to a sense of hopelessness that you can never feel better.
Of course, the internet and social media can also be used constructively to help you find support, learn coping strategies and reduce feelings of isolation. Many people find techniques that can and do help them if they consistently apply them for themselves. Yet, much of the information out there is not that reliable, authentic or even correct. Much of it will not be based on any research or evidence beyond personal opinion and preference.
Indeed, research that looked at mental health apps (most of which addressed anxiety, panic and stress) found that many of them only offered limited and vague scientific evidence for their claimed benefits in dealing with mental health issues (I wrote about that research here: Are Mental Health Apps Helpful For Anxiety?)
Again, it is not completely clear cut and I have known people to use, for example, colouring apps, as a way to calm themselves when their anxiety begins to rise.
The overall position right now is that no one can really scientifically demonstrate the impact of social media and technology on mental health. But, more and more links do seem to be emerging. If you are currently struggling with a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression it really is worth objectively assessing the impact of social media on your life. And if it seems to make you feel worse, exacerbate symptoms, impact on your sleep or spending time having face to face interaction or doing other things you enjoy, then it’s worth limiting your online time and changing when or what you are accessing and looking at. Technology and social media may not cause anxiety and depression yet they can certainly play a part in it.
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Twenge, J.M., Cooper, A.B., Joiner, T.E., Duffy, M.E. and Binau, S.G., 2019. Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005-2017. Journal of abnormal psychology.
Royal College of Psychiatrrists – Psychiatrists should consider impact of social media on all children they assess, leading medical body says for first time
Mental Health Messages in Prominent Mental Health Apps, Lisa Parker, Lisa Bero, Donna Gillies, Melissa Raven, Barbara Mintzes, Jon Jureidini and Quinn Grundy. doi: 10.1370/afm.2260Ann Fam Med July/August 2018vol. 16 no. 4 338-342