Understanding the impact of social media use on depression among young people has become increasingly crucial for both individuals and society as a whole. This article attempts to give you the details to get to grips with a fast-moving area of digital culture.
As Gen Z lives and breathes social media, instant messaging, video games, and live streaming, it is crucial to understand the potential impact of heavy online presence on their mental well-being.
By exploring this complex relationship, we can develop strategies to promote healthier online behaviors, protect young people from harmful content, and ensure their mental well-being remains a top priority.
Gen Z and social media use
In today’s digital age, adolescents (sometimes known as Gen Z, shorthand for young people aged 10 to 25 years of age (as of 2023)) are at the forefront of using various forms of digital media, with a significant portion of internet users worldwide falling under the age of 18.
The emergence of Gen Z marks a pivotal moment as they are the first generation to prioritize activities such as playing video games, browsing the internet, and engaging on social platforms as their favorite digital habits, rather than traditional media consumption such as watching TV and movies.
Some aspects of internet and social media use have been proven to positively affect young people’s lives and mental health, including benefits on mood, cognitive function, and social support.
However, while technological advancements have brought positive outcomes like easy access to information and proactive learning, excessive screen time can compound feelings of isolation and hinder the development of social skills.
Young people and mental health
Young people, particularly Gen Z, face significant challenges when it comes to their mental health. According to one survey, Gen Zers in the United States exhibit the least optimistic outlook and the highest prevalence of mental illness compared to any other generation.
This pessimism is fueled by various factors, including global unrest, wars, disruptions, financial crises, and the profound educational interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Gen Zers also experience a persistent sense of “climate anxiety,” regularly contemplating the fate of the planet. Economic uncertainty further exacerbates their mental health concerns, as they witness decreased economic opportunities and do not have confidence in a social safety net to support them in the face of shrinking pensions, challenging retirement savings, and a growing older population.
The impact on their mental well-being is evident, with a staggering 58% of Gen Z reporting they have not met a basic social need, which is the highest percentage among all generations.
However, Gen Zers also demonstrate a more nuanced perspective regarding the stigma surrounding mental illness compared to other age groups. European Gen Zers, in particular, show less inclination to discriminate against individuals with mental illness, although they do struggle with self-stigma. This self-stigmatization adds an additional layer of complexity to their mental health challenges.
Anxiety is a prevalent issue among Gen Z, with 29% acknowledging a propensity towards anxiety. One study found that half of the young people surveyed reported feeling stressed most of the time. These statistics emphasize the pressing need for comprehensive support systems and resources tailored to the unique mental health needs of young people.
Addressing the mental health concerns of Gen Z thus requires a multi-faceted approach that tackles social, economic, and environmental factors while also combating stigma and promoting well-being.
What are the warning signs of social media use impacting mental health?
The impact of social media on mental health can manifest in various ways and with different warning signs. While these signs may vary from person to person, some common indicators that social media use is impacting mental health include:
1 – Excessive time spent on social media
Spending excessive time on social media platforms – to the point of neglecting other responsibilities, relationships, or activities – can be a warning sign. It may indicate an unhealthy preoccupation with social media negatively affecting well-being.
2 – Social isolation and withdrawal
If an individual starts withdrawing from in-person social interactions and instead prefers to spend most of their time engaging with others solely through social media platforms, it could be an indication of social media impacting their mental health. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
3 – Negative self-comparison
Constantly comparing oneself to others on social media and experiencing feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and low self-esteem can be a warning sign. Social media often presents a distorted reality where people showcase their best moments, leading to unrealistic comparisons and negative self-perceptions.
4 – Mood changes and emotional distress
Excessive use of social media can contribute to mood swings, increased anxiety, depression, or feelings of sadness. Constant exposure to curated highlight reels of others’ ‘perfect’ lives can lead to dissatisfaction or a fear of missing out (FOMO).
5 – Sleep disturbances
Social media use, particularly before bedtime, can interfere with sleep patterns and quality. Engaging with stimulating content, experiencing electronic device-related light exposure, or experiencing anxiety related to social media interactions can disrupt sleep and impact overall mental well-being.
6 – Neglecting real-world activities and responsibilities
Suppose an individual starts neglecting real-life activities, such as work, school, hobbies, or personal relationships, in favor of spending excessive time on social media. In that case, it may indicate an unhealthy dependency that is negatively affecting their mental health.
7 – Cyberbullying and online harassment
Experiencing or engaging in cyberbullying and online harassment can have severe consequences on mental health. If an individual becomes a target of online abuse or actively participates in negative online behaviors, it can significantly impact their well-being.
It’s important to note these seven warning signs are not definitive proof of social media’s impact on mental health, but they serve as indicators that warrant attention and self-reflection. If someone identifies with these signs, seeking support from mental health professionals, reducing social media usage, establishing healthy boundaries, and prioritizing real-life connections and self-care may be beneficial.
Social media and depression: What does the research say?
Unsurprisingly, researchers have been investigating whether there is a link between social media and depression for some time. Among the studies published so far, the majority do suggest an association.
