Social Media and the Mind: Are the Effects As Bad As We Think?
By: Elijah Nimijean
This blog has been reviewed by Gingin Chien and Rebekah Weinman; edited, formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.
It’s no surprise that social media has quickly become the world’s preeminent form of social communication and interaction. Each day, hundreds of millions of individuals––varying in gender identity, nationality, and culture — log on to their computers or smartphones. Some may use these platforms for professional reasons: services such as LinkedIn provide their users with opportunities to advance their career, and network with individuals who have similar ambitions. Others — such as Instagram, YouTube or Reddit — may be used in a more diverse sense, allowing individuals to simply chat with like-minded users about their shared hobbies, interests, or passions. Regardless of what kind of platform is being used, the point remains that the vast majority of us regularly engage with social media.
It should also come as no surprise that this latest global obsession is not without its consequences, which is a particularly concerning consideration for the field of psychology. Facebook, in particular, has recently come under scrutiny for a number of alarming findings disclosed by whistleblowers. One of these discoveries was the company’s awareness that one of their platforms, Instagram, has been associated with worsened body image and mental health, especially amongst young, female users. Relatedly, the popular social media platform TikTok has been criticized for its design: some mental health professionals have likened TikTok’s algorithms to the slot machines of Las Vegas’s casinos. Both instill a similar psychological addiction, leading to a number of harmful effects, such as reduced attention spans. Other popular platforms — such as Snapchat and Instagram — have been accused of following the same design patterns.
Clearly, there seems to be some association between the largest social media platforms, and individuals — particularly young adolescents — suffering negative effects from their prolonged use. But when we start to consider why this might be happening, some ambiguities begin to emerge. After all, hundreds of millions of individuals use these services everyday, yet not everyone necessarily suffers from reduced self-esteem or increased anxiety. What are the specific mechanisms through which prolonged social media usage negatively impacts our psychological well-being?
Understandably, this question is too large to fully address in a single blog post. But for the purposes of this blog, one potential way by which social media affects mental well-being can be described: the manner in which individuals engage with social media.
as long as individuals mindfully engage with the social media services they use, they stand to gain a number of health benefits from doing so. If individuals obsess in their usage, they may suffer a number of detriments.
Three Kinds of Social Media Engagement
In 2015, Dr. Phillipe Verduyn and his team of researchers examined how Facebook usage contributed to worsened well-being over time. They hypothesized that the reason why some Facebook users suffer negative consequences whilst others do not is due to differences in how those individuals engage with Facebook. In this regard, the researchers conceptualized two distinct forms of engagement: “active” engagement and “passive” engagement. As its name suggests, active engagement refers to individuals behaving in such ways that they become involved in their social media feeds, usually by directly interacting with others (e.g. commenting on the posts of others, linking articles or posts to members of your friend group, posting status updates on your own profile, etc.). In contrast, those who exhibit passive engagement absentmindedly scroll through whatever the algorithm presents to them, solely consuming content, and never linking/sharing it with others, nor posting content themselves (Verduyn et al., 2015).
Verduyn and his team believed that it was this latter, passive form of engagement that was responsible for the detriments associated with Facebook usage . And indeed, their subsequent experiments confirmed their theories: when participants were asked to passively scroll through their Facebook feeds, it was found that their self-reported affective well-being (specifically in terms of their life satisfaction) worsened over time, unlike those who were asked to actively browse through Facebook (Verduyn, 2015).
Everything I have written thus far may make it seem as though social media can only lead to negative outcomes; that through a variety of different mechanisms — whether we are comparing ourselves to others on Instagram, or getting hooked on TikTok’s manipulative design — social media poses a risk to our well-being. However, I think it’s important to remind ourselves how social media can be used to enhance our psychological health. Perhaps, if these platforms are used as they were theoretically intended to be (as a way of connecting and interacting with others are), we might actually improve our well-being.
The good news is that a large body of empirical research supports this idea. For example, Dr. Mesfin Bekalu proposed the unique idea that social media can be used to bolster one’s offline social networks, as these social media transcend the geographic barriers that would normally prevent such interactions from occurring . Because these offline networks are enhanced, individuals can therefore enjoy the benefits that come with having an expanded social network; having more social support, and increased access to information provided by other network members (Bekalu, 2019).
In stark contrast to this incorporation of social media usage into one’s social routines, Bekalu described a third category of engagement: emotional connection. In brief, Bekalu hypothesized that individuals who had a particularly strong emotional connection to their social media usage — for example, obsessively checking different profiles/web pages out of fear of missing an opportunity, or feeling especially disappointed/anxious when your friends are not logged in — were likely to suffer negative health outcomes because of these connections (2019).
