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Written by Michael Plis. Your go-to source for smart technology & cybersecurity insights for small business. 

  • Writer's pictureMichael Plis

Is social media better or worse for mental health?

Updated: Jun 28

Social media has become an undeniable force in our lives. We connect with friends and family, share experiences, and consume information – all through our devices. But what about the impact on our mental health? Is social media a source of support and connection, or a breeding ground for anxiety and depression?

Young man is addicted to social media and he can't stop using social media
Entire generations of young people are growing up with social media addiction. Image by Meta AI

In recent years, the debate over whether social media is beneficial or detrimental to mental health has intensified. Researchers, healthcare professionals, and parents are increasingly concerned about the impact of social media on mental well-being, particularly among young people. Here, we will explore the latest findings on this issue and consider practical advice for managing social media use.


Contents



The Benefits of Social Media


Friends talking to each other
Social media has a few benefits - but only a few. Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Social media can offer few mental health benefits:


  • Connection and Support: Social media platforms can help individuals stay connected with friends and family, offering a sense of community and support. For those who feel isolated, these connections can provide emotional comfort and a feeling of belonging. But can you get that with other forms of social connection? Yes


  • Access to Information and Resources: Social media can serve as a valuable source of information on mental health issues. Users can find support groups, mental health resources, and professional advice more easily. Do you need social media to access information and resources? No- you have the whole internet and physical libraries.


  • Self-Expression and Creativity: Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter allow users to express themselves creatively, which can be therapeutic and boost self-esteem. Do you need social media to express yourself? No, you can do that online on your own website, in person by holding an exhibition or performance or going on TV or radio.





The Drawbacks of Social Media


Despite these benefits, there are significant concerns about the negative impact of social media on mental health:


  • Comparison and Low Self-Esteem: Constant exposure to curated, idealized images of others' lives can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. This phenomenon, known as "social comparison," can be particularly harmful to adolescents.


  • Unrealistic beauty standards and body image issues:  The constant exposure to edited photos and unrealistic beauty standards can lead to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem.


  • Cyberbullying, online harassment & reputation damage: Social media can be a breeding ground for cyberbullying, which can have severe emotional and psychological consequences for victims. Reputation damage can be extreme with such things as the cancel culture.


  • Sleep, Addiction and Time Management: Excessive use of social media can lead to addiction, negatively impacting productivity, sleep, and real-life social interactions. Studies have shown that spending too much time on social media can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression.  The stimulating nature of social media and the blue light emitted from screens can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to fatigue and impacting mental well-being.


  • Fear of missing out (FOMO) and social comparison: Seeing others' seemingly perfect lives online can lead to feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction with your own life.


  • Difficulty concentrating and attention problems:  The constant notifications and distractions from social media can make it difficult to focus on tasks and can shorten attention spans.


  • There are many more drawbacks of social media.


There is a really good documentary that shows the mechanics of how social media works and it’s effects on the brain and humans. Its called “The Social Dilemma” available on Netflix (Watch the full documentary on Netflix here: https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224 ). Here is the trailer: 




The Social Dilemma | Official Trailer | Netflix





US Surgeon General's Warning


U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has emphasized the urgent need to address the negative effects of social media on children. He likened the mental health crisis among young people to a public health emergency, noting that social media is a significant contributor. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Murthy called for a warning label on social media apps, similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol, highlighting the profound risks they pose to mental health.


Murthy cited studies indicating that teens who spend three hours a day on social media double their risk of depression. Given that teens spend nearly five hours a day on these platforms, the potential for harm is considerable. He pointed out that the prevalence of social media use among kids is nearly universal, with over 95% of them engaged on these platforms.


The Surgeon General's Call for Legislative Action



Murthy has consistently warned about the harms of social media on children's well-being, and his recent declaration of an emergency underscores the urgency of the issue. In May 2023, he issued an advisory highlighting that there is insufficient evidence to deem social media safe for children's mental health, describing it as a "profound risk of harm."


Murthy has advocated for practical measures parents can take, such as restricting social media use and ensuring that environments like schools and family gatherings remain phone-free. He also recommended that children should not join social media platforms until they are older and more capable of managing their time and emotional responses.


In recent development Dr Murphy suggested to congress that it might be advisable to require apps display and warning labels similar to cigarettes and alcohol when people enter social media apps. But Dr Murphy said that this may not be sufficient. He argues that schools should become phone free, which is no surprise when Australian schools have already adopted that and other countries are following suit. 




