Tom Holland last week became the latest public figure to take a step back from social media, revealing in a video posted to Instagram that the platforms are “very detrimental to my mental state” and “I spiral when I read things about me”.
It’s not just those in the spotlight who believe social media is damaging mentally. A survey conducted last year found 65 per cent of American adults aged 18 – 45 feel their use of social media has a negative effect on their mental health.
Statistics like those might suggest the link is well-understood, but for something as complicated and varied as mental health, it’s not easy for research to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship or to understand exactly how social media might be hurting us.
One 2021 analysis of research looking into the effects of Instagram use on various mental health outcomes found the overall trends to be inconclusive, with the findings of several studies appearing to contradict each other.
So, what do we know about how social media affects our mental health?
Do social media companies know if their products harm users?
When former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen became a whistleblower, releasing thousands of documents to the Wall Street Journal and Congress, she revealed a lot about what Meta knows about how its platforms affect users.
Most strikingly, internal research released by Haugen show the company is aware of the negative effect of Instagram on young people and teenage girls in particular.
One slide of an internal document published by the Wall Street Journal said “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rates of anxiety and depression” and added that the “constant comparison on Instagram is ‘the reason’ why”. Facebook’s research found that 66 per cent of girls and 40 per cent of girls report experiencing “negative social comparison on Instagram.
Teens who already struggle with their mental health as well as those who said they were “not satisfied with their lives” were found to be especially likely to say that Instagram makes them feel worse. One slide said that young people were “acutely aware” of the negative mental impact of Instagram, “yet are compelled to spend time on the app for fear of missing out on cultural and social trends”.
The research also identified a “negative feedback loop” when it comes to social media use, where “feelings of self-doubt grow” as young people compare themselves to others online. “Feelings of doubt and worthlessness heighten the degree of attention they give to these feelings”. This leads to “low mood”, which then makes teens “more vulnerable to the content they see online.”
In an executive summary released as part of another internal Facebook research document, the company said it “can help break the cycle of social comparison” and provided suggestions that could make its services such as Instagram less harmful. These included by showing “progress towards a goal”, “personalized time-out mindfulness breaks that break the spiral” and influencers that “flip the switch from envy to inspiration”.
But in an interview with 60 Minutes, Haugen said: “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.”
Meta claims that those who are made to feel worse by their platforms are a minority. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter following Haugen’s revelations, Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said the company’s internal research represented “a good example of what I’d hope people would expect we would do” and was conducted for the purpose of “trying to fix it [negative effects on mental health], as much as we can, on our own apps”.
What does the research say
Studies published in recent years have provided mounting evidence that social media use is tied in some form to mental health issuess. But as most research simply correlates usage of the sites with mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation, it is difficult to know that a causal relationship has been found.
One reason for this issue is that social media and mobile phone use have become widespread at the same time that anxiety and depression have become far more common worldwide. Another is that at a time when daily use of social media is so common, it is difficult for researchers to isolate the types of social media use which might be harmful.
Studies have identified what experts call “protective factors”, which are types of social media use which may prevent or lessen some of the negative mental health outcomes. For example, users who spend more time on what researchers call “self-presentation” – time working on or updating a social media profile, seem to be less at risk of negative mental outcomes than those who spend more time consuming content from others. A 2011 study by Amy L. Gonzales, M.A., and Jeffrey T. Hancock, Ph.D. found that “participants that updated their profiles and viewed their own profiles during the experiment also reported greater self-esteem”.
Another protective factor is communication with others on a site. One study found that while passive viewing of content on social media is associated with lower well-being, people who actively communicated with their connections were more likely to increase their feeling of well-being.
- Self presentation: Users who spend more time on their own profiles than browsing other content seem to be less likely to experience negative mental health outcomes.
- Communication: Spending more time talking to others on a social media platform is associated with better well-being.
- Social comparison: Use of social media is correlated with comparing ourselves more to others, which in turn makes people more likely to experience anxiety.
- Passive browsing: Users who spend more time viewing posts from others than posting themselves or talking to connections are more likely to have lower well-being.
One theme in a lot of the research – and something that was clear from Meta’s internal research – is that the tendency for social comparison is damaging. Just using Instagram seems to increase the degree to which people compare themselves to others. Another study found that while Instagram use itself was not correlated with anxiety, users who engaged in more social comparison as a result of being on the app, were more likely to experience lower self esteem and higher levels of social anxiety.
It’s clear more research is needed to better understand the impact social media is having on our mental health, but what we do know is that there are ways of using social media that predict better and worse mental health outcomes.
What’s also clear is that we know a lot more about the effects of the platforms that have been around longer like Facebook and Instagram than newcomers like TikTok.
Little research exists on the effects of TikTok on mental health, despite the Chinese-owned app’s status now as the most used social media platform among US teenagers. In that vein, a nationwide investigation was announced earlier this year by state Attorney Generals, looking into the impact of the video sharing app on the mental health of young people.