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6 min read

How does social media affect our mental health?

Key Takeaways:

  • Social media can be a good thing, connecting previously unconnected people globally.
  • Studies indicate that traditional social media - between friends and family - can actually be good for mental health
  • Algorithm-based content, by contrast, is beginning to indicate some serious negative effects on mental health

Since the advent of social media, the number of political debates occurring at any given time across the world has jumped by immeasurable orders of magnitude.

Almost overnight, discussions once reserved for New England college dorm rooms and parliament buildings became an undeniably influential and omnipresent exoskeleton of modern life. Suddenly, accountants in Boston were exposed to the minds, opinions, and behaviors of farmers in Alabama, and vice versa.

The veil of obscurity-through-distance abruptly flourished away, every faction of political persuasion found themselves standing eye-to-eye with those who, at least according to Fox News and CNN, were their worst enemies.

Every eagle in the sky and rat in the sewer was given their own personal news corporation.

And in the 20 years since the creation of MySpace, that irreconcilable amalgamation of opinion has only become larger and more chaotic, festering in an era of fake news and forgotten political experiments.

It can seem hopeless as one scrolls through terabyte after gut-wrenching terabyte of what can only be categorized as a cesspool of armchair scientists, amateur political pundits, and plain-old trolls.

It helps to slow down. To be aware, fully and intentionally, of how The Great Algorithm is designed to make you feel - and how to defend yourself against it's caustic, grating, and often irresistible effects.

On this page:

Positive Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

The Risk of Self-Reinforcing Messages: A Case Study on Eating Disorders and The Great Algorithm

How To Protect Your Child from the Negative Side of Social Media

Positive Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

To start, we should establish the preface that social media is not all bad. In fact, one could make the argument that it's one of the most important inventions in recent memory.

Let's use WhatsApp as an example. A messaging platform released in 2009, Whatsapp began life as a free alternative to SMS texting.

While today that may seem redundant - most cellphone plans now include unlimited texting - it was seriously groundbreaking in the 2000's. Texting back then often came with hefty charges, tacked on to already pricey telecom plans that were only accessible to those in developed nations (a point that will become important to remember in a moment).

When WhatsApp launched, it was an instant success. Suddenly, users could cut their phone bill in half by simply downloading an app. Whatsapp saved Americans hundreds of millions of dollars, and directly contributed by way of competition to the current landscape of $40/month unlimited talk, text, and data plans that we have come to take for granted.

Nowadays, WhatsApp is used by more than two billion people, making it one of the most popular communication platforms ever made. The catalyst for this explosive growth was not Americans who wanted to save $50 on texting, but people in less telecommunicationally developed countries that, before 2009, had no other option. If the people of Latin America, India, and most of Asia wanted to text in 2009, it would have to be WhatsApp.

Thus, WhatsApp entered these markets at the ground floor. Smartphone usage skyrocketed with the advent of cheap, Android-based phones that could compete, at least in terms of base functionality, with the iPhone. The first app downloaded onto these phones? Whatsapp.

Nowadays, WhatsApp is the primary method of communication for several countries, giving previously unconnected populations a way to enter the modern communication landscape.

This is an example of the good of social media. Now, let's look at the not-so-good.

Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

When investigating the impact of social media on mental health, one can sift through studies for hours and arrive at a vague and foggy conclusion that social media in general is sometimes bad for mental health, and sometimes not. The simple fact is that social media has not existed long enough for any meaningful longitudinal studies to be meta-analyzed and peer-reviewed.

Traditional social media, where users only see what their real-life friends and family are posting, appears to be fine - even good in some cases - for our mental health. While it can still cause problems - comparing oneself to others, for example - social media in its purest form does not appear to have a clinically definable negative impact on mental health.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to algorithm-based content delivery. Algorithm-based content delivery is even newer than social media, having been introduced by Facebook in 2009 and popularized on Instagram by 2016.

Browse Instagram's Explore feed or go on TikTok, and the content you're seeing has been delivered to you not randomly but by way of a very sophisticated, very effective attention-maximizing algorithm.

Algorithm-based content has been shown to be not only detrimental to mental health, but exceedingly addictive as well.

How Algorithm-Based Content Becomes an Addiction

Social media platforms make money by showing you advertisements.