  

Legislative Efforts


Some states have already started taking legislative action. For instance, Florida has passed a bill prohibiting children under 14 from having their own social media accounts and requiring parental consent for those under 16. Similarly, New York is working on legislation to limit the influence of algorithms on children's feeds and protect their data privacy. 

Australia has discussed banning social media for people under 16. Will the rest of the US and other English speaking nations follow in this direction? But the problem according to the eSafety Commissioner is when you ban social media children will hide access to social media anyway - so what's the solution? Here are some ideas to help with this: 


Education and Open Communication:


  • Talk about online safety: Discuss cyberbullying, privacy settings, and responsible online behaviour.

  • Promote critical thinking: Help them evaluate what they see online and identify unrealistic portrayals.

  • Set boundaries together: Create age-appropriate time limits and discuss responsible content creation.


Platform Features and Parental Controls:


  • Age-appropriate versions: Encourage platforms to develop safer versions for younger users.

  • Stronger parental controls: Platforms can offer more granular controls over content, privacy, and screen time.

  • Reporting and Support: Easy reporting systems for bullying and clear support options for struggling users.


Building Alternatives:


  • Focus on real-world connections: Encourage hobbies, sports, and in-person activities.

  • Promote positive online spaces: Highlight educational content creators and online communities.


Remember: It's a collaborative effort. Parents, educators, and social media platforms all have a role to play in creating a safer online environment for young people.




Social Media and Suicidal Ideation Statistics Worldwide


While pinpointing a direct causal link between social media and suicide is challenging, research suggests a correlation between social media use and an increased risk of suicidal ideation (thoughts about suicide) especially among young adults but I think in extension this is data that relates to young adults but the public in general. The data is very clear and very blunt: social media is having dangerous effects. 



Here are some key statistics:


Correlation between Social Media and Mental Health:


  • A 5,000 person study “Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study” found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction. — American Journal of Epidemiology, 2017 [https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/185/3/203/2915143]

  • A 2023 study by MDPI found a significant correlation between social media addiction and suicidal ideation in young adults, with platforms like TikTok showing a higher association [https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/13/4/82].

  • Studies consistently link heavy social media use to increased social comparison and feelings of inadequacy, which can contribute to depression and anxiety – both risk factors for suicidal ideation [https://socialmediavictims.org/mental-health/suicide/].


Cyberbullying and Suicidal Thoughts:



Exposure to Specific Content:



However, it's important to note that some platforms are actively working to remove harmful content and promote mental health resources., but I wonder whether those automated algorithms are getting rid of everything harmful or does viral content still contain mentally damaging content? From what I have seen on social media those defences aren't working and AI’s promise of improved content filtering for Meta, TikTok and X are not really working. Is mass social media starting to be something more detrimental than beneficial?





Practical Tips for Social Media Users

There are a few techniques that I have learned as I occasionally experience social media addiction to help me and also some tips for parents and social media. 


Disclaimer: The suggestions and tips in this article don't replace professional help such as a local doctor, psychologist and other professionals that will help parents and citizens to deal with social media and if need be help in breaking the addiction to social media. 


Suicide Help Lines


Visit Find a helpline website to find a helpline in your country: findahelpline.com


With over 1300 suicide prevention helplines in 130 countries you can access help almost anywhere in the world. They can be beneficial in addressing a critical situation and help you see another angle to the situation especially when it involves online or social media causes.


Support Phone Lines in English speaking countries: 



Social Media Advice for Adults

Here is some advice I have to share with adults and of course with young people in principle from my experience as an adult using social media: 


a) When you start spending too much time on social media, uninstall the apps and use the web versions of the social media sites only if its helping to reduce your use. If still a problem then delete the accounts and uninstall social media apps. It’s that simple! Abstinence is better than trying to deal with the addictive effects of it. Withdrawal symptoms will be hard and it’s important to fill that time with social connection and meaningful tasks and relaxation and work  - as long as its nothing, otherwise you will most likely go back to social media. 


b) Turn off all notifications for these social media apps or any app that may be too annoying (there is research around this to be helpful): 


  • Android:

    • Open Settings.Tap Apps & notifications (or similar wording depending on your device).

    • Select See all apps (if needed).

    • Choose the app you want to silence notifications for.

    • Tap Notifications.

    • Toggle All notifications to off for complete silence.

    • Alternatively, you can choose specific notification categories to turn off


  • Apple:

    • Open Settings.

    • Tap Notifications.

    • Scroll down and find the app you want to manage.

