“Social media seriously harms your mental health” goes the message on the back of smartphones ironically held in the perfectly manicured hands of super models and other social media influencers, two of whom get “hundreds of thousands of likes on nearly every photo they post to Instagram,” the Verge reports.
The message is on the back of a clear plastic phone case that has gone viral but not instantly. It was created back in 2017 by parody brand Urban Sophistication, when it was 2 years old, and the irony of the influencer photos is not lost on either the influencers or the 20-something Israeli siblings Elad and Neta Yam behind the brand (here’s an interview with them).
Though the Verge takes it quite seriously (with a headline about how models are using the case to “subvert Instagram”), I think it’s better if this just stays in the realm of parody. I mean, let’s apply a little media literacy, here. The Verge story says “multiple studies have found that prolonged social media use is linked to depression and loneliness” and links to a Forbes article that cites only 2 such studies.
One study looked at how much, not how, its research subjects, 143 undergraduates at University of Pennsylvania, used social media. The study’s lead author, Melissa G. Hunt at Penn, is quoted as talking about “an enormous amount of social comparison that happens” in social media.
The second study cited by Forbes was of 120 undergraduates at York University. It “found that young women who were asked to interact with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards,” Forbes reported. The study is about new media but what this author, too, is looking at is a practice that long predates social media: social comparison. Think about the effects of fashion magazines, music videos, red carpet photos, televised beauty pageants, etc., etc. Walton also mentions a “finding that the link between social media and depression was largely mediated by this ‘social comparison’ factor.”
So, you might ask, if social comparison happens in social media, doesn’t time spent in it affect people’s mental health? Possibly, but it would probably be more fruitful to focus on the social comparison part, in or out of media, rather than on screen time. A just-released study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, found “little evidence linking excessive smartphone use and mental health outcomes,” UC Irvine reports. “It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health and start figuring out ways to best support them in both their offline and online lives,” one of the study’s authors, psychological science professor Candice Odgers, told the university news service. [See Related links below for the study, coverage of it this month and much more research on youth social media use and mental health.]
Much better than reducing screen time is to think out loud with our kids about how they use tech and media – and, even better, about the feelings, needs and intentions behind those uses. For example, just on the how part, many researchers have found research distinguishing between active use and passive use of social media pivotal. Active use (commenting, posting, in general participating) makes people feel better, while passively scrolling through a newsfeed tends to have a negative impact on our mental outlook. Then there was the finding that consuming info in social media about people we care about can improve our well-being, while looking at the profiles of people who mean nothing to us (like models and celebrities, maybe?) doesn’t.
Why is it so important to think critically and get the focus right? Because there is nothing helpful in killing “the messenger.” Social media is very much a messenger. Researchers have said that what we see in it is more the symptom than the problem. If we’re smart about it, it compels us to get at the problem. Social media is also like a magnifying mirror for humanity, bringing back up so many challenging and unsolved aspects of being human (all through history), whether it’s social comparison, social exclusion, public humiliation or bullying. If we uncritically fall in with the prevailing view of our new media, that it’s the cause of those challenges, we are doing ourselves and our children a disservice, identifying users as helpless victims of media rather than people who can actually do something about what’s wrong about it, personally in our own lives or collectively as users and citizens. What do defeatism and denying people agency do besides perpetuate the problem?
A better cautionary note
So parody is great. We need humor more than ever and, if it makes young fans of influencers (and the rest of us) think, all the better. We need to be thinking more! Thinking about this is good for our mental health. So don’t try to fit the following on the back of your child’s smartphone, but…
CAUTION: Using social media for social comparison can be risky to your mental health. Critical (not judgmental) thinking about how you use media can reduce risk. Not judging yourself and others is best of all for your mental health.
Not one bit catchy, right? But also not parody.
- The just-published study about teens, digital tech and mental health published in Clinical Psychological Science (referred to above) and coverage of it: in DigitalTrends.com, PsychologyToday.com, MedicalDaily.com and PsychCentral.com (see also this on a study with similar findings published last year)
- “Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction,” by Amy Orben, et al, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2019
- “The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use,” by Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski in the journal Nature Human Behavior, February 2019
- “The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength,” by Moira Burke and Robert Kraut in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (May 2016)
- From pediatrician (and “mediatrician”) Michael Rich, MD, about the term “tech addiction” and mental health: https://cmch.tv/diagnose-internet-addiction/
- A study on active vs passive use, finding that passive use of social media could lead to a 33% increase in depressive symptoms vs active use, which led to a 15% decrease in depressive symptoms , with similar findings by a study in China, and a 2015 study by researchers in the US and Belgium found that “passive Facebook usage undermines affective wellbeing
- “Digital Life & Youth Wellbeing, Social Connectedness, Empathy & Narcissism,” by Carrie James, et al, in the journal Pediatrics, November 2017
- Young people’s own views: “Young & Online: Children’s Perspectives on Life in the Digital Age,” a companion report by Amanda Third, et al, to UNICEF’s “The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World“
- Instagram’s guide for parents (pdf version here)
- “The generation-destroying smartphone: Researchers push back” in this blog
- A great social media research roundup in The New Yorker that compelled me to write about it here