Social Media: Friend or Foe?

By Bethany Wilshaw

*Trigger warning: Suicide*

In the past decade we have seen a monumental growth in social media, with it boasting around 3 billion users worldwide. To understand the magnitude of this vast and ever expanding phenomenon, a marketing study conducted by Skyword in 2018, showed that there are 11 new social media users every second of every day. That’s a lot of thumb scrolling. Social media is popularly used as a modern form of communication. With the click of a button we can now connect with other people from all over the globe. Gone are the days of writing a letter and waiting days, even weeks for a reply.

Social media is fast, effective and inarguably an integral part of our day-to-day lives. And it doesn’t stop there, it isn’t only reserved for personal use, in fact, in recent years it has become a fundamental marketing tool for businesses small and large all over the world. You could say it has become an industry in itself with its ability to cheaply market, brand and reach out to customers quickly and effectively. Job titles are now becoming exclusively social media related, opening up a whole new world of employment. In today's society, social media use has become a daily activity for most, with its aptitude to source news from one corner of the world to another. It also enables users to create and spread information in a matter of seconds.

A survey carried out by OnePoll (for online bank, First Direct) showed that the average person in the UK spends at least 2 hours a day on social media. Concerns have recently been raised regarding the impacts of excessive use of social media and the effects of unmonitored screen time. Which leads me to the question: What impact does this have on our mental health? To contextualise our exploration of this huge subject we did what we do best, we spoke to real people and we will be sharing their stories throughout this article, alongside some of the current research which is being conducted on this very subject at this current time.

In a survey produced by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young People Movement, 1,479 people aged 14-24 were asked to rate social media apps on a scale of negative to positive, regarding their mental health. Instagram was ranked ‘the worst for mental health’ on issues like anxiety, depression, body image and the feeling of missing out. But it is clear to see this isn’t just a common feeling amongst young people. It has be seen amongst different age ranges of social media users. Hayley Wheeler, a 43 year old Empowerment Coach from wales said:

“I would see posts about people's perfect lives and even though I knew the truth was far from perfection, I couldn't rationalise or balance the difference and would end up self punishing. Demanding answers to questions like why am I not worth happiness? What is wrong with me that I can't change my mental and emotional state, the answers weren't available and so it became a cycle of self punishment.”

Research shows that apps like Instagram and Facebook can trigger confidence issues with people regularly comparing their lives to those they see on social media, causing their self-esteem to take a dip. In the last few years we have seen the rise of the ‘influencer’. The dictionary definition of an influencer is: “A person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.” Instagram has become one of the main platforms for influencers, it is a space within the internet where a person can now create a ‘persona’ in which they can earn a living from creating the illusion of a ‘perfect life’. This illusion of a ‘perfect life’ can be detrimental to a person's mental health. To get a better understanding of this we spoke to 28 year old social media expert, Alex Pollock who is managing director of social media marketing company, Social Polly. Alex said:

“For a lot of young people its all about the likes. Social media has a huge impact on a person’s self-esteem, and whilst we all have our fair share of insecurities, comparing yourself to someone online with their aesthetically perfect-looking feed does nothing for your self-doubt. From a personal perspective, my social media usage outside of work is very minimal - I follow brands and people who I have a real interest in, and I try to keep the content feed of my own quite bespoke, ensuring that I'm only consuming the types of content I want to.”

As we know, social media is a great way to engage with people from all corners of the world but not all social media communication is a pleasant experience. Some users have been subjected to online abuse such as trolling and harassment. In the past year, the UK government has been taking steps to help tackle this kind of abuse, but some cases still slip through the net. Connor Strange aged 23 from Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, shared his story of online abuse with us. Here’s what he had to say:

“I started using Facebook when I was 13, which was around May 2009, and within a couple of weeks, I was getting messages off people saying that I was ugly, fat, useless, a waste of space, some said I should go and hang myself. The list goes on. Even people I knew and thought were my friends turned on me in an instant. Around a year later in 2010, I started using a website called AskFM which was a website where people could post anonymous questions and comments, I experienced online bullying through this website too. But it grew in intensity, the messages got more horrid. It came to the point where I attempted suicide. I felt there was no point anymore in my life.”

Connor’s story just goes to show how dangerous online abuse can be. It is an easy act to perpetrate unless a person's profile is private and it takes a matter of seconds to write an abusive message. Most people don’t realise that unpleasant comments can have a lasting effect on a person's mental health and in some cases, just like Connors, it can even lead to suicidal thoughts. Thankfully Connor has managed to rebuild his life and now works alongside Time to Change, using his own experiences to help those who are going through similar, but this type of abuse should have been prevented in the first place. Social media platforms such as Twitter have now said they are working towards improving the health of public conversation and have begun actively shutting down abusive accounts.

Although there are many negatives to social media and how it impacts a person’s mental health, we wanted to look at both sides of the argument. To do so we carried out some extensive research within our WeAreASSIF community. We noticed that a collective positive, was social media’s ability to create a sense of community within groups of people. Mental Health blogger James Tringham was keen to share his story with us:

“My personal experience of social media is very largely a positive one. I think that there are all sorts of negative aspects to the way social media has developed: Russian interference, fraud, false stories being propagated, the rise of extremism and, most of all, the tide of hate that has developed. I can't believe how much venom there is out there, and how much further people are willing to go online than they would in person.

Though, sadly, the online approach is increasingly tipping over into real life as well. But despite all that, I've found it helpful. I've suffered with mental health issues for years and years. My whole life, I think. I'm bipolar, and it wrecked large parts of my adult life: my education, my career, my marriage, and so on. I was a solicitor, but I had to give that up after a breakdown about ten years ago. When I was out of work, I was often too scared to go out of my flat. Twitter therefore became my means of communicating with the world. And I made a policy decision to be open about my mental health issues.

Twitter friends have been rallying around. I have met two of them who are local; there have been many messages; I've had other offers of help. These include people I've met through Twitter, and it's spilled over into real life, rather than the other way around. Getting out and seeing people I find is one of the most helpful things I can do. Via my manager, friends at work have also been in touch and dragging me out a good deal. At the moment, that is quite literally life-saving. I find that I use writing as a means of establishing and analysing exactly how I feel, as well as to communicate with others. My blog gives me an opportunity to do that, in some depth.”

Through the stories and experiences shared in this article it is clear to see that there are both positives and negatives when it comes to social media. One thing that remains apparent is the fact that social media has become a part of human life and will be for the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that unmonitored and unregulated usage can have a negative effect on a person's mental health, especially with our current culture of comparison but when used safely and when regulated, social media has proven to act as cathartic space and a real sense of community for some people. It seems as though the responsibility in relation to its negative effects should left in the hands of the providers and more should be done to reduce any potential harm it may cause to a vulnerable person.

If you’ve been having suicidal thoughts, or you know somebody who is, these are the numbers to call to get some help.

Samaritans: 116 123

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Papyrus (for those under 35): 0800 068 41 41

Childline (for children and young people under 19): 0800 1111

The Silver Line (for the elderly): 0800 4 70 80 90