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Social media and distress: what do we know about its effects on mental health?

A look at what we know today about whether excessive social media use can lead to poor mental health. Read now.

19 February, 2021

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Depression Digital Dependency Assessment Anxiety Telehealth Social Media and Mental Health

By 2025, it’s projected that there will be around 23 million Australians using social media – that’s a staggering 89% of our current population. Evidently, we’re a constantly plugged-in nation who are texting, scrolling, replying, searching, and uploading on our devices for hours every day.

The bulk of our activity on social media takes place in the evening, which is closely followed by morning use, and then during breaks throughout the day. In fact, 1 in 3 minutes spent online are done so on social media.

Technology isn’t going anywhere, and its presence is only going to grow in our digitally connected world, which shines a light on a key consideration for clinicians: mental health professionals need to find a way to analyse the psychological effects of our constant immersion in digital technology.

What is the present-day research telling us?

Initial research suggests that frequent use of social media could trigger or exacerbate a variety of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, body dysmorphia, fear of missing out (FOMO), and depression. But the research is nascent and requires further study on the topic, given we are “still some years away from getting a really good scientific consensus on what’s going on,” according to Dr Wayne Warburton, Associate Professor in Developmental Psychology at the Macquarie University.

“We just need more studies, and while the current studies are indicative, what we want to see is a whole lot more findings in the same direction before we can categorically say one thing or another.

“The bottom line is that we’ll know a lot more in the next few years once we get a larger research base around what’s really going on. And what I suspect is that we’ll find these negative mental health outcomes will start to firm up and we’ll get a clear sense of the people who are more vulnerable to them.”

According to 2020 research, evidence from a variety of cross-sectional, longitudinal and empirical studies suggests social media use can contribute to an increase in mental distress, noting that there appears to be a dose-response relationship – the more exposure to social media and thus the more time spent glued to a screen, the more likely one is to experience distress.

Additionally, excessive social media use may be particularly risky for younger people who are already experiencing mental health challenges, as demonstrated by the two-way relationship between use of media and a decrease in mental health.

Social media use doesn’t equal poor mental health—but it can

As technology is woven into so many aspects of our lives, a challenge for today’s mental health professionals is separating troubling, habitual social media use from regular, positive digital involvement, and educating individuals on the value of a healthy media diet, according to Wayne.

Using social media to connect with friends and families in another city is a productive way to utilise social media, as well as using it to tap into online information for work or study purposes – it is when one's social media use shows signs of being pathological is where it can become problematic. Things like constantly checking social media updates throughout the day where it impacts productivity or having poor sleep quality due to prolonged use at late hours of the evening.

Ultimately, intervention is extremely valuable for individuals who are device dependent, and clinicians have a key role to play in terms of providing education to those experiencing negative emotions and mental distress due to problematic (and unhelpful) social media use.

Finding a balanced use of social media will allow users to get value out of their digital interactions, to think critically about the content they’re consuming, and importantly, to self-govern their screen time for better mental health outcomes.

Continue reading: Australia’s social media landscape in perspective