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.

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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