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From social networks like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, right back to MySpace and Bebo in the mid-2000s, social media has forever changed the way we communicate.
With 91% of young people using the internet for social networking and rates of depression and anxiety in young people having risen by more than 70% in the past 25 years, talk of whether there’s a link between social media use and depression is becoming more frequent.
Dr Richelle Mayshak from Deakin’s School of Psychology says there is some evidence that the use of social media promotes an idealised image. ‘Facebook and Instagram may be associated with feelings of inadequacy or reduced self-esteem. These negative feelings are thought to come from a perceived lack of popularity when a post doesn’t receive “enough” likes.’
So, is social media to blame for the rise in rates of depression and anxiety in young people?
Research is mixed, according to Dr Mayshak, with only a few studies finding a direct correlation between social media and depression and its related symptoms. ‘I don’t think we’re at a point in our research where we can say that social media absolutely contributes to the experience of depressive symptoms.’
It may be that those who are experiencing depressive symptoms are more likely to visit social media sites more frequently, she says. Although the link could actually be more direct, further research is required before we can really understand the long-term impact of social media use.
One of the commonly suspected reasons for social media use contributing to feelings of jealousy and missing out on experiences is that many people only post the ‘highlights’ of their lives online and keep unflattering or real issues they may be facing to themselves. This is especially notable in the case of social media influencers.
‘Some people just want to portray a better self-image online, [while] others may believe that their online image is an accurate portrayal of their lives,’ Dr Mayshak explains. ‘Other social media users might just be emulating the types of posts their friends contribute to the site.’
'The evidence seems to suggest that people with forms of social anxiety can find an increased perception of social connectedness when interacting online.'
Dr Richelle Mayshak,
School of Psychology, Deakin University
Dr Mayshak points out that some research suggests that maintaining a social media presence can be beneficial for mental health. ‘The act of curating an online profile and engaging in a little selective self-presentation online can boost users’ self-esteem and reduce feelings of social uncertainty.’
As well as benefiting your mental health, curating what you put online might also help to improve how you are viewed by a potential employer.
But while a direct correlation between social media use and depression is still being studied, there can be links to increased anxiety due to cyberbullying and online harassment according to Dr Mayshak. However, it seems that social media may help in some situations. ‘The evidence seems to suggest that people with forms of social anxiety can find an increased perception of social connectedness when interacting online,’ Dr Mayshak says.
Currently most social media platforms don’t do much to encourage users to convey a more realistic online persona that more closely matches their offline life. ‘From a business standpoint, there isn’t much motivation for them to change,’ Dr Mayshak points out. She suggests that users need to become more aware of what types of content or which users are triggering changes to their mental wellbeing, and tailor their newsfeeds accordingly.
Some people believe that the solution for those who feel negatively impacted by using social media is to just stop using the platforms. However, it’s virtually impossible to do so for some of people, with many workplaces incorporating social media networking into day-to-day business. Therefore, Dr Mayshak suggests it’s important to be aware of your own mental health when using social media, and more generally too.
‘First, it’s important to seek help,’ she says. ‘This may be through a direct contact with a service such as Beyond Blue, or by making an appointment with one of Deakin’s support services,’ Dr Mayshak suggests. Becoming involved in meaningful activities beyond the realm of social media can also be beneficial to your mental health.
While social media sites offer an important link to friendship groups and for many just scrolling through their friends’ posts can reduce feelings of isolation, if it is having the opposite effect, it’s important to take action. ‘If someone is finding that they feel down or have a decreased sense of self-worth after visiting social media sites, they should take some time to curate a newsfeed that won’t be detrimental.’
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