By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
levelFILM/courtesy Everett Collection
Photo: Gao Yuanyuan in ‘Caught in the Web’ (2012).
Being constantly bombarded by other people’s supposedly successful and happy lives may not be good for your mental health.
Instagram, an app that people use to share photos of their lives as seen through a series of flattering filters, was rated worst for the mental health of young people in a study by the Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. The researchers asked nearly 1,500 British social media users aged 14 to 25 about five of the most popular social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. The aim of the survey was to find out how they feel each of these platforms impacts their health and well-being. Based on the 14 health-related questions, Instagram came out the worst, followed by Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.81% and YouTube.
“Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol,” Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said in a statement. “It is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.” (Indeed, one-quarter of millennials look at their phone more than 100 times a day compared with just 10% of baby boomers, a study released this week found.) Both Instagram and Snapchat “are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” she says. (The social networks mentioned in the report did not immediately reply to request for comment.)
Previous research has made a connection between social media usage and mental health. A 2015 study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking suggested young people who are heavy users of social media — spending more than two hours a day — are more likely to report poor mental health and psychological distress, symptoms of which include anxiety and depression. While constantly browsing photos of other people’s lives may exacerbate some problems, it could be a sign of poor mental health rather than the cause: “The findings suggest that students with poor mental health may be greater users of social networks,” it concluded.
What’s more, teenagers suffering from depression or anxiety often use smartphones as a coping skill rather than learning to sit with their emotions and developing relationships, according to Cole Rucker, co-founder and chief executive of Paradigm Malibu, an adolescent mental health and drug abuse treatment center. “Teenagers suffering from depression or anxiety often use smartphones as a coping skill rather than learning to sit with their emotions and developing relationships,” Rucker previously told MarketWatch. “Very often, cellphone use is just like drug use, another negative coping style, and a way to avoid thoughts and feelings.”
Oversharing on Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -2.03% has previously been linked to loneliness. People who spent the most time on social media had twice the odds of having greater perceived social isolation, a recent study of more than 1,700 people published in the academic “ American Journal of Preventive Medicine .” Social isolation, a state in which an individual lacks a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others, and fulfilling relationships, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, the researchers said.
It isn’t the first time scientific research has linked sadness and Facebook, either. More than 79% of the users who describe themselves as “lonely” disclosed personal information, such as their favorite books and movies, compared with less than 65% of other users, according to a 2014 study
published by researchers at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, which appeared in the journal, “Computers in Human Behaviour.” The study analyzed Facebook postings of more than 600 women — half of them described themselves as “lonely.”
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What’s more, nearly 98% of the lonely users shared their relationship status publicly on Facebook instead of restricting it to just friends, and they even publicly shared their home address online, according to the study’s authors, associate professor Yeslam Al-Saggaf and lecture Sharon Neilson from CSU’s School of Computing and Mathematics. People who don’t explicitly state that they’re lonely on Facebook (though some might be) tend to share more about subjects like religion and politics, the study found.
“It makes sense that the people who felt lonely would disclose this type of information,” Al-Saggaf says. “They want to make it easier for others to initiate contact with them, which may help them overcome their feelings of loneliness.” But over-dependence on social networks as a social outlet can also lead to what some doctors call “Facebook Depression,” according to a 2010 report, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Family,” by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (A spokesman for Facebook pointed to its own research that shows connecting with friends online improves well-being .)
And yet social media can create unrealistic expectations. Rich DeNagel, a former high-school teacher in his 40s who’s currently on disability, says he went off Facebook for several months because it made him feel depressed. “For the most part I feel Facebook is a lonely experience. You don’t often see people putting out that they’re going through a hard time,” he says. “There’s a lot of social pressure to show that everything’s great. It’s a never-ending quest to be interesting and intellectual and unique, and strive to prove something to the world. You can’t just be yourself.”
It was a particularly bad 12 months for those who wanted to avoid stressful subjects online. In the months leading up to the U.S. presidential election, political arguments were raging on Facebook. And they often result in the unkindest cut of all — unfriending. The biggest social network on the planet has said that the 2016 presidential election alone has generated over 5.3 billion posts, likes, comments and shares, with nearly 110 million Americans participating in the online debate between January and October last year.
That said, sharing images on social media can have a positive impact on the networkers. It exposes people to the lives of others, their good times and bad times, says Tracy Packiam Alloway, associate professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and co-author of another study, “Is Facebook Linked to Selfishness?” Never before in history have people who feel alone been able to talk to hundreds, even thousands of people with a single picture, adds Julie Hanks, owner and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City.
For some, there’s too much bragging online. DeNagel, who has a higher than average 500 friends on Facebook (771, to be exact), says the social network is useful for keeping in touch with people with whom he might otherwise have lost touch, but he still treads carefully with his online footprint. “It makes me feel more lonely,” he says. “I don’t want to take a selfie every day and change my picture or tell everyone what my inner thoughts are because maybe I’m a bit more private. But I’m sure there is a group for people who are lonely and depressed , if I went to look for it.”