Our world has faced enormous challenges over the past couple of years. We have persevered through unpredictable circumstances due to the pandemic and faced many changes that have put a significant strain on people’s mental health. At one point, social isolation forced most of our daily interactions to go from in-person to virtual, and we have felt the effects of spending so much time online and more specifically on social media. At the same time, these struggles have emphasized the need to take care of ourselves, set boundaries, and prioritize our mental health.
Even before the pandemic, the prevalence of mental health conditions had been worsening. However, the pandemic and recent events in 2021 have inspired a whole new perspective and conversation surrounding the importance of mental health.
Recently, the topic has been heavily discussed on one of the world’s biggest stages: the Olympics. Gymnastic champion and gold medalist Simone Biles was one of the courageous individuals to speak up about her challenges with mental health in the Tokyo 2021 games. Biles withdrew from multiple events during the games when she recognized that her mental health was putting her at too big of a risk to execute her routines.
When she talked about her withdrawal, Biles explained that “We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too”. Biles’s statement is a testament to how mental health issues can affect all of us, no matter who we are or what challenges we face. And although Biles does not owe anyone an explanation, many have turned to the internet to comment on her decision. Because as we know– everyone has an opinion online.
Social media heightens emotions for athletes
Biles’s statement has further amplified a dialogue about mental health that has become more prominent in recent years– and athletes all around the world have stepped in to share their stories in support. One of the areas that many athletes have agreed upon is the strain that social media can have on their well-being.
Although the online reaction to Biles’s decision was predominantly supportive, this is not always the case. Far too often, athletes are subjected to criticism, attacks and even threats online. Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard recently explained that he is cautious about his social media use since it can heighten already strong emotions, and other athletes have cautioned against using social media during competitions. But these issues are not unique to Olympians, we are all susceptible to the negative effects and powers of social media.
Social media has become a part of our daily lives and one of the primary ways for many of us to keep up with what our friends and family are doing. But despite its ability to bring people together, in certain instances, social media can contribute to more loneliness than connectedness.
But rather than us coming up with conclusions, we wanted to let the people do the talking. To dive deeper into how social media impacts one’s mental health, we conducted a study with 168 respondents to find out about their experiences (positive and negative) with some of the worlds’ top social media platforms.
Some platforms impact mental health more than others
We first asked social media users which platforms they believed had an impact (either positive or negative) on their mental health out of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat. We found that the most frequently selected platforms were Facebook (83%), Instagram (54%), and Twitter (40%).
While some users also reported that TikTok and Snapchat had an impact, we found that opinions were the most mixed for the leading three platforms.
Conflicting emotions while using social media
Of the respondents that selected Instagram, the majority (56%) believed it had a positive impact on their mental health whereas 17% believed it had a negative impact. The stories shared by both sides reveal the conflicting emotions that can arise while using social media. Instagram is viewed as a fun social app for some, but for others, the app creates an intense environment of comparison, which can cause us to view ourselves more negatively.
Those that believe the app has a positive impact on their mental health indicated that one reason for this sentiment was “I enjoy seeing photos of people I like to keep up with” which was supported by 81% of respondents who were asked to agree or disagree with the statement. Other positive impacts were that Instagram was a “fun app” (82% support) and that “It helps me to connect with others and not feel so alone” (62% support).
Social comparison tendencies on Instagram
On the other hand, for those who said the app had a negative impact on their mental health, they felt that Instagram “Makes me envious and want to have a life that I don’t have” (75%) and it causes “comparison between friends” (69%). Social comparison can make someone feel inadequate and negatively impact the way we perceive ourselves. This can lead to lower self-esteem and can ultimately worsen mental health.
In what ways does using Instagram have a negative impact on your mental health?
The issue of social comparison and feeling lesser-than is not exclusive to Instagram or even social media platforms, but these digital environments increase the ease in which one can see and compare their lives to others as well as the amount of information we have access to. It’s important to limit the time spent on these platforms or take a break from them when struggling with negative social comparison. In fact, this was the top strategy respondents reported using to combat the negative impact social media apps have on their mental health.
Facebook’s good and bad sides
Of the respondents who believe Facebook impacts their mental health, we found that 17% believe it has a negative impact, and 50% believe it has a positive impact. The two groups have very different perspectives on the platform. On one hand, the positively impacted group agreed that Facebook “Allows me to connect” (91%) and even “Gives me a window to the outside world” (90%).
Contrastingly, the other group strongly emphasized the negativity on the platform saying that “There’s just so much negativity on Facebook that’s why I do not really get on it anymore” (61%) and noted the prevalence of other serious issues such as “sexism” (53%). Others highlighted some of the social comparison issues brought up by Instagram users in stating that “If you are feeling down [seeing] others happiness might make you worse” (39%).
In what ways does using Facebook have a positive impact on your mental health?
In what ways does using Facebook have a negative impact on your mental health?
Overall, many respondents view Facebook as a positive place to keep in touch with family and friends, but for some, the negativity and drama can have adverse effects to their mental health.
Twitter is home to arguments
Similar to Facebook and Instagram, Twitter users also have varying opinions on how it affects their mental health. 50% of respondents believe that Twitter has a positive impact compared to 20% who believe the impact is negative. The positively impacted respondents offered reasons such as “It keeps me happy” (72%) and “It’s a great way to connect with others” (60%).
Conversely, those who believe it negatively affects their mental health agree that “People [are] arguing on there everyday” (74%) and that “It has a false narrative of reality” (74%) while others also mentioned how the platform was too political. These responses are indicative of the stress that can come from the polarized and sometimes political arguments on Twitter. For some, this stress can negatively impact their mental health. The statement of Twitter being a “false narrative of reality” also highlights the echo-chamber effect of Twitter and points to a greater battle against misinformation that social media companies have been facing.
How to improve the relationship between social media and mental health
Many people feel that social media platforms can have a positive impact on their mental health through connecting with their friends and family and using the platforms for entertainment. However, there is also a darker side to social media that can create added challenges to our mental health. While the social media platforms don’t create all these issues, they can certainly amplify them, and may be able to do a better job at mitigating them.
When we asked respondents what advice they would give to social media platforms to mitigate negative impacts on users’ mental health, many agreed with the statement “I would like them to know that mental health for every individual is a vital thing, there should be a way to disregard messages with negative effects” (73% support). Others suggested “Having more mental health pages” (59%). In general, social media platforms have many opportunities to play a more active role in keeping their users safe and limiting the negative impact of their platforms.
As mentioned, users also explained that they take their own measures to combat the negative impact of using these platforms, namely they “stop going on it for a while” (59%) or they choose to participate in other activities like “go for a walk” (51%).
While there is no one solution to the mental health challenges people experience on social media, by continuing to raise mental health awareness we can work towards new solutions and better resources for those struggling with mental health online and off.
Click here to read about a recent Impact Brief focused on finding a mental health support solution for students of color.
Do you have a customer insight question you would like solved? #FridayInSight has your answer! We’ll design a study, collect data on the GroupSolver® platform, and share with you a free report with our findings. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.