The fact that social media contributes to mental health disparity is in no way ground breaking science. But exploring how these seemingly innocent apps intended to bring social connection are doing the exact opposite could be a key component in understanding how we can avoid their vicious effects.
If we take a trip down memory lane, we can discern that SNSs (social networking sites) were not always as damaging. Studies from 2015 showed that individuals experienced an increase in social contact and self-esteem when using the now antiquated SNS: Facebook. This positive increase was primarily tied to when users made changes to their own profiles. Despite the rise in social contact and esteem when posting content, people were not exempt from feelings of stress, loneliness, and depression. These negative feelings were often triggered when individuals spent time passively looking at other people’s profiles displaying photos of vacations or worse yet, social events which they were not invited to. Because of a little thing called ‘fundamental attribution error’ seeing images of people living their best lives makes us as humans attribute others’ behaviour to dispositional rather than situational factors. Meaning, seeing enhanced pictures of people at a party, out for dinner, or on vacation may trigger the assumption that these pictures are indicative of how the people in them actually live. This can cause people to believe that others have better lives and that life is not fair for them personally.
A unique feature of Facebook compared with the more popular apps of today’s age such as Instagram, Twitter or Tiktok, is the mutual nature of adding and accepting ‘friends’. This led to people interacting with fewer strangers which can cause attribution error to be weakened. Compared to seeing pictures of people we actually know where we have a better sense of how these friends actually live, following strangers or people we are less connected to in real life opens the flood gates for us to assume their lives are a constant filtered highlight real of weekend brunches, dinners with friends and romantic getaways.
I remember learning about the dangers of fast food in grade six health class. We had a specialist come in and explain all the ways fast food companies designed their product to get people hooked. Everything from the addictive nature of the sugars in the foods to the texture and crunch was examined and tailored to keep people coming back for more, despite the widely known health risks of eating this type of food. I can’t help but notice the similarities between the fast-food industry and what is happening now with social media. When we look at the learnings from Facebook, and which parts of the SNS were most troubling to user’s mental health, you can’t help but feel like all these triggering features were thrown together in the app called Instagram. Understanding that following people we don’t know personally can cause more distress when using social media, Instagram by nature can be a more toxic environment than its predecessor, Facebook.
Just like with fast food, the parts of the app that are most damaging are also the most satisfying and addictive. Studies have found that fewer positive emotions are associated with looking at pictures of people we perceive as attractive compared to those we perceive as less attractive – but where is the fun in that? There is something so satisfying in looking at pictures of those we perceive as attractive in the moment regardless of how we may feel emotionally after the fact.
We’ve covered the ways that consuming content on Instagram can be damaging to our mental health but what about the ways in which posting content can affect us? Humans have a basic desire to be approved by others or groups. This intrinsic desire to be recognized for our value and ability is an important motive that influences much of our human behaviour – especially on apps like Instagram. However, often the way in which individuals obtain this approval is by expressing themselves deceitfully. Research has found that significant numbers of users believed that their social media self was different from their real self. They admit to exaggerating their positive aspects while minimizing their faults.
Not only does showcasing a positively skewed version of yourself online cause attribution error and esteem issues for those who consume your content, it can also cause negative emotions and even depression in the individual doing the posting. Studies have found that lying self-presentation requires more emotional labor, which can have a significant effect on depression.
Another way that posting content to social media sites can be damaging to our mental health is related to our perceived popularity. We have likely all experienced the rush of anxiety that takes over after posting a new picture to Instagram – it’s common for individuals to spend considerable energy worrying about receiving a negative evaluation of themselves (less likes etc.). Once we fall into the trap of needing to receive support from others, we become vulnerable to experiencing anxiety and depression.
In summary, humans want to be approved by others and groups, which results in an increase in worry when posting content for fear of being negatively evaluated which causes us to portray ourselves deceitfully which ultimately causes more emotional labor leading to depression. Quite the negative cycle – it can be confusing why people use social media at all if causes so much distress. Well, research has found that even if behaviours of lying self-presentation increases user’s level of depression, this depression can be reduced if popularity is achieved. In other words, posting a picture that conveys a situation that is not inline with the truth is worth the headache of emotional labour and anxiety if it delivers on the likes.
How can we use social media in a healthier way?
After reading all the negative consequences of social media it’s not uncommon to feel like you’re stuck on a train headed for disaster with no way of getting off. But, rest assured, it’s possible to stay on the train, slow it down and put your seat belt on and consume and post to social media in a more healthy way! Below are some tips of achieving that.
Studies have found that the more strangers you follow the greater social comparison will exist and the more frequently you use the app the more you’ll experience the depressive symptoms of social comparison. The same findings suggest that people who use Instagram to keep in touch solely with people they know personally are not at risk for negative consequences. Seeing pictures of friends and acquaintances can actually trigger positive feelings or at least counterbalance the attribution error by knowing how these people actually live. With this in mind, one step that can be taken to create a more mentally safe social media space is to either unfollow or at least ‘mute’ people who you do not know personally. The other key thing to take from the findings mentioned above is the idea that the frequency at which individuals use Instagram contributes to depressive symptoms. Therefore, monitoring and reducing the amount of time spent on the apps can have a direct association with the degree to which you experience depressive symptoms.
Finally, it is likely that by reducing the size of your network on the app and limiting your followers to people who you actually know, the need to post deceitful content will be reduced. Because we are conditioned to overamplify the positive aspects of our lives on social media this may take some practice and mindfulness. But understanding and reminding yourself of the negative consequences of creating a deceitful social media alter-ego can be helpful in re-evaluating why and what you post.