Advertising is an industry dependent inextricably on the conversion of dollars to attention. The more attention an ad space can hold, the higher the price the owner of said ad space can charge businesses that want to use it.

Based on this mechanic, algorithm-based social media platforms are incentivized to hold your attention for as long as they possibly can. This is where algorithm-based content comes in.

Behind that video of a dog chasing its tail, the software racing around in your phone and bouncing information out to satellites and cell towers is collecting information. It knows, to a startling degree of accuracy, exactly what's in the video you're watching. It knows how long you watched the video for, whether or not you liked it, how often that kind of content maintains your attention, and a million other data points.

That information is then fed into an algorithm. An algorithm is essentially a set of instructions, running calculations on which kind of content maintains the highest amount of your attention and therefore commands the highest amount of ad spend.

The algorithm tells the social media platform, in real time, which video to show you next. Rinse and repeat until you've scrolled for an hour without realizing it.

Your personal algorithm is always changing, picking up on subtle changes of interest and feeding that information back into itself. While the true construction of social media algorithms is technically intellectual property, which means we can't see exactly how they work, many experts claim that social media algorithms can actually predict changes in your interests and even your mood, to ensure that every piece of content they serve is as enticing as possible.

In small amounts, algorithm-based content can be really cool. Like Formula 1? Enjoy 30 hyper-grabby, funny memes about it.

In larger amounts, however, it's becoming pretty clear to researchers that algorithm-based content has addictive properties.

Algorithm-based content addiction comes from two features of scroll-worthy feeds:

  • The content itself is hyper-tailored to your exact taste, nearly guaranteeing you see what keeps you attached to the platform with every single scroll
  • Algorithm-based scrolling platforms have a "slot machine" effect. You don't know exactly what's coming up next in your feed, so your brain, hard-wired to seek as much dopamine as possible, takes the bait and scrolls once more.

The average teen aged 13 to 18 spends nearly nine hours every day on social media. The fact that our future scientists, CEOs, and politicians spend more time locked into watching potentially harmful content than they do sleeping should be extremely alarming to everyone.

The Risk of Self-Reinforcing Messages: A Case Study on Eating Disorders and The Great Algorithm

We've established that algorithm-based social media content can be extremely addictive, which is harmful in its own right.

But it's the content that you can become addicted to that can also have a negative impact on your mental health.

Algorithm-based content doesn't care if what you're watching makes you happy. They care that you watch it. For impressionable young minds, unfortunately, this means that an algorithm can reinforce messages that a child can't help but pay attention to, even if its not necessarily good for them.

A clear and frankly saddening example of this is found in children prone to body-image issues and eating disorders.

Child psychology is significantly different from adult psychology. Children are constantly, constantly learning. It's not possible for them to turn it off.

Because of this primal, unavoidable, even subconscious desire to learn, a child will continue to pursue depth of understanding in an idea even though, to an adult, it would be obvious that learning about said concept is detrimental to their mental health.

Simultaneously, a child's notion of how the world works is, obviously, severely underdeveloped. They look to adults - whether their family members or in the media - to give them the scoop on this thing we call life.

In the context of eating disorders, a child who is just beginning to have a body image at all is particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon.

It doesn't take much to send a young mind to the mouth of the trail to an eating disorder. In today's modern world of laughably unrealistic representations of beauty in media, a child can begin to develop insecurity about their own body after exposure to just a few instances of hyper-thinness.

Once they get it in their minds that they "aren't good enough", they can't help but try to learn how to fix it. Often, this means opening their favorite social media app and either typing in "dieting methods", or simply paying more attention to videos on the subject that appear randomly.

Once the views roll in, the algorithm wakes up and takes over, serving the child video after video of harmful dieting techniques, pseudoscientific supplement promotions, and even posts encouraging fasting or anorexia.

While the exact causal relationship between social media and eating disorders is difficult to measure, given the number of other contributing factors, it's clear that social media does have an impact on the mental health of children and adults alike - often a negative impact.

How To Protect Your Child from the Negative Side of Social Media

Parents know that no matter how hard you try to prevent your child from using social media, they often find a way to access it: a friend’s phone or a school-issued device, for example.

As you take steps to minimize your child’s exposure to toxic social media, consider also enrolling them in child therapy. With the guidance of a mental health professional, they will at least be better equipped to understand how social media may affect their emotions.

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