Negative Effects of Social Media Essay Example
The ubiquity of social media in recent years has intertwined with the increase of mental health awareness within society. This has led to social media being used as a positive platform for users to share inspirational stories and access support for mental health related disorders online, in order to improve their wellbeing. For example, in a recent campaign to discourage the stigma faced by those with mental health issues, the hashtag ‘#Iwantyoutoknow’ rose to popularity across sites such as Instagram and Twitter, where users share the misconceptions which society has surrounding their condition and the truthful reality of their illness. Social media also allows individuals to connect with others and gain support through their peers, and can give users the courage to open up about their struggles, which is the first step of recovery for many. Social media is often praised for the recent emergence in mental health awareness, and the effort made to reduce stigma and segregation against those who suffer from mental illnesses.
However, there have been many concerns raised about how social media negatively affects the mental health of individuals – specifically adolescents. At an age where they are still emotionally maturing, the 94% of teenagers who use social media daily are possibly the most at risk of being negatively affected by the dangers which social media possesses.
For the purpose of this essay, social media will be defined as ‘websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking ’ – the most popular of which including Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook, which shall be referenced within this essay.
Mental health shall be defined as ‘The condition of someone’s mind and whether or not they are suffering from any mental illnesses’. Within this essay, I shall discuss mental illnesses such as depression and disordered eating, which demonstrate poor mental health.
Arguably, the three most disturbing issues on social media which have been found to have a detrimental impact on the mental health of adolescents, include the rise of photoshopped images which causes unrealistic expectations for how teenagers should look, the online promotion of eating disorders, self-harm and suicide, and cyberbullying.
In this essay, I shall explore these issues and their involvement with worsened mental health in teenagers.
The Lack of Realism
One of the main issues with social media is the lack of realism within content posted by the millions of users. ‘Photoshopping’ is defined as ‘to alter (a photographic image) digitally using Photoshop image-editing software’ by the Collins Dictionary.
Brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein have been heavily criticised for their extreme Photoshopping, and the release of adverts showing female models with unrealistically thin waists and legs, and the male models with enhanced muscles.
Below are 2 examples of this.
The images on the left are the originals, showing the models before any retouching. Society would deem their original photos aesthetically pleasing, subject to societal beauty standards. However, to promote their product, the brand has photoshopped the images, producing the photos on the right.
Brands edit their photographs to enhance what they consider to be desirable features. This is to promote the ‘beauty’ within their product, as it clings to the low self-esteem of viewers, who believe that, to be attractive, they must resemble those unrealistic photos, and will therefore buy the brand’s product. Social media has been used to distribute these doctored images for millions of users to see. With 72% of 12-15-year old’s having a social media account in 2016 , teenagers are exposed to these fake ideals of how they should look and then put pressure of themselves to resemble these socially deemed beautiful models. Whilst they’re still mentally and physically developing, this can have a severely detrimental effect on their self-esteem and how they view themselves.
The University of Haifa (2011) found spending more time on Facebook led to more cases of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa, poor body image and a negative attitude regarding eating.
Although eating disorders are often regarded as a mental illness more common in women, recent statistics have shown a rise in the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms within males. A study conducted by Striegel et al (2009) showed that the figures for eating disorders symptoms weren’t dissimilar between females and males. The results are shown below.
In this sample of 3714 women and 1808 men, men surprisingly showed higher levels of over-eating, which is the main symptom of binge-eating disorders. However, this study doesn’t accurately represent the true gender differences within diagnosed eating disorders, as it only measures symptoms – not diagnosed cases. This means the results are extremely objective and open to personal bias, therefore not making it the most reliable data, but it does show how men also suffer from eating disorders, a fact which is often disregarded by society.
According to Stephanie L. Brooke in ‘The Creative Therapies and Eating Disorders’, over 10 million females and 1 million males are struggling with an eating disorder in the USA. This is an extremely high figure for both genders, however, it highlights the gender difference in regards to eating disorders.