    • Toggle Allow Notifications off to silence all notifications.

    • You can also customise notification settings like sound, badges, and Lock Screen display.


  • Tip: Both Android and iPhone allow you to silence notifications directly from the notification itself. Swipe down on the notification shade (Android) or Notification Center (iPhone), then long-press the notification and tap "Settings" to manage for that specific app.





c) Setup Do not disturb schedules or activate them manually as needed. I’ve been using do not disturb schedules and settings for a long time because it helps you focus on tasks and deal with other non urgent things later. Modern society has gotten too addicted to text messaging via sms, chat and email. This has created a giant flood of information messages towards every person. It’s logistically impractical to be checking all of these coming every minute thus breaking concentration on tasks you might be undertaking.


So I now have a rule: If I get a text message or email I don’t treat it as urgent at this current time, but I do treat calls as on the spot. With that principle you can configure Do Not Disturb accordingly to silence messages and notifications and allow calls and calendar reminders (but on certain times of the day eg: work hours, if you have sick or those you ned to watch you may have to allow calls 24/7): 


  • Android:

    • Access Do Not Disturb via quick settings panel (swipe down then tap and hold Do Not Disturb button to get to settings) or Settings app (Sound or Notifications then into Do Not Disturb).

    • Turn on Do Not Disturb quickly via Quick Settings by pressing the Do Not Disturb or set up schedules for automatic activation.

    • In Do not Disturb Settings you can customize exceptions to allow calls, messages, or alarms even in Do Not Disturb mode.

    • Scheduling: Within the Do Not Disturb menu (from either method), find options like "Schedules" or "Automatic rules." Here, you can create new schedules or edit existing ones.

      • For example, you could set Do Not Disturb to turn on during sleep hours (e.g., 10 PM to 7 AM) or during weekdays for a focused work session.

      • Look for options like "Exceptions" or "Allow interruptions from" within the Do Not Disturb menu. This lets you choose what gets through even when Do Not Disturb is on.


  • iPhone: 

    • Swipe down from the top-right corner (iPhone X and later) or swipe up from the bottom (older iPhones) to open the Control Center

    • Tap the Focus icon (might resemble a crescent moon). This activates Do Not Disturb.

    • Set Duration: After tapping Focus, choose a duration (e.g., 1 hour).

    • Schedules (Optional):  Settings > Focus > Do Not Disturb > Turn on Automatically. Set schedules based on time, location, or app usage.

    • Allowed Notifications (Optional): Settings > Focus > Do Not Disturb. Choose apps and people allowed to send notifications during Do Not Disturb.


  • Bonus Tip: Both Android and iPhone offer more granular Do Not Disturb settings. Explore these options within the dedicated Do Not Disturb menus to customise how interruptions are silenced.





Tips for Parents with Teenagers and Children


In light of these concerns, parents can take several steps to protect their children from the potential negative effects of social media. Consider these Bible principles:


“The shrewd one ponders each step.”​—Proverbs 14:15 (New world translation) 


  • Considering the potential risks, do not succumb to pressure to permit your child to use social media. Before granting access, ensure your child demonstrates maturity by adhering to time restrictions, fostering positive relationships, and avoiding inappropriate content. 


  • Why? I spoke to a few parents and one told me of an example of a child under 9 years old who ended up watching adult anime on TikTok, then the teacher called and said the child tried to hurt themselves seriously. The power over an impressionable mind is huge. Each parent needs to weigh the risks and benefits. Can Chat apps like WhatsApp and Viber be a safer option? Perhaps those apps have their own dangers - but they could be safer than mass social media. 


“[Make] the best use of your time.”—Ephesians 5:16 (New world translation) 


  • If you decide to permit your child to use social media, establish clear guidelines for its use and explain how these rules contribute to their safety. Remain vigilant for any shifts in your child’s behaviour that may signal the necessity to adjust or restrict their social media access. It’s so important for parents to be interested in their child's life and be involved in it.


  • Why? Because if they don’t get your attention, they may get attention on social media in wrong ways. I have been testing TikTok (a portrait reel viral social media site) for my creative business to showcase my creative works and there is a Live feature on TikTok and I see thousands of teenagers and even children and parents and adults that look very lost, sad and getting attention of strangers giving them little animated gifts and this is allowed in Australia, US and around the world. 