One critical research paper examined the association between social media use and depression among young adults in the United States. The study involved a large sample of 1,787 young adults aged 19-32. Participants were surveyed about their frequency of social media use across 11 popular platforms and assessed for symptoms of depression using a validated questionnaire.
The findings revealed a significant association between social media use and depressive symptoms. Specifically, participants who reported using social media more frequently had a higher likelihood of experiencing symptoms of depression. This relationship persisted even after controlling for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, and total time spent on digital devices.
The researchers further explored potential mechanisms underlying this association. They found that exposure to social media-related factors such as online harassment, social isolation, and the tendency to compare oneself unfavorably with others on social media platforms mediated the link between social media use and depression.
Overall, this study suggests that higher levels of social media use are associated with an increased risk of depression among young adults in the United States. The findings highlight the importance of considering both the quantity and quality of social media use when examining its impact on mental health, emphasizing the need for interventions and strategies that promote healthy and balanced social media engagement.
A more recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2019 found that higher levels of social media use were associated with increased symptoms of depression in adolescents. The research, which included over 3,800 participants, concluded that constant exposure to idealized representations of others’ lives on social media platforms can contribute to feelings of social comparison, negative self-perception, and, ultimately, depressive symptoms.
In a 2020 research paper published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, a longitudinal study involving over 500 adolescents found that higher social media use predicted increased depressive symptoms over time. The study suggested the adverse effects of social media on mental health could be attributed to factors such as cyberbullying, social isolation, and excessive comparison with others.
Overall, these studies do provide evidence linking social media use to an increased risk of depression in young individuals.
Social media and the de-stigmatization of mental health issues
Social media platforms have provided new avenues for individuals to share their experiences, engage in conversations, and raise awareness about mental health. This means the role of social media in mental health is a complex one.
In one 2020 study exploring the role of social media in reducing mental health stigma, researchers analyzed data from a large-scale survey that included responses from over 4,300 participants in the United States. The survey assessed participants’ use of social media platforms, their exposure to mental health-related content, and their attitudes toward mental health stigma.
Findings indicated that social media can play a positive role in combating mental health stigma. Participants who reported greater exposure to mental health-related content on social media platforms demonstrated more favorable attitudes toward seeking help for mental health issues and held less stigmatizing beliefs about individuals with mental health conditions.
Furthermore, the study found individuals who engaged in online discussions about mental health on social media were more likely to share their own experiences, offer support to others, and challenge stigmatizing beliefs. Social media platforms provide a sense of community and connection for individuals dealing with mental health challenges, enabling them to find support and validation in their experiences.
These findings suggest social media has the potential to facilitate valuable conversations about mental health, reduce stigma, and promote supportive online communities. However, it is essential to note that while social media can have positive effects, it has challenges. The study highlights the need for responsible use of social media platforms, the promotion of evidence-based information, and the implementation of strategies to ensure the safety and well-being of users.
TikTok and mental health
TikTok, an increasingly popular social media platform, currently rules trends, feelings, and culture for Gen Zers, who comprise 60% of the app’s one billion-plus users.
TikTok has gained attention for its impact on mental health in various ways. While TikTok can provide a platform for self-expression, creativity, and community support, it also presents potential risks and challenges. Here are some aspects of TikTok and mental health to be mindful of:
1 – Supportive communities
TikTok has become a space where individuals can share their experiences with mental health, raise awareness, and find support. Many users create content discussing their struggles, coping strategies, and recovery journeys, fostering community and connection among individuals facing similar challenges.
2 – Education and Awareness
TikTok enables mental health professionals, organizations, and advocates to disseminate educational content and promote awareness about mental health issues. Short-form videos can deliver psychoeducation, coping techniques, and self-care tips, reaching a broad audience and potentially reducing stigma.
However, TikTok creators who want to diminish the stigma surrounding mental health problems might unknowingly propagate misinformation on the platform, causing individuals discussing mental health to be easily mistaken for genuine professionals producing similar content.
3 – Creativity and self-expression
TikTok’s emphasis on creative expression enables users to explore and express their emotions, experiences, and perspectives through music, dance, art, storytelling, and more. This creative outlet can serve as a means of catharsis, self-discovery, and emotional release, positively impacting mental well-being.
4 – Challenges and triggers
TikTok’s content algorithm and trends may expose users to increasing volumes of potentially triggering or harmful content related to mental health. Videos that romanticize or glorify self-harm, eating disorders, or other unhealthy behaviors have been raised as a concern. The platform’s user-generated content can also contribute to unrealistic beauty standards, comparisons, and negative self-perception, impacting mental health negatively.
5 – Time-consuming and addictive
TikTok’s addictive nature and the endless scrolling experience can contribute to excessive screen time and neglect of real-life responsibilities. Spending excessive time on the platform may disrupt sleep patterns, reduce productivity, and worsen mental health.
TikTok has implemented various measures to promote user safety, content moderation, and mental health resources within the app. However, it is essential to approach TikTok and other social media platforms with mindfulness, balance, and critical thinking. Users are advised to prioritize their mental well-being by setting boundaries, curating their content feed, and seeking support from mental health professionals when needed.
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