On average, women tend to suffer from eating disorders more than men, and some suggest that this is due to the obscene amount of pressure that has been placed on women for centuries. Throughout history, women have been encouraged to reach unrealistic materialistic beauty standards, starting from the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians using lead infused makeup to enhance their beauty, the fatal skeleton-deforming boned corsets worn by women between the 19th and early 20th century to allow them to achieve the desirable figure, and now the worrying increase in plastic surgery - the rise in popularity for this mainly being due to social media. Celebrities such as the Kardashians are constantly in the limelight and are consistently praised for their appearances, which are the result of extensive cosmetic surgery.
The most concerning statistic surrounding the impact social media has on the desire for plastic surgery, is that 40% of teenage girls want plastic surgery. Two-thirds of those participants also said this pressure came from celebrities, who use social media as a platform to present the most desirable version of themselves, which often happens to appear completely unlike themselves. This presents the world with an unrealistic false image. Without social media, teenagers wouldn’t be exposed to such extreme beauty standards seen on celebrities, and therefore would feel less pressured to look like them, and therefore wouldn’t want to have potentially dangerous surgeries in order to appear more attractive.
In addition to this, according to the National Institute for Family and the Media, 78% of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their body. Another study which focuses on the low self-esteem and body image held primarily by teenage girls, is Bulik C.M (2012). Bulik completed a study in which participants from the age of 11-21 scored how they viewed themselves, on a scale from 2 (meaning high self-esteem) to -2 (meaning low self-esteem). Girls and boys were evenly matched until around the age of 12 where girls rapidly decreased from a score of 0.5 to -1.6 at the age of 17.
Boys, on the other hand, showed extremely fluctuating self-esteem levels, however the results never went below 0.0. The self-esteem rating for the girls finally increased back to 0.3 by the age of 21. A graph showing the results can be seen below.
This research shows how the period between the ages of 11 and 21 can be a truly negative experience in relation to how teenagers see themselves, especially girls. It is highly unlikely that there is no relation between increased social media usage (and therefore exposure to doctored images which cause individuals to compare themselves to online models) and a lowered self-esteem rating.
Similarly to women, societal standards have also been harsh on men, however this is more focused on the historical stigma surrounding mental health. Due to condescending stereotypes, boys are often raised on the idea that showing emotions and suffering from mental health issues is unmanly, and in fear of being emasculated by society, they repress their issues, which only further develop. There is a higher mental health stigma in boys than there is in girls, which is arguably down to less awareness, education and approval.
This is closely related to the alarming suicide statistics released by the Office for National Statistics, which showed males aged 15 to 19 years are 2.5 times more likely to die from suicide than females. The graphs below show the significant difference between male and female suicide rates.
One of the main reasons for a higher rate of suicide without the diagnosis of a mental illness (54% of people who committed suicide are not diagnosed with a mental illness), is due to fear of judgement, shame and humiliation.
‘The process of help-seeking can be understood as an intentional action that starts with awareness, problem recognition, and definition (Cornally & McCarthy, 2011; Rickwood, Deane, Wilson, & Ciarrochi, 2005).’ This quote from the American Journal of Men’s Health summarizes the cognitive processes behind reaching out for help. Men on average, tend to conceal their emotions due to the fear of being mocked by traditional masculine ideals. This then leads to denial of a problem, and thus a refusal to seek help. The pre-existing mental health issue combined with the shame of hiding it due to fear of being viewed as weaker leads to a worsened mental state, only developing the problem.
In some ways, men are more vulnerable than females for this reason, and therefore are more susceptible to negative influence and the detrimental effect of social media.
Boys are told from a young age they must be strong, that they can’t show emotions, and that to be manly, they must be powerful. This relates to the photoshopping epidemic, and the effect it has upon toxic masculinity. As previously mentioned, brands such as Calvin Klein have been criticised for photoshopping images of Justin Bieber from a recent campaign, to show him as being more muscular. In the same way photoshopped images encourage younger girls to be thinner in order to be beautiful, cases like these encourage the idea that boys must be toned and muscular to be attractive.
This can be responsible for increased aggression in boys, who try to fit the idea of hegemonic masculinity to compensate for the fact that they do not resemble images seen online, for example, trying to portray themselves as more dominant. This more aggressive, irritable version of the individual is often how mental illnesses such as depression manifest themselves in males. Therefore, it is often overlooked, and the worrying behavior and underlying cause are ignored, leading to a decrease in mental stability.
