Social Media & Mental Health: Is It On Us or Them?
Last week, our social media feeds were covered in posts about World Mental Health Day. But Account Director Cori couldn’t help wondering what role do these platforms themselves play in affecting mental health, and how much is on us as individuals?
According to this study, about 4 in 10 adults have experienced anxiety or depression, a figure that’s up from just 1 in 10 from 2019. That struggle has been something that’s connected people globally as a consequence of COVID-19.
On 10 October, World Mental Health Day took over our social media feeds, this year focussing on “mental health in an unequal world”. There are various different angles I could have covered from this year’s talking points. In a very classic scenario, we could look at the 5 Best Adverts for World Mental Health Day. Or even better, the 8 Best Tweets from World Mental Health Day. But, the thing I couldn’t get away from while researching how different brands covered World Mental Health Day this year, was the connection between social media and our mental health.
To mark the occasion, Facebook partnered with UNICEF to develop new mental health resource cards, as well as creating new stickers with WHO on Messenger. Snapchat launched “Club Unity'' with various celebrities to target BIPOC and LGTBQ+ groups. Twitter launched a notification service that provides valuable mental health information and resources called #ThereIsHelp across Southeast Asia.
The reason for their support around World Mental Health Day is easy: it’s a PR play for these social media giants to help their images. For some time, they have been the culprit's for teenage eating disorders, imposter syndrome amongst Millennials and severe bullying. Facebook even more recently announced a name change to distance themselves from the damning testimony from Frances Haugen.
Were those campaigns for World Mental Health Day worthwhile? Of course. Raising awareness and investing in mental health is always a good thing. Every little piece of support helps to take the stigma away and raising awareness of the issue also helps people to know they’re not alone.
But what we didn’t see them do, the things that would do the most obvious good for mental health, were two things: ask people to get off their platforms for a time and/or implement new changes within their platforms that actually start to tackle the things their platforms make accessible.
Those two things would mean very big and real changes for those companies, mostly affecting their bottom line.
And I get it.
If you have a product, you’re not going to invest in taking people away from your product. You want them there. Interacting and engaging. Even if that product has turned sour.
I write this all as someone who is well aware of the toll to my own mental health from scrolling and consuming content, and yet, I still can’t bring myself to delete the apps for a week, let alone forever.
So, here’s the question. To help our own mental health, is it on us to stop engaging with these platforms who have dominated and become so integral to our lives? Or is it on the companies to do better?
That’s the center of the debate.
Sure, Facebook could change their algorithm back to being chronologically based. And sure, we could delete the apps and connect with our friends and family (albeit a smaller number) through text messages or (gasp!) a phone call. But both require substantial step changes from how we’ve built our lives intrinsically linked. We “can’t” function without social media, just like they “can’t” function without us.
So where does this leave us?
I think we’re seeing our generation's outlook change to focus on better individual and collective health. Even after credible medical reports came to light showing the dangers of smoking to one’s physical health, the tobacco industry kept pushing sales of their product. Social media companies too know the dangers of their products to one’s mental health, and they still push spending time and engaging with their products - even on World Mental Health Day.
The tobacco industry only stopped advertising when someone made them, and yet, we still have people who have never seen a live tobacco advert smoke and continue to buy their products.
Will it be the same for social media?
I’m not sure. We, as humans, are intrinsically social creatures. We crave and need connection with others. The platforms probably aren’t going to leave us. They’ll evolve, change, morph, merge, and maybe even a few will die. But that connection to other people that humans need will stay. So, if the platforms aren’t going to change, what can we do about it?
We can try to take control back by setting boundaries, unfollowing toxicity, educating ourselves on how we feel, and taking breaks when we need to. We can open ourselves up to being less curated and personally branded, offer support and positivity, and try to remember that connections happen in the real world as well.
What do you think will happen?