Does social media impact our mental health, or is it a ‘people problem’

What the numbers really say about social media use as a predictor of mental health issues.
Patt Villacci with her 17-year-old daughter Gianna. Gianna blamed her eating disorder on images she saw on Instagram. 
Courtesy of Patt Villacci

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Patt Villacci with her 17-year-old daughter Gianna. Gianna blamed her eating disorder on images she saw on Instagram. Courtesy of Patt Villacci

Experts have long held that social media use negatively impacts young people’s mental health.

And so recent revelations by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen might not have come as a surprise.

Haugen provided internal documents to The Wall Street Journal for a series of reports on the popular social media platform. The documents revealed, among other things, internal research that found the social media site was aware its Instagram platform was worsening body image issues among some teenagers.

Patt Villacci counts her 17-year-old daughter Gianna among them.

Villacci, of Dunwoody, said that when she started talking to Gianna last May about her dramatic weight loss, the teen admitted “she wanted to look like the images she’d seen on Instagram and snap chat.”

As long as Gianna looked good in a dress, that was all she cared about, her mother said.

It took months of therapy to get her to realize, Villacci said, that her body needed the proper nutrition to work and that included carbohydrates and fats.

“She couldn’t just eat a piece of celery with mustard on it or just have clear bouillon soup all the time,” Villacci said.

According to the National Center for Health Research, 45% of adolescents like Gianna report that they are online “almost constantly” and another 44 % say they are online at least several times a day. In addition, nearly 25% of adolescents believe that social media has a mostly negative effect on them.

Facebook’s researchers found that 32% of teen girls stated that Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies when they were experiencing body insecurities.

Dr. Chris Ferguson, a media behavior expert, is a professor of psychology at Stetson University. Courtesy Stetson University. 
Courtesy of Stetson University

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Despite a lot of claims to the contrary, however, there doesn’t appear to be clear evidence for harm, said Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University.

“I think it’s important to remember how many times we’ve heard this song, whether about video games, rock music, Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter,” he said. “Nonetheless, we jump at these techno panics every time.”

Ferguson recently conducted a large meta-analysis of studies with researchers at the American Psychological Association, British Psychological Society and Psychological Society of Ireland.

“Overall, our conclusion was that screen use, including social media, was not a predictor of mental health outcomes,” he said.

Their findings were published recently in the American Psychological Association’s Professional Psychology: Research and Practice journal.

While it seems everyone’s mental health is worse than say, a decade ago, Ferguson said suicide rates have had the biggest jump among middle-aged adults.

Instead of looking at the broader picture, Ferguson said, he thinks “a lot of people are looking at teen suicides and teen girl suicides in particular in a vacuum.

“It’s a lot like the parable of the blind men, each touching a part of the elephant and guessing what it is,” he said. “When we look at it that way, it’s hard to say social media is a key variable impacting mental health.”

Ferguson believes there’s something larger going on that’s affecting everyone, and it’s probably a complex issue running through families and between peers rather than necessarily being drummed up through social media.

“Exposure to suicides in real life, whether through family or friends, is a much stronger predictor of suicide than social media use,” he said. While suicide in general isn’t to be blinked at, Ferguson said it’s important that parents not get distracted by moral panics over social media and try to understand why their teen might be experiencing depression or other issues.

“There could be bullying going on, or perhaps there are family issues or it’s simply genetic,” he said. “Parents should talk and listen to their teens and become familiar with what mental health services are available.”

What safeguards should parents be putting in place to prevent harm to their children?

Although restricting kids’ media can be next to impossible, Ferguson said the best thing parents can do is talk with their kids, help them understand some things that can go wrong with social media, and to be careful what they post.

That includes not saying anything that might be seen as threatening even if they are angry, not sharing personal information and to guard against being drawn into the negativity on some social media platforms.

Ferguson downplayed the Facebook studies saying they weren’t very good.

“All they did was ask teen girls what they thought Instagram did to them,” he said. “That’s a bad way to get at this issue as people mis-attribute the cause of their behavior all the time, particularly when offered an external scapegoat like the media.”

Plus, he said, the question is a leading one.

In a good study, you might get a diary of a kid’s social media use, then ask the parents or teachers to fill out clinically validated surveys of mental health.

“That wasn’t what the Facebook studies did, so they really don’t tell us anything of value,” Ferguson said. “It was mainly a valueless exercise in moral panic.”

While his research doesn’t point to social media as a big predictor of mental health, Ferguson said parents do need to concern themselves with their teens’ exposure to bullying, suicides in real life, and family conflict.

“For girls, body dissatisfaction is definitely a risk factor, though this seems to relate more to peer competition than anything related to media exposure,” he said.

On that, neither Gianna nor her mother will take issue.

Gianna said in an email exchange that her journey with food isn’t over and hopes sharing her story will help others.

“In this day and age, fitting into the so-called beauty standard of being ‘skinny’ is projected throughout all forms of mass media: through Instagram, TikTok and even in friend groups,” she said. “Small comments such as, ‘Yeah I haven’t eaten today yet’ or videos that include ‘body checking’ have polluted teens’ feeds. Boys included.”

Not only do eating disorders not discriminate, Gianna said, they can take many forms, including fasting, excess exercising and binging.

For her, it started with “a few workouts a week and becoming more conscious of what I ate, but it soon turned into multiple workouts a day and having my calculator app constantly open when coming face to face with a meal.

“I began to become so infatuated with the idea that becoming skinnier would make me happier,” Gianna said.

She credits her mom with helping her see the light.

“Your body deserves to be nourished after everything it does for you and to be blunt, you are slowly killing yourself,” she said. “This is why it is so important to reach out for help or take notice when someone else is asking for help; the idea that ‘skinny’ is the only beauty standard is unrealistic and needs to be reshaped. It is truly so beautiful that we are not all alike in shape and in size and that we all contribute something different to the idea of beauty.”

Even so when it comes to social media impacting mental health, Ferguson said that seems to be a people problem, not a technology problem.

Still, he said, there are certainly other legitimate concerns about social media. For instance, Ferguson said that social media can definitely give more power and influence to more extreme voices on both left and right and restrict speech, amounting to de facto censorship.

Tips for managing social media use

  • Pick a time at night after which you will not check your phone, and if possible, recharge your phone in another room while you sleep.
  • Use an alarm clock instead of relying on your phone as an alarm.
  • Choose one day a week to take the day off from social media.
  • Turn off notifications for at least a few hours each day.
  • Check notifications at certain times of day only.
  • Take a break from apps that contribute to unhealthy body image or your feelings of inadequacy.
  • Use apps that block certain other apps and tell you about your usage.
  • Make a plan with friends to hang out more in person instead of interacting via social media.
  • Consider putting your phone in grayscale to make it easier to ignore.

Source: The National Center for Health Research