Social media is almost entirely responsible for the photoshopping epidemic experienced by the millions of users, with 68% of adults admitting to photoshopping selfies before sharing them. Unsurprisingly, this builds a societal expectation of beauty, and this therefore pressurises young boys and girls into feeling as though they have to have a certain body shape to be attractive, which leads to the development of poor self-esteem, and a rise in mental illnesses such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
Social media allows edited photos to be shared and viewed by the millions of users, which in turn allows unrealistic appearances of users to become normalised, leading to adolescents wishing to look a certain way in order to feel validated and beautiful. This pressure leads to a decline in mental health. This shows how the mental health of adolescents of both genders is negatively impacted by photoshopping, and the unrealistic beauty standards imposed by social media.
Another cause for concern regarding the impact social media has on the mental health of adolescents, is the rise in the promotion of self-injury, suicide and eating disorders online. Many accounts found primarily on Instagram and Tumblr share distressing content such as graphic photos and videos of self-inflicted cuts, burns and other injuries, advice on how to self-harm, ‘thinspo’, morbidly poetic quotes about suicide and more.
These pages claim they form a sense of community as those who struggle with self-harming tendencies can often feel extremely alone and isolated, however the distressing content found is usually triggering to individuals who suffer from mental illnesses, leading them to hurt themselves. Jackie Doyle-Price, the National Suicide Prevention Minister, has described this online content as having ‘the effect to groom people to take their own lives.’
In 2017, a 14-year-old named Molly Russel committed suicide. Following her death, her parents found she was following many of these ‘depression accounts’ which glamorised and promoted the idea of self-injury and even suicide as a way of escaping temporary emotional distress. Some of these accounts featured pessimistic quotes regarding suicide, graphic images of cuts, pictures of pills, cartoons depicting nooses and more triggering content. Some examples can be seen below.
The true danger of these accounts is within the sheer simplicity of finding them, and how they are open to millions of users. Hundreds of accounts that feature this content appear when ‘suicide’, ‘cutting’, ‘depression’ and other triggering terms are searched. There are no restrictions preventing vulnerable users from seeing this. It can be assumed that the vast majority of users that will on how to cut deeper or where to cut in order to draw more blood.
These comments do not offer support, they further encourage the individual who shared the image to continue practicing self-harm more severely, and this not only endangers them, but it puts the social media users who see these comments and photos at risk. They will feel more compelled to hurt themselves, and this will worsen as a result of these accounts.
One teenager claims she became addicted to self-harming accounts and ran her own where she frequently posted photos of her own fresh cuts to her 8,000 followers. Below is an excerpt of a BBC article about this particular girl, which shows her Father describing the activity he witnessed on these accounts.
This shows how the toxic nature of social media can be used to manipulate vulnerable teenagers with issues into segregating themselves. Often, they will interact with social media accounts that promote self-harming as they think that this community will accept them, as many people who do not self-harm do not understand the addictive nature of it, and the thought processes behind it. Finding an online community of people who suffer from the same problems can be almost a relief, resulting in the individual looking up to them. However, when these strangers begin to offer advice on how to cut more dangerously and encourage each other to hurt themselves more and more, the individual will be inspired to follow these instructions, leading to more severe and potentially life-threatening self-inflicted injuries.
Self-harming alone is not a mental illness, however it is often an affirmative indication of one. Individuals choose to hurt themselves for different reasons such as a need to feel something in order to not feel numb, or as a physical response to emotional pain. Stanley et al (2010) found that those who self-harmed tended to have lower levels of endogenous opioids. . The brain naturally releases endorphins and endocannabinoids when the human body is injured. When self-harmers injure themselves, this release of chemicals will compensate for this chemical imbalance, which in turn begins to make self-harming addictive for the individual, as it provides temporary relief. The high from the pain is usually shortly replaced by shame and guilt, due to the social stigma surrounding self-harming, and the stress surrounding the response from the individual’s peers.
This leads to a worsened state of mental health, which leads to emotional suffering, which can lead to the emotion (eg. Anger, fear, sadness) that triggers the individual to self-harm. Overall, the practice of self-harming not only highlights mental distress, but it further worsens it. According to WebMD, self-harm tends to start at age 14, which shows that the teenage years are a critical period in terms of poor mental health and vulnerability to negative influence from toxic sub-cultures such as these social media accounts. The Millennium Cohort Study found that 22% of 14-year-old girls and 9% of 14-year-old boys self-harmed at least once.
