by Jedidja van Boven
I recently logged out of (and blacklisted) Facebook and Instagram, and I can confidently say that I feel much better without the needless doomscrolling through an endless page of depressing news and vacation photos that I do not care about. But aside from avoiding painful confrontations with beautiful Instagram models and racist relatives on Facebook, are there other reasons why you might want to consider quitting social media?
A McKinsey report from June 2020 states that the well-being of European citizens fell to its lowest point since 1980 last April as accounts of depression and loneliness tripled compared to pre-COVID standards. However, loneliness problems are far from new and have many causes, such as the pervasiveness of social media. This is especially relevant for our ‘digitally native’ generation that has grown up with social media as a core part of our formative years.
The fact that Instagram makes its users self-conscious about their looks and that Facebook is targeting ads based on personal data is not new to many of us. But when the University of Pennsylvania found that students who significantly reduced their daily social media consumption saw a significant decrease in feelings of loneliness and depression, researchers realized there might be a deeper problem here. Beyond the fact that social media are highly relevant to the study of mental health problems among teenagers, it is also vital to highlight the tremendous negative impact such platforms are having on adults’ mental health and stress the need for maintaining non-digital social connections.
The first issue related to frequent social media usage is its addictive nature. The use of push notifications and endless lists of personalized ‘recommended’ or ‘suggested’ posts not only make it tempting to click on a single notification, but reel in users by immediately showing more content to go through. We all know how hard it is to resist the pull of a notification, but it has recently become clear that continued social media usage may permanently affect our ability to focus through what is known as the ‘goldfish effect’.
Our modern need to constantly be entertained in a continuous stream of content prevents us from engaging in more challenging tasks, such as schoolwork, by decreasing our ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time. In particular, the development of algorithms on free platforms that rely on advertisements and user engagement for profit has led to the commodification of users’ attention rather than their money. In other words, through the usage of people’s personal data and design tricks that ensure the maximum amount of time spent on a platform, social media users themselves have become the product – not the consumer.
A second problem for mental health is the common romanticizing of mental illness that happens on many social media platforms. Although the portrayal of mental illness as something ‘deep’ or beautiful was especially common on image-heavy blogging websites like Tumblr, the trend continues today. Instagram is particularly popular for the development of contemporary ‘sad aesthetic’ pages. These images that glorify eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and self-mutilation into something beautiful and desirable have a profound impact on impressionable audiences.
The popularity of eating disorders posts peaked around 2013 on Tumblr; however, it is still very much alive today on TikTok, which has revealed a dangerous diet culture that dietitians have described as clearly unhealthy and even ‘pro-ana’ (pro-anorexic). In short, various social media platforms have revealed themselves to be rife with content that makes mental illnesses appear as a beautifully tragic experience that does not require professional help.
The third and final link between social media usage and mental distress is the so-called ‘’loneliness paradox’’. Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections explores the seeming contradiction of a hyperconnected world that is still becoming more depressed and lonely than ever. Hari refutes the assumption that mental illnesses are a purely biological phenomenon and identifies external causes for poor mental health– such as growing feelings of loneliness. Hari argues that as usual signifiers of community bonding have become less powerful (e.g. family, church), young people in particular become addicted to social media because of the ‘hollow’ version of traditional community bonds that they provide.
Of course, in times such as these, digital communication tools are an important means of preventing complete isolation when face-to-face interactions are not possible – and such platforms are likely to become even more essential in the future considering the increased probability of pandemics. However, gaining a sense of belonging through social media does not satisfy deeper, evolutionary needs for a true feeling of safety and companionship; therefore, using the internet to keep in touch with people you meet in person as well is fine, but limiting all social interactions to take place digitally is not. Unfortunately, this vicious cycle likely serves to make young people more and more lonely despite the many opportunities for connectivity that are provided by social media.
In short, the increased social media usage of recent years among young people is affecting mental health in three main ways: addiction to social media and the inability to concentrate, the romanticization of mental illness, and increased feelings of loneliness. We did not evolve to stare at a screen 24/7 or to carry a card-sized supercomputer with us at all hours of the day – so if we ever want to overcome the loneliness epidemic in the Western world, we need to find new ways to build communities and gain a true sense of belonging and connecting again.