Which social media platform is the most dangerous for our mental health?

YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram. The five most popular social media platforms ranked in order from the least to the most harmful for teenage mental health. This classification was made following the results of a British study by The Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Mental Health Movement, published in May 2017. The study was carried out on 1500 young people aged 14 to 24, of whom 91% use the internet for social networking. So, what were the findings?

In the introduction to the study, Shirley Cramer (President of the Royal Society for Public Health) and Becky Inkster (Department of Neuroscience Cambridge University) remind us of the significance of social media in our lives, particularly for “digital natives,” and the importance of studying to what extent they impact the lives of those who were born with the internet. “Social media has become a space in which we form and build relationships, shape self-identity, express ourselves, and learn about the world around us; it is intrinsically linked to mental health.” they warned.

The choice to interview young British people, from 16 to 24 years of age, was significant because, according to the authors, this age corresponds with “a crucial period of emotional and psychological development.” The study aimed to examine both the positive and negative impact of the five principal social media platforms (see above) on young internet users.

When we look at the main findings of the study, we first note that social media platforms are considered more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, and that their use was linked to an explosion in the rate of anxiety and depression (70%) amongst young people over the last 25 years. The study also found that all the platforms studied, apart from YouTube, contribute to an increase in anxiety (the need to be connected at all times due to fear of missing something). A negative impact on sleep was also confirmed, which has corresponding harmful effects on mental health. In addition, cyber bullying appeared to be a growing problem, with 7 out of 10 young people reporting having experienced it. The study highlighted the fact that social media intensifies problems of self-identity for 16 to 24-year-olds. Seven out of ten young people, and nine out of ten girls thought that Instagram made them feel as if they weren’t good enough.

The study did however find two positive effects of social media: it allows teenagers and young people to share experiences about health and to obtain information from experts. It can also provide a form of emotional support. Regarding the latter, 71% of the young people questioned felt that they had received support via social media when they were going through a difficult time.

However overall, “Instagram and Snapchat are classified as the worst social media platforms in terms of mental health and well-being: both platforms are very image focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” explain the authors. On the other hand, YouTube is the only platform that, on average, has a positive impact, due to the empathy and understanding of its users.

In conclusion to the study, the Royal Society recommends some measures to try and reduce the harmful effects of social media. It calls for platforms to analyze publications to identify users who suffer from mental health problems, and that they indicate clearly when a photo has been digitally manipulated.
Source: Royal Society for Public Health & Young Health Movement, “#StatusOfMind – Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” May 2017.

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