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Social Media and Mental Health by Marie Greenhalgh

We are aware of the  impact of social media on mental health, some of the issues and what we can do so that we can continue to use social media and benefit from the positives.

Who uses social media

Social media usage in the UK has remained consistent over the last 12 months, with approximately 45 million social media users or 66% of the total UK population. Facebook and Youtube remain the most popular. However, other platforms are becoming more popular with young adults. In the UK alone, 18.7 million people are using Snapchat, with 82% of users being under the age of 34 years old. TikTok has 3.7 million active users in the UK who engage with the app

Why do younger generations use social media more than others?

This is an interesting one as actually, recent research shows that between 80 - 90% of all age groups are using social media daily, but it is the apps they use and the way they use it that is different

  • Age groups between 13 and 54 use social media more frequently than people 55+. Different generations are drawn to different social media platforms that correlate with the types of content people prefer and what they hope to gain from their time online.
  • More than 80% of every generation uses social media at least once per day making social media part of their daily routine.
  • 13 - 18 and 18 - 34 use social media multiple times a day, but those aged 18-34 divide their time across a wider range of platforms, while younger uses tend to spend their time on on the same apps
  • Facebook’s popularity is declining with younger generations with only 36% of 13- 17 use Facebook at least once a week, compared to 87% 18 - 34 , 90% of 35 - 54 and 96% of 55+
  • Ages 13-17 and ages 18-34 use social media more often than older generations with 77% and 79% using social media multiple times per day

What we do know though, is that concerns exist around the widespread use of social media and the effects on young people. There is evidence that young people who experience  adversity are more likely to experience harmful effects of social media, including receiving more negative feedback and difficulties in regulating their Internet usage (Odgers 2018). This can lead to a ‘digital divide’ between those who can healthily engage, and potentially benefit from, Internet usage, and those on the other end of the scale, who are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects, and particularly likely to experience negative online interactions (Odgers Nature).

Positives of social media

I think it is important to talk about the positives of social media use. We can often get bogged down in the risks and the dark side but there are a lot of benefits to our mental health. Social media gives us contact, information and support, all at our fingertips. For people with health conditions, mental health needs, those maybe questioning their sexuality, and those isolated or marginalised, the internet is a life line.

Social media has meant we can stay in touch with people.We can make new friends.  We can share pictures and videos. We can join support groups, we can find people who share and understand our values, our cultures and our identities. We can get immediate support if we are feeling  down, just by posting. We can get a self confidence boost by sharing photos and things we have made or done. Gaming means people can have fun and socialise from their homes with people all over the world. It gives us a sense of belonging.

Social media also improves our awareness of the world. Giving everyone, no matter their age, a chance of making an impact in the community is crucial. With the use of social media, that impact is just one click away. It exposes us to essential issues not only in our community but all over the world as well. And with it, more young people are now empowered to help and support people all over the world even if it’s miles away from them.  More than ever, young people's voices are heard more often now because of social media. It keeps them informed,  and they can freely follow organisations that they believe in, sign petitions, raise money for causes and share their views and support.

Social media outlets provide people  with a platform to share their creativity and their ideas with a neutral audience and get an honest response.We can use social media to learn new skills and get inspiration for new hobbies, we can learn about healthy lifestyle and exercise and join groups and follow others to support and improve this.

What are the negative aspects of social media? And what is the impact on our mental health?

Trolling and abuse

  • Around one in five children aged 10 to 15 years in England and Wales (19%) experienced at least one type of online bullying behaviour in the year ending March 2020
  • Being called names, sworn at or insulted and having nasty messages about them sent to them were the two most common online bullying behaviour types, experienced by 10% of all children aged 10 to 15 years
  • As of 2019, 18 to 30-year-olds were the most exposed to online abuse in the United Kingdom (UK), with 41 percent of respondents observing cruel content and 13 percent receiving obscene and abusive emails

Cyber bullying is when someone is targeting you online and doing or saying things that upset you. This could be by writing nasty things about you, either in a public way such as tweeting about you, writing Facebook posts about you and commenting on your posts.  Or in a private way, sending you emails, Facebook PMs, private Twitter messages, and so on. Writing horrible comments about people with the aim of getting a reaction out of them is known as “trolling”, or being a “troll”.

