An open letter to our social media overlords

Editorial

Nina Li

As I scrolled through my Facebook News Feed on my millennial pink iPhone, I noticed a bitter tone creeping into my thoughts. A friend was on a European vacation in Santorini. #blessed. Another friend had just completed a marathon run in a personal best time. I’m not sure that I could complete a marathon even if someone carried me to the finish line. Someone else had posted an image of the kale and quinoa power bowl they had consumed for lunch— complete with cold-pressed juice accompaniment— and affectionately captioned it “healthy habits”. Silently stashing away my half-priced, greasy hot chip lunch on a bus most definitely not in Europe, I was overcome with feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. In my mind, none of my achievements or positive attributes could hold a candle to what my peers were accomplishing. It was all too easy to forget the meticulous curation inherent in social media’s highlights reel of life, complete with the option to edit out any pesky sharp edges of reality. I know I’m not alone in having these intrusive thoughts.

As of June 2018, Instagram has one billion monthly active users.[1] Let us pause for a second and consider what this number means. Not one million, but one billion regular users. One billion individuals routinely scrolling through images purposefully presented to make you chuckle, elicit a tear, provide inspiration, or perhaps trigger self-loathing. One billion other individuals also stalking beauty gurus, unintentionally consuming native advertising and living vicariously through celebrities. If my mortifying Emo phase has taught me anything, it’s that adolescence and the turbulent transition to young adulthood represents a critical time of self-discovery and emotional maturation. Amidst continually evolving technological advancement, young adults come of age in an era where communicating and expressing one’s individuality (or lack thereof) on social media platforms is the norm. [2] Young adults represent the highest proportion of social media users, with 92% of Australians aged 16–17 years frequenting social media,[3] compared to only 30% of individuals aged 65 and over.[4] Considering the centrality of social media in establishing connections, shaping self-identity and providing access to a previously unimaginable wealth of knowledge, its ties to psychological health are inextricable. Facebook continues to reign supreme over other user-generated social networking platforms, which include Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat.[5] Despite its  ubiquity, we remain largely ignorant to the potential mental health ramifications of navigating the social media minefield.[2] The speed of change has only widened the distinct generational gap between the internet-indoctrinated millennials who face the pressures of this novel online world firsthand and the law-enforcers and policymakers attempting to moderate and improve it.

Growing up as a so-called ‘digital native’,[6] my relationship with social media was always slightly dysfunctional (and occasionally bordering on Stockholm Syndrome). Each brief jaunt to a different social networking platform would spark an uncontrollable spiral of comparison, envy and self-loathing. Yet while I could rely on social media to stir up negative emotions within me, it was also an essential channel of communication for group projects, organising events and simply chatting with peers. Try as I might, social media’s utility made it inescapable; the red notification icon acted like a time-bomb, ticking upwards until I surrendered and reopened the apps I had tried so hard to avoid. Indeed, social media has been described by many young adults as more addictive than smoking or alcohol use.[7] In one study involving social media habits,[8] 5% of young adult participants were afflicted by social media addiction, fulfilling at least five of nine DSM-V criterion also used to tentatively diagnose Internet Gaming Disorder.[9] The endless influx of photographic proof that my friends were leading fulfilling, fun-filled lives made my own situation feel mundane. Why was I lounging at home in sweatpants instead of enjoying a night out with friends? I burdened myself with unhealthy expectations of matching what I was observing on social media, lest I fail to live life to its fullest. But achieving this seemed to demand even more attention, more self-critical comparisons, more dedication to the platforms perpetuating this destructive cycle. It didn’t matter that I barely knew these people on my social media—they simply provided a benchmark, however unrealistic, to juxtapose my life against.

This common sentiment, known colloquially as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), has alarming associations with lower mood, greater anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, and is strongly linked with higher levels of social media engagement.[10] Body image remains a significant issue for young adults and adolescents, with 9 out of 10 girls citing dissatisfaction regarding their figure.[11] Social media provides an infinite pool of candidates to compare oneself to online, all just a click or tap away. With 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram daily,[12] young adults are continually bombarded with heavily edited, meticulously staged images presented as if they were “natural”. How often have I found myself subconsciously assessing my worth through superficial, appearance-based comparisons using social media? Far more often than I will ever admit to. Inevitably, this has significant ramifications. Not only has perusing Facebook been linked with higher rates of body image concerns from women and girls, but also an amplified desire for physical appearance changes, which may be associated with the increasing rates of cosmetic surgery in young adults.[2] The mounting pressure to become this ‘perfect’ individual can fuel feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, potentially contributing to the rise of anxiety and depression among young adults.[13] In studies by Lin et al. (2015) and Sampasa-Kanyinga & Lewis (2015), youths spending a disproportionate amount of time (>2 hours) on social media platforms were more likely to report poor mental health, psychological distress and suicidal ideation.[14, 15] Researchers have even coined the term ‘Facebook depression’ to describe the growing evidence supporting the association between the unattainable demands of the online world and poor mental health.[16]

My attempted character assassination of social media notwithstanding, the substantial benefits of these novel communication platforms deserve recognition. Social media have presented revolutionary opportunities for young individuals to express themselves and their beliefs. Established in the aftermath of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, The Never Again MSD Movement’s gun control advocacy is a prime example of social media’s ability to amplify the voices of young adults in a world where attempting to do so by conventional means presents difficulties. For many, social media has revitalized dormant relationships, strengthened existing friendships and helped form online support networks that overcome geographical separation. The ability to connect with like-minded peers and receive emotional support, especially for individuals belonging to real-world minority groups, remains invaluable. Nearly half of all Australians (45%) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime,[17] with prevalence remaining the highest amongst Australian aged 18-24 years (21.2% of all Australians within this age group).[18] Clearly, these are not paltry numbers. While research remains sparse, there is increasing evidence that social media usage may contribute to psychological distress and poorer mental health. Since social media services are not destined for obsolescence anytime soon, a thorough consideration of their lasting psychological impacts grows ever more imperative, especially for young adults and adolescents.

Acknowledgements
None

Photo credits
Image 1: Pixabay, accessed from https:// www.pexels.com/photo/facebook-applicationicon-147413/ Image 2: Thought Catalog, accessed from https:// unsplash.com/photos/xVRdDDe6M1A

Conflicts of interest
None declared

Correspondence
nina.li@student.unsw.edu.au

References
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