Although increased use of social media obviously does not cause self-harming, there is evidently a high proportion of teenagers who suffer from self-harming issues, and their exposure to these accounts that promote, encourage and glamorise self-injury has a detrimental impact to their mental health. A study conducted by Mitchell et al (2010) showed that teenagers who visited a site which encouraged suicide and self-harming, were 7 times more likely to think about killing themselves, and 11 times more likely to think about harming themselves. With these accounts being so available to the public, these statistics truly highlight the extreme danger vulnerable teenagers are at, simply by being on social media.
Self-harming isn’t the only behavior encouraged by certain social media accounts. Behaviours relating to eating disorders are also actively promoted online. Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia pages are common on apps such as Instagram and Tumblr. Borzekowksi et al (2010) found 91% of these websites were open to the public, 84% offered pro-anorexia content, 64% offered pro-bulimia content, and only 38% encouraged recovery. This shows the malicious nature of these sites, and how easy it is to find them on social media.
Hashtags such as the ones shown below are found on the bottom of the majority of the photos posted in these pages, which lead the user to view more content which encourages disordered eating.
How Instagram Algorithms DON’T Help
Due to Instagram’s algorithm, the more posts which an individual interacts with, the more posts of a similar nature will appear on their explore page. Therefore, if someone views and ‘likes’ or comments on a photo which promotes disordered eating, they are more likely to be shown similar content. This can then lead them to develop a serious eating disorder as a result of being exposed to, and therefore joining, online eating disorder communities which glorify extreme thinness, and see being skeletal as being beautiful.
The National Eating Disorders Association said the blogs were as dangerous as “putting a loaded gun in the hands of someone who’s suicidal.”
Similarly to self-harm pages, there is a sense of community and solidarity within the users. A recent study showed that members were not just motivated by weight concerns, but also by the support available from other members.
‘Thinspiration’ can be defined as ‘used in reference to something or someone that serves as motivation for a person seeking to maintain a very low body weight’ by Oxford Dictionaries. Thinspiration is common amongst these pages, and usually consists of photos of emaciated women, with protruding bones. They are usually accompanied by captions glorifying how thin the model is or glorifying disordered eating to lose unhealthy amounts of weight. The accounts that post these photos will try to encourage the viewers to lose weight through disordered eating and extreme techniques so that they can also be thin, as they persuade the viewer that they should aspire to look like the photo.
According to a recent study, 73% of pro-Ana page followers on twitter are aged 17-19. As previously mentioned, teenagers, especially females, are under an extreme amount of pressure to look a certain way from social media. When there are so many youths who wish to be thinner, coming across these pages on social media easily leads to the onset of an eating disorder.
With 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys regularly using unhealthy methods to stay thin (for example, fasting, vomiting and laxatives), the extreme content can have a huge influence on the vulnerable self-conscious adolescents of today. This shows that pages that actively encourage eating disorders have a wide teenage audience, who are extremely susceptible to negative influence from these communities.
Between 2010 and 2017, the NHS reported that there has been a 91% increase in diagnosed eating disorders within the UK. Although the rise in social media does not directly cause the increase seen in eating disorders within teenagers, the content seen on these accounts which promote disordered eating to fit an unrealistic ideal, not only inspire many youths to lose weight through unhealthy methods which can spiral into an eating disorder, but they have been proven to further worsen the eating disorders of those who already suffer from illnesses such as Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa. In a study conducted by Stanford University in 2006, it was found that 1/3 of girls diagnosed with Anorexia frequently visited pro-ana pages, and that 96% of these had learnt new techniques to lose weight from these accounts.
According to Eating Disorders Review, an eating disorder treatment centre based in Chicago reported that between 30 and 50% of their teenage patients used social media to support their eating disorder.
There is no positive effect caused by these toxic manipulative accounts that target mentally-weak teenagers through social media and encourage them to harm themselves or develop an eating disorder. They actively lead thousands of vulnerable individuals to severe harm or even death, yet they are still extremely easy to locate on the main social media sites. So why have they not been eradicated?
