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The social media platform Instagram made headlines last year for suppressing likes in an effort to curb the comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content. But do these efforts combat mental health issues, or are they simply applying a band-aid to a wound?
It’s a small step in the right direction, says Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, a psychologist at McLean Hospital who works with youth who experience anxiety disorders, about Instagram’s recent restriction. “Even if you remove the likes, there continue to be opportunities for comparisons and feedback. People still can compare themselves to others, and people still can post comments.”
Social media has a reinforcing nature. Using it activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities such as sex, food, and social interaction. The platforms are designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments. According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults and 81% of teens in the U.S. use social media. This puts a large amount of the population at an increased risk of feeling anxious, depressed, or ill over their social media use.
But what makes users come back for more even when it can literally make them feel sick?
“When the outcome is unpredictable, the behavior is more likely to repeat,” Sperling says. “Think of a slot machine: if game players knew they never were going to get money by playing the game, then they never would play. The idea of a potential future reward keeps the machines in use. The same goes for social media sites. One does not know how many likes a picture will get, who will ‘like’ the picture, and when the picture will receive likes. The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome can keep users engaged with the sites.”
To boost self-esteem and feel a sense of belonging in their social circles, people post content with the hope of receiving positive feedback. Couple that content with the structure of potential future reward, and you get a recipe for constantly checking platforms. When reviewing others’ social activity, people tend to make comparisons such as, “Did I get as many likes as someone else?,” or “Why didn’t this person like my post, but this other person did?” They’re searching for validation on the internet that serves as a replacement for meaningful connection they might otherwise make in real life.
FOMO—fear of missing out—also plays a role. If everyone else is using social media sites, and if someone doesn’t join in, there’s concern that they’ll miss jokes, connections, or invitations. Missing experiences can create anxiety and depression. When people look online and see they’re excluded from an activity, it can affect thoughts and feelings, and can affect them physically.
A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance. Social media use can affect users’ physical health even more directly. Researchers know the connection between the mind and the gut can turn anxiety and depression into nausea, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors.
The earlier teens start using social media, the greater impact the platforms have on mental health. This is especially true for females. While teen males tend to express aggression physically, females do so relationally by excluding others and sharing hurtful comments. Social media increases the opportunity for such harmful interactions.
Sperling offers the example of a seventh grader whose best friend chooses a new best friend and posts pictures of the pair at the movies or on a weekend trip. “Twenty years ago, the girl may have been excluded from her best friend’s activities, but she may not have known about it unless she was told explicitly,” Sperling says.
In addition to providing young people with a window through which they can view missed experiences, social media puts a distorted lens on appearances and reality. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat increase the likelihood of seeing unrealistic, filtered photos at a time when teen bodies are changing. In the past, teens read magazines that contained altered photos of models. Now, these images are one thumb-scroll away at any given time. Apps that provide the user with airbrushing, teeth whitening, and more filters are easy to find and easier to use. It’s not only celebrities who look perfect—it’s everyone.
When there’s a filter applied to the digital world, it can be hard for teens to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which comes at a difficult time for them physically and emotionally. “Middle school already is challenging for students with all of their developmental changes. As they go through puberty, they’re tasked with establishing their identity at a time when the frontal lobes in their brains are not fully developed, and there is a lack of impulse control. All of this happens while their relationships with peers become more important,” Sperling says. “It’s a very vulnerable population to have access to something where there is no stopgap before they post or press the send button. I think that’s something of which to be mindful.”
Adults are vulnerable, too. In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests from patients who want to look like their filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos. A New York Times article that ran in June 2018 features a newlywed couple who nearly separated after their honeymoon. The reason: the wife spent more time on the trip planning and posting selfies than she spent with her husband.
Sperling acknowledges social platforms have positive aspects, such as their ability to allow people to stay in touch with family and friends around the world. She realizes the potential pitfalls of completely banning teens from sites that have become a part of life for their generation—not just as a way for them to stay on top of recent parties and conversations but often as an expected source of announcements and news. Still, she says, the platforms have opened a “Pandora’s box” as they continue to evolve more quickly than we can research their impact.