Alternatives to mass social media


Being social doesn't mean we have to be on social media. There are many other forms of social connection that could be more rewarding, 


  • Talking to humans in real life by meeting with them in person and doing stuff 

  • Chat apps like Whatsapp and Viber

  • Talking to someone on a traditional telephone call to catch up

  • Doing a video conferencing method

  • Join an interest group via Meetup or Eventbrite

  • Send someone an email letter

  • Send someone a written letter by mail

  • Can you think of other ways? 





Is social media better or worse for mental health?


Balancing the benefits and risks of social media use is crucial for maintaining mental health. While social media can offer valuable connections and resources, it also poses significant risks, particularly for young people. 


By staying informed, setting boundaries, and fostering open communication, individuals and parents can navigate the complexities of social media use and protect their mental well-being. Integrating authoritative insights and practical advice, such as those from Dr. Vivek Murthy and biblical principles, can help create a healthier relationship with social media.


In my opinion, as I have been saying for a long time, mass social media (where everyone in the world is connected to the same platform is not only impractical and dangerous). There is an ancient Biblical story of the tower of Babel in Babylon. Early Mesopotamian period there was the old version of the City of Babel with king Nimrod mentioned in the book of Genesis in the bible (one of the oldest books ever written). Everyone lived there and nobody lived anywhere else. It advanced technology and knowledge very quickly but apparently bad traits developed: 


Lessons from the Tower of Babel for ancient peoples at the time


  • Pride: The people of Babylon aimed to "make a name for themselves" by building a tower reaching heaven. This is seen as prideful defiance of God's authority.


  • Unity for the Wrong Reasons:  While collaboration isn't inherently bad, here it's used for a purpose seen as arrogant and disobedient to God's plan to spread humanity.


  • Disobedience: God instructed humanity to "fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1). Building a giant tower suggests a desire to stay concentrated in one place, ignoring God's command.





Lessons from Tower of Babel in the attention economy and social media


Here's how the lessons from the Tower of Babel story can be applied to social media addiction:


  • Pride and Inflated Self-Image: Social media can cultivate pride through curated profiles and constant comparison, leading to a distorted sense of self-worth.


  • Misguided Unity (Echo Chambers): Algorithms can create echo chambers where people only see opinions they agree with, hindering critical thinking and fostering division.


  • Disobedience of a Higher Purpose: Social media can become a distraction from real-world connections and responsibilities, hindering personal growth and community building.


Just like the story suggests a punishment for disobedience, excessive social media use can have negative consequences.


Here's the hopeful part: The Babel story also suggests the importance of:


  • Diversity of Thought: Encouraging exposure to different viewpoints than just the ones churned through social media can combat echo chambers.


  • Spreading Out: Taking breaks from social media and focusing on real-world connections can lead to a more balanced life. Maybe even eliminating social media altogether might help. 


  • Using Social Media for Good: Social media can be a tool for positive connection, learning, and community building if used responsibly.


By recognizing the potential pitfalls and utilising social media for positive purposes (if at all), we can avoid replicating the mistakes of the Tower of Babel in our digital age. But in the attention economy that we are in I think this is wishful thinking and society will keep falling apart and government officials will continue to feel helpless to make lasting change. 


Young man with a backpack is walking along a tropical island beach
The real world is more interesting. Image by Meta AI

So all I can say, stay safe online and discover that the real world is more beautiful than the digital. 


Regards


Michael Plis 


References


CNN: Surgeon general demands warning label on social media apps


New York Times: Is Social Media Harming Your Child?—⁠How the Bible Can Help Parents


jw.org: Is Social Media Harming Your Child?—⁠How the Bible Can Help Parents


The Social Dilemma movement & film


Cyberbullying Research Center


eSafety Commissioner of Australia. Resources for eSafety: 


The eSafety Guide (released by eSafety Comissioner in Aus) - Find out how to protect your personal information and report harmful content on common social media, games, apps and sites.


FBI Safe Online Surfing (SOS) Game. This game will help train older kids and younger teenagers 

(Sadly that's all the US has except a few basic online safety websites. Other countries including US could learn from the extensive resource provided by Australian eSafety commissioner)


How to Successfully Delete Social Media | Dr. Cal Newport & Dr. Andrew Huberman



Jaron Lanier interview on how social media ruins your life

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About Michael Plis

 

Michael is a technology and cybersecurity professional with over 18 years of experience. He offers unique insights into the benefits and potential risks of technology from a neurodivergent perspective. He believes that technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master. In his blog articles, Michael helps readers better understand and use technology in a beneficial way. He is also a strong supporter of mental health initiatives and advocates for creating business environments that promote good mental health.

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