The findings from Bekalu’s experiments support his theories: incorporating social media usage into one’s social routines was positively associated with social well-being, positive mental health, and better self-rated health. Conversely, having an emotional connection to one’s social media usage was found to be negatively associated with all three of those outcomes (2019). Thus, the overall message from Bekalu’s work seems clear: as long as individuals mindfully engage with the social media services they use, they stand to gain a number of health benefits from doing so. If individuals obsess in their usage, they may suffer a number of detriments.
Social Media: A Mental Health Innovation?
As I wrote earlier in this blog, understanding the relationship between social media use and mental health remains a highly complex issue. To say nothing of how complicated the human mind and personality is, we also have to consider how complex and varied social media has become. According to the findings from Verduyn et al.’s (2015) study, active engagement would seem preferable to passive engagement. But what exactly would active engagement look like for a social media platform like YouTube? Would it share any resemblance with the engagement associated with Instagram or Facebook, or is it entirely distinct? Fully understanding the relationship between social media and human psychology will likely require decades-worth of additional research, and given what has been studied so far, it’s easy to assume that engaging at all with social media will only lead to negative consequences.
But I believe that now, more than ever, the potential benefits offered by social media are nonetheless worth pursuing, in spite of the risks. We have already discussed how, according to Dr. Bekalu, social media can be used to enhance offline social networks, which in turn enhances our psychological and physical health. But recent research also suggests that some social media platforms can actually help us handle existing psychological problems.
Authors Umashanthi Pavalanathan and Munmun Choudhury examined how the creation of alternative accounts (or “throwaway” accounts) on the social media platform Reddit can help individuals in their forum discussions on mental health issues. Because their alternative social media presence is so distinct from their offline network identities (and what may be considered “mainstream”), the researchers hypothesized it would be easier for individuals to discuss particularly sensitive information, such as their psychological well-being. The researchers also noted how such self-disclosure can be an important component of therapeutic programs, and is frequently associated with improved psychological and physical well-being . Indeed, the researchers’ observations seem to confirm their theories: the anonymity afforded to the individuals who participated in mental health forums by way of these throwaway accounts led to greater candor. The observed increases in the individuals’ self-awareness, present-mindedness, emotional experiencing, and cognitive processing are all known to be associated with a more sincere and ingenuous discourse, thereby facilitating the individual’s recovery from their particular condition (Pavalanthan, 2015).
Conclusion: A Balance of Risk and Reward
In summary, I do not believe that social media use is nearly as damaging as many of us might intuitively assume. This is not to say that it is entirely without risks — many of the news articles and research publications discussed in this blog communicate the idea that, for some, prolonged and emotional engagement with certain websites carries significant risks. More to the point, Pavalanthan and Choudhurry note that current social media platforms may not be doing enough to adequately address the psychological harm some of their users may experience: they propose that their research findings should be considered in designing future media sites. But we have also seen how beneficial these platforms can be, not only in terms of mental health or entertainment, but also, with regards to how we navigate living, working and learning in the age of COVID-19.
Social media platforms are not risk-free, and more research on how specific psychological concepts interact with certain platform designs is certainly needed. But so long as we navigate these platforms mindfully, actively engaging with our online communities, and use them to enhance our offline social networks, I believe we only stand to gain from their continued use.
Thank you all for reading my blog post! If you had any questions, or would like to tell me what you thought about the blog, you can reach me at my email address: email@example.com. I would also strongly recommend that you guys check out the Canadian Positive Psychology Association; you can learn more about the student ambassador program by checking out the Student Zone, or you could become a CPPA member yourself. If this blog interested you, or if you’d like to contribute a blog yourself, please consider becoming a member of the CPPA, and join our ever-growing community.
Bekalu, M. A., McCloud, R. F., & Viswanath, K. (2019). Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use. Health Education & Behavior, 46(2_suppl), 69S-80S. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119863768
Charles, R. (2021). New Company Documents Show Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls. ABC7 New York, WABC-TV, CNN Business. https://abc7ny.com/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-mental-health-teenage-body-image-issues/11022272/.
Koetsier, J. (2020). Digital Crack Cocaine: The Science behind TikTok’s Success. Forbes, Forbes Magazine. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/01/18/digital-crack-cocaine-the-science-behind-tiktoks-success/?sh=1ece23cf78be.
Parsons, J. (2020). OK Zoomer: Why Zoom Is the World’s New Favourite Social Network. Metro, Metro.co.uk. https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/23/ok-zoomer-zoom-worlds-new-favourite-social-network-12443418/#:~:text=Zoom%20is%20being%20used%20by,in%20the%20social%20media%20world.
Pavalanathan, U., & De Choudhury, M. (2015). Identity Management and Mental Health Discourse in Social Media. Proceedings of the … International World-Wide Web Conference. International WWW Conference, 2015(Companion), 315–321. https://doi.org/10.1145/2740908.2743049
Verduyn P, Lee DS, Park J, Shablack H, Orvell A, Bayer J, Ybarra O, Jonides J, Kross E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. J Exp Psychol Gen. Apr;144(2):480–8. doi: 10.1037/xge0000057.