“I think we need to take a step back and look at the role technology is playing in our society as a whole, in terms of people needing instant gratification, staying home and not interacting in the community by going to local stores or to the movie theater,” she says. “Even dating apps can decrease motivation for single adults to approach others in the community if they think they just can connect with them on an app first.”
“Parents’ frequency of electronics use can set the tone for what is permissible to their children. If you want your children to put their phones down at dinner, that will be more likely to happen if you do the same.”– Dr. Jacqueline Sperling
In addition to limiting likes, as Instagram has done, Sperling suggests social platforms consider decreasing mass sharing altogether. They might function more as messaging services by highlighting one-on-one communications. Regardless of how likely social media giants are to change their ways, though, individuals can take control of their own behavior.
People aren’t usually motivated to change their social media use by simply hearing it’s bad for them. It’s better for individuals to see what their limits are. It’s probably unrealistic for most social media users to quit completely. However, they can monitor their behavior to see how their use impacts them, and how to act as a result.
Michelle knows this all too well. When she was initially treated for anxiety, her therapist asked her if she was active on social media, and she said yes. “It turns out that a lot of my anxiety and impostor syndrome is made worse when I’m online.” A person experiences impostor syndrome when feeling chronic self-doubt and a sense of being exposed as ‘a fraud’ in terms of success and intellect. “Whether it’s another pretty vacation or someone’s bouquet of flowers, my mind went from ‘Why not me?’ to ‘I don’t deserve those things, and I don’t know why,’ and it made me feel awful.”
She and her therapist decided to set ground rules. “If I was to continue using social media, I had to learn what would trigger my anxiety and how using different platforms made me feel,” says Michelle. The result was her deleting Snapchat for good, and after 5 years, she still doesn’t miss it. She’s still active on several other platforms, though.
Sperling encourages people to conduct their own behavior experiments by rating their emotions on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the most intensely one could experience an emotion, before and after using social media sites at the same time each day for a week. If one notices that one feels less happy after using them, then one might consider changing how one uses social media sites, such as using them for less time and doing other activities that one enjoys instead.
A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study suggests that such self-monitoring can change one’s perception of social media. The study’s researchers looked at 143 undergraduates randomly assigned to two groups. The first set was asked to limit Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to ten minutes per platform per day, while the second was asked to continue to use their social media as usual for three weeks. The limited group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression during those three weeks over the group that continued using social media. Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out compared to where they were at the study’s beginning.
“I’d love to say that my use is totally healthy, but I find that I’m still comparing myself to others,” Michelle says. “Now I can recognize what’s going to help or hurt my mental well-being. My therapist and I agreed that I’d set limits on my app usage to two hours a day across all platforms. Now I know when it’s time to log off and take care of myself.”
Parents can develop a plan of how much time family members will spend on devices. Strategies like these teach kids healthy media use and good sleep hygiene. When teens start using social media, parents can ask them to turn in their phones at night with the understanding that parents can review posts and messages. This helps parents be in the know, as sometimes young people will share struggles online while parents have no idea. Monitoring also encourages teens to remember that everything they share online is a permanent fingerprint. If they don’t want their parents to see it, then it shouldn’t be posted.
Sperling suggests that some families modify the ways they use social media. Try a “no selfie” policy or a rule that kids can post pictures of tangible objects but no photos of themselves. This way, children can share their experiences without emphasizing a focus on their appearance.
A common argument is when children say they are missing out because of restrictions placed on their phone use—that they aren’t allowed on a platform or can’t be online after a certain time. Sperling tells parents to remind kids that a good friend would find a way to spend time with them. She suggests other ways for kids to talk to one another to keep those feelings of FOMO away and be socially present. “If adolescents know that they cannot use their phone after a certain time or are not allowed to access a site that their friends use, then they can ask their friends to let them know of any plans made when they see each other at school or call the house phone or one of the parent’s phones so that they can remain included.”
Of course, Sperling says, the way parents are using social media is the model for their kids. A University of Texas review of research on parents’ use of mobile devices while interacting with their children found that mobile use contributed to distracted parenting, an increase of bids for attention when the parents were distracted, and conflicts with other caregivers.
“Parents’ frequency of electronics use can set the tone for what is permissible to their children,” Sperling says. “If you want your children to put their phones down at dinner, that will be more likely to happen if you do the same.”