The dark side of social media

20 Aug 2018


In an age where over half of the world’s population has access to the internet, the amount of time we spend online as a society is greater than ever. Over 2 and a half billion of us use social media with Facebook being the most popular site for Brits. This year has been full of stories of data misuse by the social media giant and it is no secret that the internet comes with health risks. However, the psychological dangers of social media, particularly for young people, are staggering.


Humans have been comparing themselves to each other since the dawn of time, it’s in our nature. Nevertheless, with apps such as Instagram and Facebook the need to post constant updates and beautify our lives is never-ending. A survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health found Instagram to have the worst effect on a young person’s mental health due to its impact on issues such as loneliness, bullying and body image.  


An often mocked phrase ‘FOMO‘, that is fear of missing out, is a very real symptom of many mental illnesses including anxiety and borderline personality disorder. For a young person endlessly scrolling through images of other peoples’ seemingly perfect lives, it is natural for them to feel inferior. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are only worsened by the constant barrage of updates on the flawlessness of others.


For so many young people and indeed people of all ages, the pressure to get maximum ‘likes’ on posts on social media is high. A Danish study in 2016 found that the regular use of social media sites generally made people unhappy, citing this very reason. It is so important to remember that what we see on social media is often sensationalised, as is often the case with the media in general.  To base your self-worth on how many likes your profile picture receives compared with your friends’ is a damaging but very real experience for many of us.  

Something perhaps less well reported is the lack of regulation of triggering posts, particularly on social media site Tumblr. For someone struggling with an eating disorder for example, a quick search for the terms ‘pro ana’ or ‘pro mia’ (pro anorexia/bulimia) can throw up all sorts of posts from photos of fellow sufferers’ unhealthy bodies to advice on how to starve or binge. This is a frankly terrifying phenomenon.  


The problem however should not be blamed solely on the users who create or repost such posts. It is rarely meant maliciously and as with other outlets of emotion is often a cry for help. Many young people who have blogs on Tumblr dedicated to their struggles with mental illness are simply looking for a forum where they feel understood. These blogs are often private to the outside world and restricted to be viewed only by fellow sufferers.


This isn’t, however, to say that these posts are a good thing. As previously mentioned, they are incredibly damaging and can trigger relapses in a person’s mental ill health. Nonetheless, making such posts illegal would be counter-productive. Beat, the eating disorder charity requests that ‘social media sites and internet providers to take further steps to proactively tackle the issue of pro-ana and pro-mia content’.


The multi-millionaire owners of social media sites must then take an increased responsibility for what is posted on them. Twitter is much criticised for allowing abuse and the targeting of minority groups to slip through the net, as it were. The system of reporting abuse is inadequate to say the least. Naturally, no one can be expected to vet the thousands of tweets that are sent per second but when it comes to dealing with reports of abusive accounts or tweets, Twitter really must do better.


It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to realise that online abuse and cyber bullying can have a real and lasting impact on a person. Debates and arguments are often much more heated online, and things can escalate quickly. Anonymous trolls and bot accounts play a huge part in intimidating and bullying social media users. The connection between cyber bulling and suicide is alarmingly prevalent and with younger children having increased access to social media, this is a scary reality.


This is not to say that social media is inherently bad, indeed there is much good that comes from its use. The ability to be connected to friends and family across the globe is an exciting opportunity. However, with every advancement in technology the dangers must be acknowledged. With the average person in this country checking their phone 28 times a day, our dependence on social media is worryingly real.


Social media, like all technologies, must confess its part in the ever worsening crisis in young people’s mental health. Certainly, not every internet user is a social media troll, and not every post is dangerous. Even so, however well-intentioned a site is, the ability to misuse it is ever present. With the hectic pace of life in 2018, it is more important than ever to be aware of our actions and be careful how much we rely on the opinions of others.


For help and advice on dealing with some of the issues mentioned in this article, the following links are recommended:  - Mind, the mental health charity  - Beat, the eating disorders charity - advice and support on coping with bullying in all its forms

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