The worrying link between social media exposure and mental health

By Róisín Dunlea

 

There’s no denying that it’s difficult for those of us classed as Millennials or Gen-Z to imagine an existence without social media networks, which serve not only as creative outlets but also as sources of news, entertainment, and inspiration for billions of people. On the other hand, social media has been identified as being highly dangerous and concerningly addictive; regardless, many of us blindly indulge in hours of daily scrolling without considering how we might not learn about the long-term mental effects of what we’re doing until it’s too late.

 

Apps such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok have been likened to casino-style slot machines due to their “pull to refresh” mechanism, which provides users with the instant gratification of seeing new content on demand. These networks are cleverly engineered to draw people in, but they might be destroying our mental stamina. Instagram no longer displays posts in chronological order based on the time at which they were uploaded; instead, posts are displayed according to an algorithm which has examined our likes and dislikes, adjusting our feeds accordingly in a way that keeps us scrolling. TikTok not only shows us what our friends are posting, but also the content created by a potentially limitless number of people. When we become accustomed to watching a series of 30-second videos, each centred on a different topic or filmed in a different part of the world, it becomes increasingly challenging to sit and pay attention to a two-hour film or a 400-page book that doesn’t provide the same variety or efficient conclusion. All the more worrying is the fact that an hour-long class requiring active thinking and note-taking is increasingly talked about as a near impossible task, causing more stress to those in education.

 

It should come as no surprise that social media giants such as the newly christened ‘Meta’ are, to put it lightly, familiar with the negative consequences incurred by the use of their products. The slot-machine mechanism has been incorporated into almost all popular social apps on the current market (despite warnings about the impact of its addictive nature), and the actual content on social media platforms is equally troublesome. In documents leaked in late 2021 by trailblazing Meta whistle-blower Frances Haugen, Instagram itself was revealed to have conducted a survey which showed that 66% of teenage girls have experienced “negative social comparison” when using the app, with 52% of those girls concluding that this self-comparison was triggered by “images of beauty”. This ordeal is certainly not limited to girls or even to teenagers. More and more adults are speaking out against the unrealistic standards imposed on social media users who are constantly exposed to doctored imagery, surgically enhanced features, and unsustainable lifestyles of luxury. In a time when it has never been easier to speak openly about one’s struggles with mental health, it also seems that we are experiencing an epidemic of people who are made to feel anxious, depressed, or even suicidal as a result of the content that is being pushed upon them daily.

 

Meta has made some feeble attempts at addressing its issues, primarily in the form of the proposed ‘Take a Break’ feature which would encourage users to set reminders for themselves to log off after a determined period of time. Measures like this carry the air of a Band-Aid over a bullet hole; even after the company uncovered the disastrous effects of its app, Instagram did little to address the overarching issue, namely the generalised culture of perfection on its network and the mental damage it can cause. It continues to operate with no safeguards for potentially impressionable sectors of the population, and has taken no steps to address the obvious toxicity present on its platform. One would presume that if social media were, for example, causing users to suffer physical injuries, then companies would be required to take action – so why are matters of mental health still not afforded the same importance?