This is your brain on social media4 min read
What effect does voracious use of social media — constantly consuming images of picture-perfect people posing in artfully arranged tableaux — have on the mental health of users, especially young female users?
That question is on many people’s minds, and it’s at the heart of this week’s episode of the “Chasing Life” podcast.
“How people see you, I guess, with social media – you want to put out a good picture of yourself, make it seem like you’re like your life is so perfect, even though not everyone’s life is perfect,” 16-year-old Sky Gupta told her father, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, during a deep-dive interview this year in which she touched on the topic of the pressure to be perfect.
It’s no secret that young people, especially young women, are in crisis. A report from the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, released in mid-February and drawing on data from fall 2021, paints a disturbing and heartbreaking picture of the mental health of today’s high school students. It’s the first Youth Risk Behavior survey, conducted every two years, to gather information since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The survey found that 57% of teen girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021; the rate for teen boys was almost half that but still jarringly high, at 29%. Slightly more than half of LGBQ+ respondents reported experiencing poor mental health, and more than one in five had attempted suicide in the past year.
The report also documented that nearly one in three teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide. There were increases from previous surveys in teen girls experiencing sexual violence and teen boys experiencing electronic bullying, as well.
Although the report does not link these alarming findings of mental distress specifically to internet or social media use, other studies have found associations, and public health officials and psychologists have connected some of the dots.
Correlation is not causation, but the evidence of a robust connection is hard to ignore.
“It’s very obvious that so much of what’s happening for the average teen is they’re living so much of their lives in the digital world on social media, and so much of this is connected and impacting their mental health … and how they feel about stuff,” said Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, an attending psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Sinclair-McBride, who specializes in part in body image issues and eating disorders, said she is seeing a lot of depression, anxiety and trauma in her practice. She describes it as “an epidemic of loneliness and overwhelm.”
She doesn’t think it is too farfetched to connect eating disorders and mental health issues centering around body image with social media use.
“I don’t think it’s too flimsy at all (to draw a conclusion). I think that it may start out pretty innocently like… ‘That person’s eating looks really healthy; maybe I’m going to copy some of her recipes.’ And that can be super innocuous and fun and simple,” she said, but “you can easily fall down the rabbit hole of more and more and more and more, depending on your particular makeup.
“And then there’s the fact that there’s so much of people’s appearance in the digital world that is not real, right?” she said. “The filters, Photoshop, cosmetic enhancements that people have. And a lot of teenagers who are still getting used to their growing bodies are comparing themselves: ‘Well, I don’t look like her.’ (But) she doesn’t look like her either! But you don’t know that because you’re looking at her social media feed. But now you’re feeling inadequate because of what you’re seeing on your screen.”
It’s called the selfie effect. Studies have shown that scrolling through an unlimited supply of carefully crafted images and then comparing them with your own real-life circumstances can have a noticeable effect on mood and psychological health. Even seeing yourself too often in a filtered selfie can warp perception, resulting in unhappiness, not to mention how the distortion of a smartphone’s cameras can also lead to distress.
What can we do to counteract this endless hall of mirrors and preserve the mental health of today’s teens? For tips on how to help your kids navigate this minefield and achieve balance, and for more of the conversation with Sinclair-McBride, listen to the full podcast here.