Social Media: is Documenting the Self Worsening Mental Health?
Last month, the British Department for Education unleashed an avalanche of media reports when they released a report linking worsening teenage mental health with the advent of social media.
“…the problem is not the screen — like all shiny things, they simply show reflections.” — Eva Wiseman, Guardian columnist
Eva raises a good point; social media is something that we brought into existence, not something that happened to us. Social media’s skeleton is one of complex algorithms reflecting our desire to communicate the self. They have been meticulously fine-tuned and developed based on what we as users respond to.
The social desire to document and communicate positive identity is well established, and has manifested itself in different ways throughout history. For example, keeping diaries was all the rage for millions of our Victorian predecessors. Social media is the latest manifestation of the desire to document and communicate the self, apart from this time we’re grappling with the need to craft a persona that's accessible to all, 24/7.
Trying to craft a fixed persona for this new fixed space is difficult, because there’s no fixed lens to view ourselves through. Moment to moment we change and adapt, assuming as many different personas as the number of people we come into contact with or situations we find ourselves in.
Social media has created an artificially fixed lens to view ourselves through, and it’s at odds with the fundamental nature of identity as fluid, relational and ever-changing.
How do we encapsulate our vast selves? How to respond to a social pressure calling for a vacant online space with our name on it to be filled with one fixed narrative? How do we get that narrative to communicate personal, professional and social success all at once?. Such questions inevitably give rise to a more essential one: who even am I? and just how far do I extend the parameters of ‘brand me’?
Social media amplifies these difficult questions, and other real world stressors in an online space. For example, 40% of headteachers recently reported seeing a big rise in cyber-bullying.
Social-comparison (comparing our lives to others) has also been bolstered by social media. We know that self-acceptance is crucial to good mental health, and online social comparison has been shown to worsen it. It’s particularly harmful because it involves comparing the behind-the-scenes authenticity of our own lives with the highlights reels of others which are rich in traditional markers of material, social and academic success. This can give rise to distressing feelings of inadequacy which are in conflict with the kind of self-acceptance we know supports good mental health.
If we’re serious about improving our mental health, we need to move the debate beyond asking if social media is the problem to looking at the root problems it reflects to us. After all, the screen is just a shiny surface.