Photo: © ZMcCune. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As the Internet continues to consume our energy, our time, and our lives, experts are beginning to recognize the power that the digital realm has over our mental health, and the toll it takes on our well-being. While psychologists work to establish the credibility of Internet Addiction Disorder within their field, a new study from the Royal Society for Public Health and the Youth Health Movement in the UK finds that social media is having detrimental effects on youth today.
The study looked at 1,500 individuals between the ages of 16 and 24, and discovered 91% of them use the Internet for social networking. The results were mixed. On one hand, the study describes social media as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and link it with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and poor sleep, while 70% of those in the study report experiencing cyber-bullying.
On the other hand, those who use social media also reported being more emotionally supported through their contacts, while also providing them with improved access to other people’s experiences of health and expert health information.
As daily use of social media has risen rapidly over the past decade, the study looked at individual platforms to determine which had positive and negative affects on users’ health. The study concluded that only YouTube had a net-positive effect among respondents. All other platforms had a net-negative effect. Instagram was rated as the most detrimental of all networks, followed by Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter.
The study cited a number of negative effects including anxiety and depression, with one user stating, “I’m constantly worried about what others think of my posts and pictures” and another revealing that social media has resulted in, “not eating properly and losing a lot of weight and becoming very depressed.”
Other negative effects include a lack of sleep, which creates a cycle of exhaustion that makes coping with daily life difficult during an already vulnerable and volatile period of physiological growth. The study shows this increases stress, which further fuels the lack of sleep, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
One of the most common issues for youth is body image, with the photographs featured on sites like Instagram and Snapchat a source of woe and insecurity for growing girls. One respondent observed, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect.’”
Cyberbullying has become a prevalent problem across society, most prominently for the youth, particularly on Facebook where they are twice as likely to be bullied than on any other network. But respondents indicate that cyberbullying can happen anywhere, with one stating, “Bullying on Instagram has lead me to attempt suicide and also self-harm.”
The study also shows that 91% of young people who reported cyberbullying said that no action as a result of their report.
The study was not exclusively negative, and it did provide opportunities for access to other people’s health experiences and expert health information, emotional support and community building, self-expression and self-identity, and making, maintaining, and building relationships.
Which goes to show the most potent addictions are neither net-negative nor net-positive, but those which offer a mixed bag, where the outcome is never assured from the outset. The nature of the Internet, and social media in particular, is the factor of surprise, where it seems that just about anything is possible.
In our brave new world, only one thing is assured: the Internet is not going away, and to paraphrase Darwin, we must adapt in order to evolve. But how to evolve to our highest possible incarnation—this is a question each of us must answer or ourselves.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.