Social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and whatever else is hot this week—has, like it or not, changed the way an entire generation communicates. And like it or not, it’s not going away. Living at least part of your life online is becoming “the new normal,” and being able to navigate and work within it is today’s inescapable reality.
But is social media to blame for some of the mental health issues young people battle these days? The answer appears to be, well, yes and no.
Especially for teens and young adults, online communication is displacing face-to-face (and even voice-to-voice) communication. In 1987, 38 percent of college freshmen spent at least 16 hours per week socializing. By 2014, that same percentage of freshmen spent only five or fewer hours per week socializing. But 27 percent of today’s freshmen spend six or more hours per week on social media (up from 19 percent in 2007). “It is really easy to hide behind a username,” says Katie Stiel, program manager for the U’s Center for Student Wellness. “But when it comes to having the ability to interact with people, maybe that’s a little more difficult, because they’re not practiced at it. How do you navigate a relationship face to face? Those are skills we need in order to be functioning adults and parents.”
In addition to losing the deep, intimate connections that face-to-face connections can help foster, social media can apply incredible pressure on an individual’s self-worth. It can look like everyone online is better than you—they’re taking great vacations, posting selfies with happy friends in fun places, or bragging about their latest love, accomplishments, precocious children, adorable pets, or their winning time in their latest 5K race.
And while bullying has existed since the first Neanderthal picked up a rock and eyed his smaller neighbor with bad intent, cyber-bullying ratchets it up to a whole new level. “It’s a different form of bullying,” says Doug Gray, a suicidologist and professor of psychiatry in the U’s School of Medicine. “It’s quicker and more destructive. With social media, it can spread quicker to more people and be more embarrassing.”
On the other hand, says Gray, “Social media is just another tool, and it can be used for good or bad.” Not only can social media keep you connected to family and friends who love you, but if they see that your posts are troubling, they can immediately reach out or call for help. In response to the growing concerns about suicide, Facebook and Instagram let readers report a post as alarming, which activates a screen asking the poster what kind of help they need. There are even studies under way mining the social media activity of suicide victims for language patterns that might trigger help in time to prevent more tragic deaths.
In addition, the Internet is a goldmine of information. Worried you’re the only one feeling the way you do? There’s a community of like-minded folk out there waiting for you with virtual candles in their digital windows at 3 in the morning when your darkest fears hit. Information, advice, and the latest research are at your fingertips. Even the distraction of humorous or inspirational videos can be beneficial. Social media can remind you that you’re not alone; people who’ve already gone through what you’re dealing with—and survived it—are out there posting experiences and information that can help.
“Most people recognize the potential harm of social media,” says Gray, “but it can be helpful, and we need to make use of social media to create new ways to help those who are struggling.”