The idea that social media has negative impacts on our mental health is nothing new, but what if this accepted ‘fact’ wasn’t entirely true?
Since the rise of online platforms like Facebook, there has been an increasing concern about the possible effects using such sites can have on mental health. Interestingly, science has found a very weak link between the rise in the use of social media and mental health problems.
Bridianne O’Dea, Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute, put into perspective the function of social media in our daily lives.
“A lot of people think that social media has a negative impact on your wellbeing and that social media makes you feel worse about yourself and that it makes you feel more anxious, more worried and more sad and this is true for some people,” she told HuffPost Australia.
“It is probably true for quite a number of people, but when we take big scientific studies and put it up to the rigour of science, those relationships [between social media and mental health] don’t ring true.”
Even though we do have these new ways of communicating and staying connected, at the end of the day a very traditional psychological construct, like family support, comes out on top.
O’Dea also said that our online lives are an extension of the offline and that while “unfriending” someone can affect a friendship, losing touch with people and ending romantic relationships is a normal part of life.
“They [researchers] have done some studies looking at particular social media behaviours. ‘Defriending’ and ‘unfriending’ and not accepting friend requests is one particular area which they have looked at in particular detail and they have found… it is likely that finding out that someone has unfriended you is likely to put further strain on that friendship,” she said.
“We have to remember that a lot of what happens online does mirror offline and the discontinuation of friendships is a very normal part of human interaction. People will often separate or end their friendship and so you would expect some of that to occur on Facebook.”
One factor that does impact mental health is family support — O’Dea herself studied the effects of social media use on teenage wellbeing. She found that people with a high amount of family support are less impacted by what happens online.
“Above all else, family support is the most important and what that [her study] confirmed is, even though we have these new types of technology and new types and ways of communicating, these come with every new and different generation and overwhelmingly the strength and the importance of family is always going to be one of the most important things to mental health,” she said.
“So, I think that is a very reassuring finding, because even though we do have these new ways of communicating and staying connected, at the end of the day a very traditional psychological construct, like family support, comes out on top.
“I think what we have to remember is that humans are an inherently social species, that is how we generate, it’s how we live. We are also in family units and different technologies won’t degrade that at the rate that some people think it will.”
O’Dea said that mental health and illness are extremely complex issues that involve genetics, social environments, personality and exposure to traumatic experiences as just a few factors that determine a person’s mental health.
It is because of the interplay of these factors that just one can’t be blamed for mental illness — it’s for this reason that social media cannot be the sole cause of mental illness problems.
“When we look at the amount of time people spend on social media and how happy, how sad and anxious they are, the relationship between the two factors is only very small and weak and in actual fact there are other more important factors to your mental health than whether or not you use social media. That is what we are finding.”
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.