How social media impacts mental health

Instagram has been singled out as the most harmful social media platform when it comes to mental health

If you’ve ever suspected that social media use can be unhealthy, you’re right: a new report out of the UK has looked at various platforms to see which has the most impact on young people’s mental health.

After creating a league table of the platforms, the Royal Society for Public Health determined that YouTube was the most positive platform, while Instagram and Snapchat were the most detrimental to mental health and wellbeing.

“Social media platforms can promote a sense of community and facilitate the provision of emotional support,” write Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Society and Dr Becky Inkster from the University of Cambridge.

“But there are also risks, risks which if not addressed and countered, can and have already opened the door for social media to cause significant problems for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

“Being a teenager is hard enough, but the pressures faced by young people online are arguably unique to this digital generation. It is vitally important that we put safeguards in place.”

The study found that social media use can be positive, as it allows young people to access other people’s health experiences and expert health information; users can also find emotional support and use platforms to express themselves and explore their identities.

But heavy use in particular can fuel anxiety and depression and have a negative impact on sleep, and young women may be vulnerable to appearance-based comparisons when online, affecting their body image.

Cyberbullying is a significant problem, with victims “more likely to experience low academic performance, depression, anxiety, self-harm, feelings of loneliness and changes in sleeping and eating patterns”.

And “FoMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, may be an increasing problem, the report suggests.

“FoMO has been robustly linked to higher levels of social media engagement, meaning that the more an individual uses social media, the more likely they are to experience FoMO.

“Many people experience some degree of FoMO and for many it may not be a problem. Increasingly, however, young people are reporting that FoMO is causing them distress in the form of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.”

While YouTube was ranked most positive, it was followed by Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Instagram rated particularly badly when it came to sleep, body image and FoMO issues.

The Society is calling for several measures to limit negative impacts of social media, including the introduction of a pop-up heavy usage warning, requiring platforms to highlight when images of people have been digitally manipulated, and safe social media use to be taught in schools.

The report highlighted that:

  • Social media addiction is thought to affect around 5% of young people – it is considered to be more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol;
  • Daily, or almost daily, internet use has risen rapidly in the last decade, to 82% of people in the UK;
  • By 2016, 89% of people had at least one social media profile;
  • The most commonly used platform is Facebook, followed by Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat.
  • The 16-24 age group are the most active social media users, with 91% using it.

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