Main Line: 202-559-3900
Donor Help Line: 202-559-3888
Toll Free: 1-888-35PSYCH
Email: [email protected]
By Christina Macenski, M.D.,
APAF Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow,
Resident Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School
The relationship between social media use and mental health is complicated and ever-changing. The strategies that social media sites use to engage us, their audience, can affect people differently depending on if they struggle with mental health challenges or not.
The context behind social media use (e.g. motivation for use, time of day accessed, etc.) and the person using social media (e.g. type of mental health symptoms, gender, age, etc.) can help create a situation where social media use is either healthy or problematic. To make matters more complicated, the way we use social media can also affect mental health outcomes.
Social media sites use various strategies to increase user engagement. The four strategies identified below can differentially affect people who struggle with mental health symptoms.
Social media platforms encourage users to stay on their websites by using closed portals (where all links on a platform lead to other parts of the same platform) and infinity scrolls (where content is loaded automatically, rather than having to hit “next”). These features are marketed as a convenience; however, they also decrease the ability for a user to understand how long they are spending on social media by removing natural cues for cessation/breaks.
Why it matters: individuals with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety, and depression might be more affected by these strategies. Additionally, children and teenagers may have trouble with time management to begin with, as their brains are less developed for executive functioning tasks.
Online environments may allow for negative interactions due to factors such as anonymity, disinhibition and reactivity. Once an online discussion becomes argumentative, it is hard to back track. This may produce environments that lead to negative interactions that shame and magnify counterproductive behaviors and thoughts.
Why it matters: Individuals with mental health symptoms may think differently from their peers, leading to misunderstandings. Notably, thinking differently may provide discussions with variety and diversity. Children and adolescents may be particularly affected depending on their developmental stage at the time of social media use.
It is easy for people to assess self-worth based on the numbers of “likes”, “shares”, or comments on their profile. For example, if unique/original content is not “liked” enough, someone might (incorrectly) assume that their content is not interesting. This may create a cycle where they share less, decreasing opportunities for positive engagement.
Why it matters: People with mental health challenges such as ADHD, ASD, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders may affect how often they post, how they interpret engagement with their posts, and equate social media attention with self-worth. Children and teenagers may be more prone to related social media use with self-worth, as they are consistently trying out new identities and ideas about themselves.
Social media sites offer little in the way of customization. You cannot turn off the infinity scroll, nor can you easily block certain content.
Why it matters: People with ADHD, ASD, anxiety, mood disorders, and eating disorders cannot control what they see, creating the potential in engaging in problematic content unique to their symptoms. Children and teenagers actually may be better able to control the content of social media given new apps/programs that allow customization for those skilled with technology.