Technology impacts the way we think about, understand, and interact with the world. Undoubtedly there are some implications for how this impacts our psychological well-being. There are a number of ways in which technology enhances our lives: it provides increased access to information, allows for the forging and maintenance of relationships, helps make learning and teaching more accessible, and provides a breeding ground for creativity and innovation for everything from entertainment and the arts to media coverage to improvements in research, science, and medicine. But there are also “side effects,” or at least potentially less healthful ways in which some technological advances have already greatly impacted society at large, and mental health in particular. Social media, social interaction and expression which occurs online, provides a particularly controversial forum when it comes to its impact on mental health.
Recently, ESPN addressed the issue of the filters we use on social media and how it impacts our self-evaluations. Specifically, the article discussed the suicide of 19 year-old Madison Holleran, a student and track athlete at the University of Pennsylvania. Holleran leapt off the ninth story of a parking garage in January of 2014, leaving behind a note and gifts for her family members. We can never really know the extent of another person’s pain and their thought processes which ultimately lead them to taking their own lives, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to piece together their story. What makes Holleran’s story particularly haunting is the extent to which she projected a “successful” image, at least per her social media accounts. Photos show a young woman with a dazzling smile, surrounded by friends and family, an acclaimed athlete, and a college student living out a life that others might envy or negatively appraise their own stock to. The ESPN article speculates that Holleran’s quest for perfection, managing the stress of Ivy League academics and varsity sport, and mental health struggles were a devastating pairing with the onslaught of social media; providing the forum for constant self-scrutiny and the feelings of alienation and isolation which arise from trying to manage our self-image in an image-manufactured and filtered world.
While we will never know how much social media contributed to Holleran’s feelings of despair or hid her true suffering, it has an undoubted (sometimes covert, sometimes blatant) impact on the mental health of its regular users. Researchers have coined the term “Facebook depression” to describe the classic symptoms of depression which develop when teens and preteens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook. Acceptance and peer contact is an important element of human life,particularly for adolescents and young adults who are shaping their identities. This is why we/they are susceptible to becoming dependent on social media. A somewhat less clinical term of art which has arisen in the wake of social media is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), to describe the anxiety associated with observing the projection of the fun and exciting lives of others that we are not a part of.
Many of us experience some level of FOMO, which may be proportionate to the amount of time we spend on social media, especially when we are viewing the “lives” and “stories” of others. To self-assess, think about when you wake up in the morning or have a break in your day, do you first check all your social media feeds to see if you missed something? Do you feel anxious or stressed while perusing status updates and photos of people you know, or, don’t even know but are tangentially connected to via social media? These social comparisons forced by social media’s ever-present, ever-updated newsfeed puts our lives in stark contrast with the high-lights and selected portions of the ‘lives’ of others. Social comparisons have never been more biased, formulated, and distilled.
FOMO relates to being overwhelmed by options and not being able to anticipate what you will miss and what you will regret. Research suggests that those who lack a sense of autonomy, connectedness/relatedness, and competence are much more likely to experience FOMO. However, I have anecdotally observed how social media paradoxically contributes to and exacerbates feelings of isolation, disconnect, alienation, and inadequacy. We also know that people who are predisposed to depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, are at an increased risk of having a negative self-comparison and fixating on “evidence” of their own deficiencies. Social media then becomes a breeding ground for further insecurity and emotional dysregulation.
It is important to be aware of how social media impacts your mood and sense of self. If you feel agitated or sad after being on social media, it’s a sign you may need a break. Consider logging off or shutting down your account for a period of time. If there are particular accounts or people who post things that bring you down, consider unfollowing them and assess any changes in your mood. To avoid things like FOMO, ask yourself if you are really missing out. Be honest with yourself: are the people who you compare yourself to people you really feel connected and related to? Remember that a secure relationship means not having to always be connected. Finding ways to decompress offline can provide some relief and perspective. Talk about how social media affects you and connect with friends in real life. And be willing to give yourself a reality check. A lot of what people post is a projection and edited version of who they want you to think they are.
Madison Holleran’s story sheds light on so many important issues related to mental health, including the insidiousness of mental illness and potentially the stress and confusion associated with forming an identity and feeling connected in a world of increasing social comparison and evaluation. It’s important to be aware of the ways social media can be detrimental to our social identities and for there to be awareness of the risk factor it may present to someone who is already emotionally struggling.