Digital Citizenship

Is social media a factor in increasing depression, anxiety and loneliness?

The progress of society has been linked to technology and the changing ways in which technology is increasingly dominating many areas of society. We can see the use of iPads in classrooms to cater for different learning styles, use of machinery in workplaces to increase accuracy and efficiency, but most importantly the increasing use of mobile phones with one their main aim to access social media as it serves as a medium to connect and communicate with people online. Social media is somewhat the equivalent of an online diary to showcase segments of one’s life. In an article by Simon Kemp he reports that there were 3.48 billion social media users in 2019, which is a 288 million increase from 2018. With this rapid rise in the use of social networking websites it is fair to say; social media is rather unavoidable. Recent studies have also shown the rising use of social media having an influence on individual’s mental health, but to what extent does social media serve as a determining factor to an individual’s way of thinking, viewing the world, and expressing their emotions? In this blog I will try and tackle the question; “is social media a contributing factor in depression, anxiety and loneliness” by discussing how social media has impacted on society, the psychology behind these impacts, and I will carry out a micro survey with a few individuals on how they view their relationship with social media.

In a blog by Erika Sauter, she writes about her time before social media in which she recognises herself as a Gen X (or in long form Generation X). The years in question being 1965 to 1979, before social media was even invented in 1997. She describes it as the time where “it was filled with things you could hear, see, touch, smell and taste”. This description generates a depiction of our senses being sold out to social media. We tend to block out the noise of the world through earphones and take pictures of the pretty things rather than admiring them in real life. Even the sense of knowledge seems to be defeated at times by the influential impacts of social media. In major news headlines, it is now uncommon to see injuries or death because of the longing need to show off a selfie or video a stunt in a dangerous area. One recent headline was of a couple who clung from a moving train for a selfie picture.

Erika furthered briefed on how in the time of her generation people was so immersed in the moment that the idea of having to showcase their life wasn’t ever a thought. People talked to each other and hung out physically, and used their imagination. The idea of building a fort would spontaneously send a smile on people’s faces. Erika described how we are now losing contact with our physical world. The impact of social media has prompted us to view a small screen as our new reality. A society where we find ourselves texting someone who would be in the room next to us or where we would update our Facebook followers on where we are and what we are doing.

The picture below was captured by my friend as my other friends and I sat around a table and chatted and reminisced, but this picture was very much staged to capture the perfect image of a perfect group of friends on a perfect day for a perfect Instagram post. I stress about the word ‘perfect’ because perfection which is only an illusion is what people try to strive to be online. I suggest that perfection is only an illusion online as we can see that no one life is without flaw no matter how rich, well respected and of good status that person might be. A good example of this is the forced portrayal of people online who showcase their relationship as ‘goals’. YouTube couple of the year Liza Koshy and David Dobrik, who broke up in June 2018, shared a video on how their relationship wasn’t exactly how everyone imagined it to be. Their video shows that behind all the smiles and laughs in pictures there are tears and heartache, but no one display’s this online because it’s not perfect or Instagram- worthy.

Photo taken on Friday 20th July 2018 and modified for confidentiality

Social media creates a front that everyone and everything is flawless. It hides the spiralling lack of communication we have with one another by blocking out the world and vigorously scrolling through sites like Facebook and Instagram to stalk and see what others are up to rather than talking to one another face-to-face. How will these impacts affect social media users psychologically?

Five per cent of young people now experience social media addiction. This is largely due to the constant impulse of wanting to check their social media to experience a short term gratification, as well as the brain’s willingness to release dopamine suggests Rhys Edmonds. Rhys explains how the failure to satisfy this gratification causes an individual to constantly refresh their feed or check their phone until they find something that interests them. This can be draining for the brain and can cause disturbance to one’s sleep if they need to see what is going on online before they go to sleep. An example of the constant need to check one’s phone for some sort of happiness is when one checks their likes when they have posted a new picture online. This short-term happiness is easily swayed when one does not receive a certain number of likes, or when certain people don’t like a particular post. The below picture is a screenshot I took of two separate Instagram photo, one picture has a higher like than the other. It depicts how someone may feel inadequate based on a picture not receiving a certain amount of likes and questioning why this may be so. This, I suggest, can be very damaging to one’s mental health.

The constant checking of one’s social media for a grain of gratification has also led to the emergence of a fear of missing out, also known as FOMO. Rhys Edmonds states this fear appears when a person perceives a feeling of exclusion as we, as social beings, have an inclination to stay up-to-date with what’s going on around us and what others are doing. Some experience this fear more than others. This fear relates to staying up-to-date and is how social media adds a disruptive amount of expectation in people’s lives. Just like I mentioned above, the need to portray perfection online puts undue pressure on people to live up to fake comparisons and this, in turn, may lead to someone questioning their life, feelings of low self-esteem, leading to depression and even loneliness.

Using social media to create an illusion of happiness
(Oleh Iswara Aji Pratama)

I conducted a short micro-survey of 23 people to review and understand their relationship with social media. My survey participants were not diverse, given the numbers of female participants of a single age group, but it was interesting to see what this cohort of people said. In the survey, I asked, “do you feel like social media has impacted on your mental health”. Out of 22 respondents, 14 people said yes, 6 said No and 2 said not sure.

To follow on from this question I wanted to see in what way this has affected them. The highest response was nine people stating how they compare themselves to their followings, seven saying they feel sad after using social media and five saying they experience anxiety and low esteem, while five people say that social media does not affect them. I then asked if anyone has experienced a fear of missing out online. 14 people said yes, sic people said No and two people said they were not sure. Lastly, I found my last question rather interesting as I gave my respondents a chance to discuss what social media affects them most and why. These respondent’s answers did suggest that social media does have a negative impact on our health and it’s powerful influence on how we express our emotions.

It’s the responsibility of many people who use social media to be aware of how it makes them feel and to evaluate if we are using our time wisely or aimlessly scrolling through a feed, that has no purpose to one’s life. I went through a phase where I could see myself comparing my life to my Instagram followings, and deleting my Instagram for several months to take time off made me realise that the attachment I long for online is but a disruptive factor in my life that caused me sadness at not being “flawless” and not doing something with my life. Coming back to Instagram I became more conscious of who I choose to follow and who I am followed by, the numbers of followings do not ever phase me because I have come to terms with the fact that our following does not compare to who likes you or not, or popularity, but rather having the feeling of confidence that those who follow you, are people you know and consider as your friend. There have been adjustments to tech companies to combat this pressure people face online, to have a high following rate and high numbers of likes. Instagram has now removed its likes display so no one can see the number of likes you have accumulated. These changes will hopefully educate people that their online status is nowhere near the equivalent of their real-life persona.

Emmanuela Nze is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway