Think Our Technology Addiction Isn’t Bad For Our Mental Health? The Evidence is Overwhelming

10 May Think Our Technology Addiction Isn’t Bad For Our Mental Health? The Evidence is Overwhelming

A common accusation directed at selfie-crazed youngsters is that they are a generation of narcissists. It’s true that social media did appear to have been emphasising the ‘individualism’ that has been a feature of Western culture since the 1960s. But this was only the case until around 2008 – since then the trend has actually been going down.

Young people, it would seem, are struggling more than ever with a crisis of confidence and anxiety. Why? Firstly, the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis delivered a reality check to young people’s prospects, knocking their belief that getting a good career was easy and their future guaranteed. The second factor is linked to our increasing use of technology.

The ‘Selfie Generation’

It’s not surprising that there are increasing worries about body image and anxiety with the proliferation of ‘the perfect self.’ For every pristine looking prom queen and football captain out there, there are scores of young people who don’t feel quite as confident about their looks. Instead, they’ll be watching, ‘lurking’ as it is often labelled, as their good looking and popular peers gather hundreds of likes and comments of ‘SO HOT!’ for beach photos, selfies or them on nights out.

How can this scenario be beneficial for these social media lurkers? Heavy smartphone and social media usage have links to depression, and Instagram has been highlighted as the worst of the major social networks for teen’s mental health.

#StatusOfMind, a study by The Royal Society for Public Health, surveyed nearly 1,500 14-24 year old’s opinions on various social media applications, asking them to what extent each of the social media platforms they use made certain health-related factors better or worse.

YouTube did rather well, scoring positively in helping the group with issues like anxiety, depression and self-expression, although like all the apps it was seen as detrimental to sleep. However, YouTube was the only network from five with a positive weighted score. Twitter was neutral, while Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram – notably all networks for which photos are a core component – all scored negatively. Instagram scored very negatively for FoMo, bullying, body image, anxiety and loneliness. As one respondent summed it up: “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.”

The Empirical Evidence

This is far from a one-off UK study either. An article in Depression and Anxiety Journal called Association between Social Media use and depression among US young adults, concluded:

“…social media use was significantly associated with increased depression. Given the proliferation of social media, identifying the mechanisms and direction of this association is critical for informing interventions that address social media use and depression.”

The paper cites numerous other papers including “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am”: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives, Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults and Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it. What’s striking about these particular citations is that the titles already make conclusions; there is no ambiguity about the findings.

Psychologist Jean M. Twenge makes a similar statement in the title of her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. ‘iGen’ is defined by Twenge as a generation that was born between 1995-2012. While the millenials had a lot of digital access, iGen are the first generation that has grown up with the almost ubiquitous availability of Internet use.

Young Women Are The Most Prone

Young women and teenage girls are the most likely to suffer from anxieties around body image, and they are also the group with the highest smartphone and social media use. On average, 18-24 year old women in the United Kingdom are now spending 85+ hours a month with their screens – a significant increase on men at the same age and any other age group. Meanwhile, more than a third of 14-15 year old girls are reporting to feel psychologically distressed and are far more likely to do so than boys of the same age.

But where is the greatest source of this anxiety? YouTube star Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg sums it up rather well in her introduction to her bestselling novel Girl Online. She lists her Top Ten Reasons for Teenage Girls Getting Anxious, the second half of which are all focused on body image and exacerbated by social media:

#1 You’re supposed to look perfect all of the time

#2 This coincides with your hormones deciding to go bonkers.

#3 Which leads to the spottiest time of your entire life (making number 1 totally impossible)

#4 Which also coincides with the first time you’ve had the freedom to buy chocolate whenever you like (making number 3 even worse!)

#5 Suddenly everyone cares about what you wear

#6 And what you wear has to look perfect too

#7 Then you’re supposed to know how to pose like a supermodel

#8 So you can take a selfie in your outfit of the day

#9 Which you then have to post on social media for all your friends to see

#10 You’re supposed to be wildly attractive to the opposite sex (while dealing with all of the above!)

These rises in depression and anxiety amongst young people are often said to be caused by alternative factors: more intense exam pressures, an unreliable job market, and risk of sizeable debt. Perhaps also an increased awareness and an acceptance that mental health is as important as physical health has enabled a greater reporting of it too.

But while these all sound credible, they do not correlate like the sudden burst of these feelings and the rise of smartphone usage with social media’s second wave. This new epidemic is not a scare story invented by the media. It’s being featured the world over in empirical studies that consistently make the same conclusions: high social media usage is bad for mental health.

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