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Implications of Social Media Usage on Mental Health: Is There a Direct Link?

I recently turned in a graduate-level research paper on the relationship between social media usage and mental health. I thought I would share some of my findings with you all, as the mental component of health is just as important as the physical.

Social media remains a habitual practice of everyday life. From sun up to sun down; in crowded intersections, never-ending grocery store lines, and monotonous lectures. It takes place in solitude and also from opposite ends of a dining room table. It is arguably one of the most powerful forms of media in today’s society and grew at an unprecedented rate. For a frame of reference, it took Myspace 2.5 years to reach 50 million users, Facebook 2, YouTube less than a year, and Instagram hit the target in less than a month. While a mere 5% of American used social media in its early days, 92% of teens and young adults use smartphones today. The average American now spends 5+ hours a day on their phone (Rosen).

As Steve Jobs put it, the smartphone really “changed everything” by gifting users worldwide connectivity in the palm of their hand. The degree of usage and rapid expansion evidence a level of potency that previous systems lack. What type of implications does this tiny computer have on the user? How does 5+ hours of daily smartphone usage influence mental health?

Let’s look at the research to determine the extent social media affects psychological behavior.

I: What makes social media so special?

Moreover- what makes it so powerful and fascinating to users?

"...the classical screen displays a static, permanent image; the dynamic screen displays a moving image of the past; and finally, the real-time screen shows the present" – Media Theorist Lev Manovich

Contrary to its influencers, social media displays a level of transparency and hypermediacy that older media systems lack. This explains why face timing an old friend now trumps writing a letter by pen. Why buy a paper from a newsstand when you can subscribe to CNN text updates or simply press the twitter icon on your phone? Various modalities for social networking enable users to interact with one another ((almost as if)) they were standing face to face. Thus, the easy accessibility and transparency of the smartphone ensure 24/7 connectivity, revealing a fringe of the fascination behind the phenomenon.

Some claim older media systems hold a similar degree of power. For instance, social interactions also take place through a computer screen and one can obtain news through the television. The difference lies in social media’s immediacy. The urgency to answer emails, respond to text messages, check Instagram likes and Facebook comments governs the user. When was the last time you were able to focus on a task for more than five minutes before your mind drifted towards your phone?

Nevertheless, older media forms fail to demonstrate this same level of power, evidencing the possible effects on psychological behavior.

II.) The Research

The possible link between social media usage and mental health should not surprise anyone. Popularized acronyms like FOMO are mistakenly joked about in reference to the anxiety and perceived loneliness elicited by social media.

Over the past decade, statistics demonstrated a decline in quality of mental health along with the rise of social media usage. Between the years of 2009-2015, the US exhibited a 33% increase in depression cases and 30% increase in counseling caseloads. Females alone experienced a 65% increase in depressive behavior, with males displaying a 33% increase in suicidal outcomes (Twenge).

In addition, the level of distraction created by social media usage inhibits stress and anxiety levels, especially by adolescents, college students, and young adults. Adults attest to only being able to focus on a task for 15 minutes, with 5 of those minutes remaining in a state of distraction.

The average student looks at their phone 50 times per day. According to the National Survey of Teachers by Common Sense Media, 71% of teachers linked social media use to their students’ shortened attention span, 59% said it hindered their ability to communicate face to face, and 40% claimed it negatively impacted their ability to collaborate and problem solve (Rosen). Likewise, this level of distraction makes it much harder to commit to a task. "They don't want to put effort into areas that don't give them instant gratification…If they cannot get what they need quickly then they give up”

III.) Implications and Discussion

Statistics alone insufficiently evidence a direct link. Nonetheless, the available research seems to align with 3 implications.

1) The higher degree of social media usage correlates with a greater concern for mental health.

Regardless of each studies efficacy, the researchers unanimously agree on this point.

According to Larry D. Rosen’s investigation into adolescent mental health trends, those reporting the highest smartphone usage demonstrated increased levels of anxiety and stress (Rosen). Jeane Twenge found a similar connection between those exhibiting the greatest social media usage and depressive tendencies. The research discovered a negative correlation between time spent on homework and depression levels (Twenge). Moreover, of those reporting at least one suicidal risk factor, 48% fell into the category of 4.5+ hours of smartphone usage per day.

In a study conducted across college campuses, a majority of participants admitted feeling left out (FOMO) from observing friends have fun on social media without them and anxiety about acquiring judgment on their posts.

Regardless of whether or not the student’s exhibited positive sentiments towards social media, the “perceived” feeling of social closeness also brought about anxiety and loneliness. While students might temporarily feel happy because of their ability to interact with friends, what happens when they go offline? Does this fleeting happiness sustain when forced to be alone, or does it suffer because of the constant need to stay connected? Research indicates that

2) social media promotes non-social behavior. Thus, in person social interactions provide more emotional closeness than any conversation behind a screen

3) A direct link between social media usage and mental health trends requires further research.Because of differences between personality traits, level of addiction, and specific online activity, the degree of effect might vary. Conversely, depressive cases nearly doubled in the last 10 years. If social media is not at fault, then further research must determine who or what is. Therefore, the potency of social media must be taken into account for future discussion of mental health concerns.

Next week I will discuss my own call to action in response to these findings. I would love to hear any thoughts you have of your own.

Otherwise, stay tuned, fit peeps!


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