It’s no secret that young adults in the 21st century are addicted to their phones. A lot of us are able to recognize this addiction and the main facet it lies in: social media. The addiction to social media acts the same as an addiction to a drug and stimulates the same parts of the brain that substance use does. The feedback loop of seeking positive reinforcement online through likes, comments, and DMs keeps us coming back for more just like any other addiction. And this addiction can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. There comes a point when our brains cannot process all this sensory information at once. We are constantly being overstimulated when we’re on our phones with a never-ending stream of entertainment and our brains were simply not designed for that. This explains why we’ve noticed our attention spans rapidly decreasing as well. Our brains get so overwhelmed to the point that they cannot process all of the information we’re constantly being fed, and the brain shuts down, similar to trauma response. This innate fight, flight or freeze mechanism we’re born with kicks in, and our brain simply froze from the overstimulation. This is why young adults, aged 18-22, who spend more time on social media may experience greater symptoms of anxiety and may be more likely to meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder (Vanucci, Flanner, and Ohannessian, 2017). Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders and social media is only exacerbating these issues.
The worst part is that the owners and operators of these social media platforms are completely aware of the effects they’re causing and are choosing to do nothing about it. Recently, there was a study conducted by Meta—the owner of Instagram and Facebook—that was leaked discussing the impacts of Instagram on body image issues for teen girls. This internal study was never supposed to be released, which makes the findings and motives of the company even more sickening. Since at least 2019, the company has been researching the impact of Instagram on the mental health of its users. The research clearly indicates that the product is harmful to teenage girls, with one statistic saying that “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse” (Wells, Horwitz, and Seetharaman, 2021).
Another finding was that “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression” (Wells, Horwitz, and Seetharaman, 2021). This idea that social media harms our mental health is not a new concept, but the fact that the makers of these sites are aware of the negative effects they are having on users and were planning on hiding this information and ignoring it is nauseating. This is the first time that Instagram’s own research shows how aware the company is of their impacts on mental health, after many external studies have already come to this conclusion. The question now is will Meta do anything to mitigate its harmful effects, or are we already too far gone?
On social media, we’re trading our real life for an imagined life. We post the best parts of our days and the highlights of our lives. So, this harm to teen girls’ mental health is all based on one person comparing their fake life to someone else’s even cooler fake life. Regular girls are comparing their bodies to an “Instagram model’s” photoshopped physique. But it’s not just IG models causing these insecurities, as you can also compare yourself to the girl who goes to your school who, in person, looks nothing like she does online. The things that people post are simply unattainable and not real, but young girls view these posts and think that they’re an accurate depiction of someone else’s reality, which ultimately causes them to despise their own lives.
That being said, there are some positive impacts of social media. With more people being brave enough to speak out about their mental health struggles, the stigma is slowly being broken down to normalize and validate people’s experiences. It allows people to find others they can relate to and spread awareness about these issues, so that people can become more educated on the topic. There are also some tactics that can be implemented to have a better experience with social media. Being intentional about what you look at when on your phone and the content that you consume is very important. There is a difference between going on your phone and only looking at IG models that you know you will end up comparing yourself to versus filling your feed with positive, insightful content that puts you in a better mood. This means unfollowing the accounts that make you feel worse about yourself and instead of following your closest friends and other positive accounts. There are different and better ways to scroll.
Additionally, you may feel like you’re really socializing and connecting online, but that connection is completely different than a real, live human connection. Online, we don’t get the connections we need, which is ironic because it feels like we do. Setting aside time to socialize in real-time and connect with others in real life will do wonders for your mental well-being.
The addiction to social media is real and it operates just like any other addiction. This means we must set boundaries and limits in our usage, such as screen time and social media limits. Not only will this keep you off your phone, but it will give you more time to socialize offline and do other activities that are beneficial to your mental health.
Instagram, Facebook, and Meta as a whole must take responsibility for the harmful effects their product has on young people. Do better Mark Zuckerberg. Now go talk to someone in real life!