Changes to the Policy
Recently, apps such as Instagram have begun an attempt to remove all self-harming and ‘Thinspiration’ posts. Following the death of Molly Russell, the boss of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, stated in an interview "Historically, we have allowed content related to self-harm that's 'admission' because people sometimes need to tell their story - but we haven't allowed anything that promoted self-harm. But, moving forward, we're going to change our policy to not allow any graphic images of self-harm." He claims that they plan on adding sensitivity screens to blur out graphic pictures of self-harming, and they already have offered support through the means of pop-ups that appear when triggering hashtags are searched, that provide the names of mental health organisations. However, this has been criticised as being a futile effort. Although some graphic pictures have been removed, there are still many remaining (699,000 photos underneath the hashtag ‘selfharm’ still exist.) Many accounts use slightly altered hashtags such as ‘selfharmm’, where a minor spelling error no longer triggers Instagram’s system to identify it as promoting self-injury. The constant evolution of the secret language used by the self-harming communities of Instagram make it difficult to eradicate all the triggering posts.
Although the introduction of sensitivity screens is a good idea in theory, realistically if an individual is searching for graphic triggering content to support their self-injury or eating disorder, then a screen which can easily be closed to reveal these posts is not going to be effective in preventing social media’s role in mental illnesses.
Overall, another of the main causes for worsened mental health and the onset of mental illnesses within adolescents on social media, is through the promotion of self-injury and eating disorders, and the glorification of suicide and other conditions. Whilst Instagram is now filled with a lot more positive content which aims to help those who are struggling, there is still a worrying amount of damaging content available to teenagers online.
Finally, the other major cause for adolescents having poor mental health due to social media, is due to cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can be defined as ‘The use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature’ according to Oxford Dictionaries. The NSPCC stated 12% of 12-15-year-olds had personally experienced cyberbullying. Worryingly, 23% of youths claimed that they thought that cyberbullying was just a part of growing up, according to Ditch The Label.
Bullying amongst youths has been an issue for generations, however with the ubiquity of social media in the past few years, it has found a new place to develop. Cyberbullying can sometimes be worse than abuse that occurs in real life. This can be due to the anonymity of the internet where fake accounts can be made to disguise the attacker’s identity, or it can be due to how the internet acts as a shield and how bullies feel confident enough behind a screen to insult others. In a study conducted by Slonje et al, cyberbullies feel less remorse towards their victims since they cannot be directly blamed for their actions if done anonymously, and as they do not witness victim’s immediate reaction, they can be less empathetic than traditional bullies, which can lead them to continue as they do not realise the potential severity of the consequences of their actions . Zimbardo (1969) concluded that people are more likely to do worse deeds if they cannot be identified, as this reduces risk of personal backlash as there is reduced evaluation from others.
Another alarming feature of the internet is how rapidly comments and pictures and videos can be distributed, and once sent they can no longer be retrieved. Unlike typical ‘playground’ bullying, there is no escaping from the abuse. Slonje et al found 9% of adolescents shared bullying content posted online. This demonstrates how many people can become involved with the bullying of a single individual, as by consciously choosing to distribute unpleasant content further, they are also to blame for the harassment faced by the victim, and therefore are partly responsible for the emotional turmoil experienced by the victim.
Cyberbullying can truly have a terrible impact on the mental health of those affected. The main reason that it is so damaging, is due to the wide variety of ways a child can be cyberbullied. Whether it is name-calling, the sharing of explicit photos, the spread of rumours, the exclusion from group-chats or hacking into someone’s account, cyberbullying causes extreme stress, humiliation and lowered self-esteem. This in turn leads to the individual being wary of others and developing a lower opinion of oneself. Many victims can turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the bullying, such as substance abuse or self-harm. Cyberbullying increases the risk of self-harming or suicidal ideation by 2.3 times . Many victims also tend to turn to alcohol or drugs as a result of being bullied.
A lot of cyberbullying victims tend to already have pre-existing mental illnesses. Teenagers who currently suffer from a mental illness are over 3 times more likely to be bullied. In a study conducted in an inpatient psychiatric hospital in New York, 20% of patients had been cyberbullied recently, and demonstrated more symptoms of depression as a result of this.
