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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Social Media Comparison: The Effect on Mental Health

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc

Disclosures

October 01, 2021

Social media is ingrained in my life. I use it to connect with friends, read up on current events, and as a brain-break outlet. I must admit, however, that it's also become an unhealthy habit. For example, Instagram is the first application I open in the morning. I'll scroll for a few minutes and see what everyone else is up to. There are definitely moments throughout the day when I see a story or post of a friend doing something fun and I think to myself, Why am I not doing the same thing?

Hook, line, and sinker.

Often, individuals will use social media to craft the narrative they want the public to see. More often than not, people will share memories that bring them joy, make them proud, or as a platform to seek self-righteousness. Less often, they'll show you their true colors — how they really feel, what they really look like (eg, without makeup or without the cool new outfit they just purchased). The currency of social media lies in the number of likes, shares, and positive comments. All in all, it's become a ubiquitous repository of information that doesn't necessarily paint a true picture of reality.

Previous literature has reported on the detrimental effects of unhealthy social media use. For example, researchers have found that social media use is associated with elevated levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and poor sleep. While that's not to dismiss the benefits that social media has brought forth, such as a sense of community, a place for self-expression, and a method to stay connected, the negativity surrounding its unhealthy usage should also be discussed.

Indeed, Instagram has recently been called out by The Wall Street Journal as a notable source of harm for teenage girls. Instagram was reported to worsen body image issues for approximately a third of teenage girls. Worsening self-perception was also identified among boys (14%). In fact, Instagram was related to suicidal thinking among 13% of British users and 6% of American users.

This finding was also reported in 2017 when the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) UK conducted a survey (N = 1474) among 14- to 24-year-olds ranking five popular social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube). This survey had identified Instagram as one of the worst-ranking social media platforms with respect to its impact on health and well-being.

"Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people's mental health issues. Through our Young Health Movement, young people have told us that social media has had both a positive and negative impact on their mental health. It's interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and well-being — both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people," says Shirley Cramer, the former chief executive officer of RSPH.

There is an omnipresent pressure to look and stay polished on Instagram, and on social media broadly. In combination with its addictive nature, social media has been at the forefront of unhealthy relationships with the body.

"The picture-perfect images on Instagram's news feeds are so potent that they cement these superficial and harmful values into adolescent brains without them even knowing it," says Dr Lindsay Kite, author of More Than A Body.

I'm guilty as well of trying to craft a new identity through social media. However, it's important to put a halt to this myth that our well-being is tied to external validation. The RSPH has suggested a few methods to combat unhealthy social media relationships:

  • Provide pop-up messages cautioning excessive social media use

  • Provide an indication on photos that have been digitally edited

  • Educate individuals on safe social media use and consumption as part of a school curriculum

Additional research is needed to parse out the relationship between social media use and mental health. It remains to be determined whether social media use is the source of poor mental health or whether vulnerable individuals who are drawn to these platforms have an increased uptake which in turn exacerbates existing concerns.

It may be a long road ahead, but we need to dig deep and leverage social media for positive use. There is great potential to establish community and a sense of security, but these supports may only be established once we set boundaries in this virtual world.

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc student. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence.

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