Our social media feeds of fitness models, exotic travel and picture perfect social lives don’t often compare with our comparatively plain and uninspiring lives.
The gap between how we present ourselves online and how we live in reality has become large enough that there is a growing body of research exploring the impact on mental health.
The findings are disturbing:
Our increasing use of social media is contributing to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and body-image issues in young people, who are the heaviest users of social media.
Instagram is the worst, according to a new report by the UK’s Royal for Public Health (RSPH), an independent charity focused on health education.
The report tabulated previous research on the health impacts of social media with its own UK-wide survey of nearly 1,500 people between the ages of 14 to 24. They compared how people felt about different social networks: Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter. To understand the impact on people’s mental health, the study asked them about their feelings of anxiety, connection to a community, sense of identity, sleep and body image.
YouTube was the only social network that had an overall positive effect among the respondents. Every other social network had a negative impact on mental health. In from least negative to most negative, they were: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
Instagram, with 700 million users, was reported by respondents to have a particularly negative impact on anxiety and body image.
One respondent in the report was quoted as saying:
“Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.”
It turns out that the “fear of missing out” and setting unrealistic expectations results in lower self-esteem and contributes to anxiety and depression. Cyber bullying and lack of sleep is making it much worse. The report gives a number of examples of young people staying awake during the night to check messages, causing them to feel exhausted during the day.
There were some positive findings. Almost 70% of respondents said they received emotional support on social media when times were tough. Social media is also perceived to be a positive outlet for self expression. Also, people felt it enhanced their ability to create and maintain relationships online.
The problem centered around how people end up experiencing a disconnect between the world project in social media and reality. The RSPH recommended that fashion brands, celebrities and others consider disclosing when their photos have been manipulated. It also recommended that social networks give users a pop up warning them when they have exceeded a certain amount of time logged in.
Social media is going to continue to be increasingly used by young people. We need to carry out more research on the consequences of its use on mental health and come up with solutions to help young people live healthier lives.
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