These figures show that cyberbullying already has a detrimental effect on the mental health of its teenage victims, but it especially impacts those with poor mental health, putting those individuals at extreme risk of self-inflicted harm and suicide. The charity BeatBullying reported that 44% of teen suicides in the UK are the result of bullying.
NSPCC has reported an increase of 88% of children seeking help over bullying through the medium of social media between 2011 and 2016. This suggests that cyberbullying is increasing as time goes on, which means it will affect more children, resulting in worsened mental health amongst victims, which can result in higher rates of mental illnesses, self-harm and suicide. Cyberbullying is a severe issue within teenagers, as there is no solution which will entirely eradicate it. The Safety Net Report shows that 83% of people want social media sites to do more to tackle cyberbullying , as many believe that it is not taken seriously.
When cyberbullying is responsible for the death of children, social media companies ought to intervene more often and more rapidly to remove unpleasant content and ban bullies on their sites. This should reduce rates of cyberbullying and therefore reduce rates of cyberbullying-induced mental illnesses.
Cyberbullying through social media is very harmful to the mental health of adolescents, and many of the victims later struggle with depression, anxiety and self-harming. At an age where youths begin to truly form a sense of self-identity, the influence of how peers perceive oneself is extremely important. This means cyberbullying can have a strong negative impact on the self-esteem of the victim as it alters how they view themselves. A lower self-worth can be directly blamed on cyberbullying, which occurs through social media.
To conclude, the first of the three main concerning issues found on social media, proved to cause a severe negative impact on the mental health of adolescents, is the creation of false beauty ideals and unnatural body expectations, stemming from teenagers comparing themselves to unrealistic photos seen online. The second is the promotion of self-harming, eating-disorders and suicide, and finally, the third is the rise in cyberbullying and the worrying anonymity of this online harassment
When teenagers are exposed to this harmful content, they become more vulnerable to lowered self-esteem, stress, and the onset of mental illnesses. If they already suffer from pre-existing mental conditions, then the exposure to this content online can severely worsen their mental health.
The worrying fact about social media is the inescapable nature of it, and how difficult it is to remove this content from every social networking site. It is also very easy for teenagers to begin to actively search for this content after discovering it, whether that is purposefully trying to find hateful comments about themselves, or searching for ‘thinspo’, or celebrity photos, or pro-ED accounts. This is the addictive nature of social media, and the sheer simplicity of being able to locate harmful material adds to the danger faced by teenagers.
Adolescence is about finding one’s identity and self-worth. It is the critical period for developing emotional and social habits, which contribute to a healthy mental wellbeing. When surrounded by strongly negative ideas and imagery, it is likely that they shall be influenced by this, and adopt dangerous habits and beliefs. This can include the worsening or development of self-injury, suicidal ideation or eating disorders, or a lowered self-esteem due to cyberbullying or the constant internal desire to look like online figures.
It is evident that, whilst social media companies are attempting to address and reduce this issue, they are not acting efficiently enough. Deleting cyberbullying accounts and online communities which encourage dangerous behavior and ideas may protect one individual from being exposed to such malicious content, but it cannot undo the impact that this content has had on thousands of other teenagers. More needs to be done to combat the decline of adolescent mental health as a whole, but when social media plays a huge role in the average teenager’s day-to-day life, it is crucial that it is made safer for the adolescent community, to prevent the onset and worsening of mental illnesses, and to prevent tragic suicides which come as a result of the flaws of social media.
In a study, which I personally conducted, I surveyed an opportunistic sample of 20 adolescents between the ages of 15-17. In a series of both open and closed questions, I investigated how teenagers truly view the relationship between social media and mental health. The responses from two of the questions can be seen below.
With 70.6% of the sample reporting that they have been negatively impacted by social media and over 95% of the sample reporting that they believe social media is somewhat to blame for the increase of mental health issues within adolescents, it is clear that this is a pressing problem that will continue to negatively impact youths due to lack of moderation on social media. Social networking sites must take more responsibility for the consequences that occur as a result of the dangerous content they allow to be shared on their networks, which consequently end in teenagers developing mental conditions and even committing suicide after being exposed to this harmful content.