This has  sadly become a “normal” part of internet life – many people in the public eye have come to expect trolls in their comments section. People write things online that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face, it can seem easier to be nasty and people don’t think about the effect it has. However, this does not make their behaviour acceptable. This is still cyber bullying. There are many reasons someone could do this; boredom, low self-esteem and them wanting to feel better about themselves by making others feel worse,  jealousy, and sometimes personal grudges. What they usually want is a reaction from you, so the best thing to do is not give them one. What you can do is protect yourself from further attempts to contact you or say anything about you.

You can do this by reporting the comment or post and then blocking the person. It is a good idea to have your accounts private if possible, so someone has to request to follow you and can’t see your posts until you accept them. This is difficult to do if you are a small business or trying to promote something and want people to be able to search for you. You can change your name on your accounts, if you choose something obscure or substitute letters for numbers it makes it harder to search for you by name. You can report harmful content, both to the platform, and to 

They will investigate and also put you in touch with other support for what you are going through. They can also advise whether you should contact the police.  It is really important that you also get emotional support at this time, make sure you are talking to family and friends and someone who can support you. The most important thing to remember is that this is does not reflect anything about you and you need to make sure they don’t win by believing what is being said

Doom scrolling

‘Doom scrolling’ is excessively scrolling through all the apps on your phone reading negative news. Health professionals have advised that excessive doom scrolling can negatively impact on mental health, it can often make you feel anxious, depressed, and isolated. If  you are feeling negative or down already, this may increase the likelihood of you ‘doom scrolling’ as you are seeking to affirm how you feel.

Before you know it, your feelings have been validated and it becomes a habit you are not even aware of. There is a difference between staying informed and doom scrolling, and this can seem a fine line, especially in these current times. However, there are some things you can do to manage this. Make a conscious choice when you pick up your phone ‘ Do I need to check for updates now? Put  a limit on how many times you will check the news in a day. Be self aware - are you paying attention, or mindlessly scrolling? How is it making you feel? Do you feel anxious and stressed when you put your phone down? Make sure you are balancing things - for every time you look for something negative, make sure you have positive and uplifting accounts to follow, or message someone something funny or light hearted.

De- sensitisation

I remember when Facebook launched its autoplay on videos in September 2013 and I was truly shocked at some of the videos that would just start playing as people scrolled down their feed. Things like ISIS beheadings, murders and shootings all just playing with no warnings at all. One of the things I have really noticed is a desensitisation to violence in younger age groups, compared to older generations and I do believe some of this could be attributed to social media and the things that are so freely shared. Facebook has now stopped auto play and graphic videos do now have a warning but often videos aren’t removed as they are deemed as news.

Comparing yourself  to others

It is easy to feel inadequate when we scroll through social media and see people posting images of themselves being social and happy, and comparing their life to yours. Don’t feel bad about it, this is a natural reaction. However, there are some things you need to remember so that it doesn’t get to you and start bringing you down. What you see may not always be the whole truth. People often don’t share their struggles online and many will use filters to cover their own perceived imperfections. A selfie or a photo shared online is only a snapshot of time, and may have been altered, it doesn't show someone’s life.

Make sure you stay aware of how you are feeling after being on social media. Do you start to feel upset or envious? Or like you are missing out? These feelings can have a big impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

If you are finding it hard not to compare your life to others, try to limit your time

on social media or mute profiles which may be affecting your mood so that your time online is not contributing to you feeling low or anxious. Maybe use this time to focus on your own wellbeing which may include any self-care strategies which help you including setting realistic goals for yourself. You might be surprised at how much better you feel after a break from social media.

Body image

Media has long been linked with negative impact on body image and self confidence and this can include social media. Do you ever find yourself scrolling through, looking at people’s selfies and comparing yourself unfavourably and finding yourself lacking?  Studies have shown that women and men compare their bodies with those in the media. The survey found that 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they see  on social media.The problem with social media is that little of what we see is untouched and unfiltered, giving us unrealistic expectations and benchmarks.

There has also been increasing concern over the effect the cosmetic and diet industry is having on people through the promotion of unrealistic goals through social media. Instagram and Facebook announced new rules for posts about weight loss products and cosmetic surgery in September 2019.

Some posts will be hidden from under-18s while others promoting "miraculous" weight loss products will be removed.

Unrealistic "get thin quick" promotions will be taken down and young people will be restricted from viewing some posts related to dieting and cosmetic surgery if they have an incentive to buy.

