Social Media and Mental Health

In a few days (July 10), the third Mental Health Camp will be held in Vancouver, Canada. Mental Health Camp is an (un)conference that addresses the intersection between mental health and social media (e.g. blogging, Facebook, Twitter). The organizers, Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega and myself, believe that social media can be used as a force for good to help with mental health issues. First and foremost, we have seen how social media can help decrease stigma. For example, there are many people who formerly were quiet about their mental illness. Through social media and its relative anonymity they can explore being more open about mental illness. This in turn makes it easier for others to speak out.

However, in the interest of providing balanced information, it’s also good to look at how social media can impair mental health. A while ago, ThoughtPick posted an article about just that. Let’s look at some of the issues the writer addresses, and whether there are rebuttals.

Insomnia & Sleep Disorders: insomnia is “difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, or both”.

… social media can cause it as well as [?] insomnia at a more advanced stage. I take myself here as an example. I use social media from morning till after midnight and I confess Twitter has kept me up for early morning hours on several occasions.

While there is a difference between deciding not to sleep and not being able to sleep, it’s clear that overuse of social media that results in things like tweeting into the wee hours of the morning can’t help with already existing insomnia. It’s interesting, though, how social media is often immediately equated with excessive use of it.

ADHD: ADHA [?] is primarily characterized by “the co-existence of attentional problems and hyperactivity, with each behavior occurring infrequently alone.”

In such a fast moving environment that we live in, we are becoming like goldfish; with a rather limited attention span… I think that the use of social media and the many distractions the various channels, tools and sites cause [?] actually help promote ADHD for all of us!

As far as I know, the causes of ADHD are not yet known. For example, in a recent study at Texas Tech University on the connection between ADHD and TV, a phenomenon similar to social media, the researchers could not find that TV watching caused ADHD in children. Checking the web site of Dr. Ned Hallowell, a well-known expert on AHDH  did return anything on the connection between social media and ADHD. On the other hand, Pete Quily, another well-known blogger on the topic of ADHD, often talks quite favourably about social media, for example here, where he discusses the advantages of having ADD when working in the tech industry.

However, it would be unrealistic to claim that social media is only a boon to people with ADD/ADHD. Even people who don’t officially suffer from such a clinical condition are often adversely affected by the fragmented attention that social media tends to promote. Tony Schwartz quotes Dr. Hallowell as saying “In the world we live in, there’s an increasingly thin line between what’s viewed as necessary and even optimal when it comes to paying attention and what is literally pathological.”

Addiction: is a ‘term used to is used in many contexts to describe an obsession, compulsion, or excessive psychological dependence’.

There are alcohol addicts, drug addicts, cigarette addicts and there are social media addicts! … Social media provides a well-prepared platform for weak people who can’t organize their time and control their social media use.

While I have a problem with the writer referring to “weak people” – addiction is a mental health condition, not a weakness — there is definitely some truth to what she says. Having thousands of social media sites available at one’s fingertips, from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to MySpace, is like planting a casino right beside a gambler’s house.

There is still some debate among academics as to whether there is actually such a thing as internet addiction. My stance on addiction is that it is primarily a behavioural problem, not a problem associated with a specific substance/thing — thus, one can develop an addiction to just about anything.

Just like the situation with ADHD, an interesting question is whether problematic internet use, as it is sometimes referred to, is a personal problem or a problem that pervades all of society.

Anxiety & Depression: refers to ‘a state of low mood and aversion to activity’ which is highly correlated with anxiety.

Sometimes, locking yourself inside, staying in solitude and keeping away from face-to-face interaction can cause depression and anxiety. I believe social media encourages people to spend more time alone, on their computers, rather than with others.

Again, the writer’s description of depression and anxiety leaves a bit to be desired. The question of isolation is an interesting one. First of all, there is no question that isolation is extremely detrimental to mental health, and is particularly harmful for people who experience depression. The question, though, is whether social media actually does increase isolation. It is, after all, “social.” Many people report deeply meaningful connections online, and often these connections turn into face-to-face connections (as is the case in Mental Health Camp). Social media is detrimental only insofar as it specifically prevents meaningful and/or face-to-face connections.

  • Brian

    how social media can impair mental health

    How does social media itself create the action of impairment?

    Social media is detrimental only insofar as it specifically prevents meaningful and/or face-to-face connections.

    Can social media itself “prevent meaning connections” or is it the person using it that does the preventing?

    This article seems to externalize technology and imbue it with human attributes and qualities it does not in itself possess.

  • Brian – you’re right, I could have drawn attention to the fact that social media is a tool, used by real live human beings. I would be interested to hear from you how the thrust of the article would have changed had I made it abundantly clear that social media is just a tool?

  • Perhaps you might focus more on the essence, origin and nature of specific kinds of behavioral patterns that are considered to be unhealthy or addictive, and how those behaviors are projected/displayed/performed through the technology. The technology is a tool used to express a behavioral pattern. I sense it is our silent assumptions and hidden beliefs about ourselves and our life that lie at the root of the issue.

    Technopomorphism is a play on anthropomorphism – we should try to craft language so that we do not imbue technology with human qualities. Technology can be viewed as a kind of prop in a larger performance – this is my perspective on it anyway. In this sense, even pen and paper (i.e. – the technology of handwriting) has the potential to be used as a tool/prop to entrench isolation if we embrace it through obsessive or addictive behavioral patterns.

    Your ideas are very important. The problems and challenges you describe are very serious and unfortunately seem to be affecting more and more people. I think many people take on the mindset, perhaps unconsciously, that they are victims of technology. Perhaps this is one of those unchallenged assumptions that might encourage behavioral problems.

  • Pingback: social media and mental health – it’s not all rosy()

  • Anonymous

    The brain is a funny thing, ive been thinking about mdai a lot lately

  • It’s my opinion that facebook, myspace, and television are bad for one’s mental health. I am a blogger and have found that both reading others’ blogs and writing on my own blog eases my mind, inspires me, and documents my progress.

  • arfaeen

    well i agreed with mr. brain

  • Cherry

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  • Jeff Simms

    Is there any concern with the damages it could have on mental health.Do you eel any of these social media outlets create a false sense of life for some that down the road could be a rude awakening when they life they have created on the web isnt real life. I think there is the possibility that these sites could cause problems in the future that we have not seen yet.

  • Lezlie

    A recent study actually published findings that children are showing a increased occurrence in depression associated with the use of social media, Facebook in particular is cited.

  • Pingback: Mental Health and Social Media | Therapy Soup()

  • While there are certainly issues to beware of in regard to Social Media, it has played a huge part in my son’s recovery from severe OCD. I wonder how different his journey would have been without the benefit of social media. A few ways in which it has helped him include:

    He was able to self-diagnose himself with OCD at the age of seventeen, with the help of the internet.

    We were able to find great health-care providers (after some not so great ones)and treatment programs with the help of mental health sites.

    He and I were both able to connect with people in similar situations. It is invaluable to know you are not alone.

    I have become an advocate for OCD awareness, have my own blog, and have been published on several mental health sites. I hopefully have helped others in the process. I know contributing in this way has certainly helped me.

    In my opinion, the positives of social media in relation to mental health issues far outweigh the negatives.

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.

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