Some tips for how social media users can maintain a positive outlook on their body image, include:

  • Monitor how you feel after scrolling, are you feeling down? Or negative about yourself? Have you caught yourself looking at someone’s image and comparing yourself?
  • Unfollow or unfriend accounts that try to sell you products with their bodies.
  • Keep up with accounts that promote healthy living with factual information.
  • Try to have variety in your feed. Follow accounts with different focuses - humour, art, films, not just celebrity or body image focused accounts
  • Use it for positive - there are lots of inclusive and body positive accounts celebrating people of all shapes and sizes and challenging beauty ideals. Tap into the way body positive influencers treat body image.
  • Avoid speaking negatively about your body, especially in real-life.
  • Disconnect from social media to be active.

Dark side of social media: eating disorders and self harm

A very concerning ‘dark side’ of social media use is content encouraging eating disorders and self harm. Vulnerable people , especially young teens, can find content and accounts that support and encourage these illnesses. The BBC ran an investigation in March 2019 that found people swapping images, messages, hashtags and search terms promoting and glamorising eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Many of the posted images are of emaciated young women often accompanied by instructions on extreme dieting and methods for avoiding scrutiny by parents.Instagram and other platforms banned certain hashtags and searches around eating disorders in 2012. But research found users adopted different hashtags and search terms. Another concern is the algorithm which recommends more of the content people have liked or accessed.

Instagram does offer links to help and support and promotes helplines run by charities and many people recovering from eating disorders use social media in a positive way to get support for themselves and support others.

Digital Self-Harm

Digital self- harm (also called self-trolling, self-cyberbullying, and cyber self-harm: Winterman, 2013) can be defined as “the anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself” (Patchin, 2017).

Probably the most pressing question is why they do it. Why would anyone, especially a vulnerable teen with shaky self-esteem, set up “ghost” accounts and secretly direct malicious, hurtful comments at themselves?  3 main motivations have been identified:

  1. A cry for help
  2. To look cool
  3. To trigger compliments

Let’s look at each of those.

A cry for help. Those who are already feeling lonely or misunderstood, or who are showing other symptoms of depression, are more prone to self-troll. Girls, particularly, tended to engage digital self-harm because they were depressed (Martocci, 2017). Such teens responded to the survey with comments such as “Because I already felt bad and just wanted myself to feel worse”. Similarly, some claimed that they wanted attention (“Because I feel sad and needed attention from others”).

To look cool. Boys sometimes said that they self-bullied online as a joke, to be funny, making comments like: “I do not like hurting others, but it’s easy to make fun of myself. I was bored and did it to maybe make others laugh as a joke” (Kheriaty, 2018). It is also  suggested that teens may try to influence their social status as someone who is popular enough to gain negative comments from jealous “haters”. In other words, being criticised in some schools is a sign of popularity.

Triggering compliments. Those who had low-self-esteem or worries about themselves might insult themselves anonymously in order to “fish” for compliments, provoking their friends into saying nice things in response to the negative commentary.


The issues with helping someone experiencing digital self harm are complex as there is a lot of shame and embarrassment involved.  Support needs to be non judgemental, safe, help with a support network and professional help.

Influences on relationship expectations

There are positive effects of social media on relationships. People can meet on social media, or start talking and messaging. In a relationship you can share and post things, or send things to each other. It is also a timeline of your relationship, helping you record and share moments and it remains  there for you to look back on, or be reminded of through your memories and time hops. However, social media can have a negative impact on relationships and relationship expectations. Social media use can cause jealousy, arguments and blurred lines. For example, DM’ing someone, sending heart emojis, or liking all their pictures - is this ok? Or cheating? Your partner always being on their phone scrolling while you want to spend time together can lead to feelings of insecurity and not being a priority. Social media can have a part to play in unhealthy relationships - checking people’s messages, banning them from talking to certain people on social media, or even banning them from having accounts. Young people think nothing of checking where someone is on snapchat maps and who they are with.

As with everything, I believe there are pros and cons to social media use. If you are ever worried about your social media use, try a screen break and see how you feel!

This blog post was written by Marie Greenhalgh, Head of Inclusion College, a specialist college supporting young people with barriers to mainstream education and employment due to their mental health needs. You can follow Marie on Twitter @mariegreenhalg8

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