Skip to main content

Positive influence

How digital platforms are being harnessed to promote mental-health awareness
April 20, 2023
By Julie Barlow, MA 94

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Hannah Gold-Apel, BA 21, had no idea that she suffered from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To help pass the time when lockdowns were imposed, she downloaded TikTok and started to explore videos that touched on topics of interest.

“Within a few weeks, I started seeing content about why women with ADHD often go undiagnosed,” says Gold-Apel, who is pursuing an MA in media studies at Concordia. The tips she subsequently learned from fellow TikTok users encouraged her to seek a formal diagnosis.

While engagement with social media has its benefits, it can also have adverse effects on mental health. According to the Canadian Internet Use Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2018, one in eight respondents aged 15 to 64 reported negative emotional experiences on social media, including feelings of anxiety or depression. One fifth of them additionally reported losing sleep, getting less exercise or having trouble concentrating on tasks or activities as a result of their social-media use.

While Concordia researchers like Gold-Apel acknowledge that fears around social-media use are legitimate, they are also exploring how these platforms can be used to build mental-health awareness and support networks.

Gold-Apel’s own experience on TikTok served as the catalyst for her master’s dissertation on how the platform fosters a sense of community among people with ADHD. Her research focuses on a new technique called the “persona method,” whereby an avatar is generated to represent a typical user on the platform. While navigating TikTok as a fictional character modelled on herself, Gold-Apel observed how the algorithm steered her towards specific groups and resources.

“Within about 10 days, I was reliably seeing content about how ADHD presents in women,” she says. “I also saw personal experiences from women who had gone undiagnosed.” Gold-Apel adds that TikTok’s prompts to mental-health resources can create positive outcomes.

“Thanks to social media, many young women came to understand some aspect of their identity that was previously unknown to them. Social media helped them navigate life differently, with more insight into themselves and a better ability to seek resources that were actually helpful to them.”

‘The benefits trump the risks’

Like Gold-Apel, Fanny Gravel-Patry, a PhD candidate in communication studies and a 2021 Concordia Public Scholar, was inspired to dig into mental-health and social-media research based on first-hand experiences.

Having lived with anxiety and depression, social-media use became part of her recovery process.

After noticing an uptick in Instagram pages on mental health, including from therapists using it to disseminate information, Gravel-Patry began researching how different communities were navigating the platform with positive results.

Fanny Gravel-Patry

“Social media can function as a tool for care when people use it to access or share information and resources related to mental health that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”

In one of her studies, Gravel-Patry interviewed 22 women to see how they were using Instagram to cope with mental-health issues.

“Instagram didn’t completely change their lives from one day to the next, but when it became a habit — combined with other practices like therapy and medication — it helped women get better,” she says. One of Instagram’s advantages is that the platform’s strong visual presence is comforting to users — text-based visuals can help break down concepts more easily.

“It also has what I call a message of hope,” adds Gravel-Patry. “You can use it to see people who are already a couple of steps ahead in their healing journey, and it kind of helps you see that there is hope in getting better.”

Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, BEng 98, MA 08, an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Design and Computation Arts and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, echoes Gravel-Patry’s findings. “The benefits trump the risks,” she says.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, Khalili-Mahani carried out the study “What Media Helps, What Media Hurts: Coping with COVID-19 with Screens,” which weighed the pros and cons of social media in users’ lives. Among the responses, her findings revealed that women and nonbinary individuals were twice as likely as men to turn to social media as a means of coping with mental-health issues.

Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, BEng 98, MA 08

“No matter how I twist and turn the data, it seems that people of all ages who are using social media are using it to their advantage. When it becomes a source of stress, they turn away from it,” says Khalili-Mahani, who has continued to collect data since the lockdown ended.

In her research, Khalili-Mahani has observed people increasingly using social media in ways that are beneficial to their mental health.

“People seem to create their own communities. It’s becoming easier to create these silos where people of common interest come together — that allows us to avoid what’s stressful.” She has also been researching digital citizen laboratories and recognizes the power of social media as a coping strategy.

With funding from the Fonds de recherche du Québec, she developed Play the Pain, an app that facilitates community-based research about chronic pain, allowing patients to share their experiences with each other and with researchers in the network.

As far as health communications go, she says that people still tend to be drawn to “canonical sources” for information, such as traditional media and websites like WebMD or Medline. However, a patient’s social media can be an important resource for sharing individual experiences of successful or failing health care.

Fostering ‘well-being, connections and community’

For Stefanie Duguay — assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University Research Chair (New Scholar) and director of the Digital Intimacy, Gender and Sexuality (DIGS) Lab — social media contributes to improved mental health simply by helping users find otherwise inaccessible information.

Duguay’s research focuses on the influence of digital-media technologies in everyday life, with particular attention to sexual and gender identity and social media. In her conversations with members of the LGBTQ+ community, she’s seen how commonplace dating apps — and social media, more generally — have become places to build friend groups, find community and meet potential partners. “Thanks to these technologies, they can get a bit of background information on people. That gives them more agency over the pace of the conversation,” she says.

Stefanie Duguay

“These advantages are often less talked about.” With widespread harassment increasingly routine on platforms like Twitter, Duguay says that many people are taking action by moving to the likes of WhatsApp or Discord, or by involving moderators who understand the needs of a particular community.

“We see people using social media in ways that work for them and help their well-being, connections and community. People are very innovative in this way.”

Despite the good that social media can do to help individuals with their mental health, Duguay says that there’s a long way to go to ensure that platforms actually promote and protect it. She also warns that society should be careful about blaming social media for mental-health problems.

“Harassment is a societal problem. Social media didn’t invent it. Yes, we need the platforms to do better at protecting users with better policies, but we also need things to continue to change in our society when it comes to sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia.”

From screen time to real life

Without denying the dangers that social media potentially poses to mental health, Giuliana Cucinelli, BA 03, associate professor in the Educational Technology program offered by the Department of Education, believes that young people know how to “find balance” when they engage with technology.

“Students today are extremely open about their mental health,” she says. “In the past, it was very taboo to see a therapist or talk about mental health. Now, some of my students share that they are seeing therapists.”

Along with a team of students, Cucinelli — whose research-creation program focuses on the social, cultural and educational impacts of technology — developed an educational game, called Look @ Me, that teachers and students can use in the classroom to learn how to deal with difficult situations encountered on social media. One example asks students how they might respond to photos posted of an intoxicated person without their consent.

Giuliana Cucinelli, BA 03

“One responsible reaction would be, ‘Flag and report a situation so it will disappear.’ You get more points for the more responsible reaction that will spare people anguish,” Cucinelli explains.

“We want students to leave the game having had the experience of exploring the sort of mistakes they might make in the real world on social media. The game becomes a safe space for them to really explore what their reactions could be.”

‘One piece of a larger puzzle’

In one of her research projects on social-media privacy, Cucinelli heard from youth who said that platforms like Twitter or TikTok could be helpful mental-health resources. “They may be too shy to discuss these topics with an adult, friend or even someone at school,” she says.

“Social media became a tool for getting information they don’t ask for elsewhere.” But when it comes to solving mental-health problems in the long term, social media isn’t necessarily a silver bullet, she adds. “It can potentially improve someone’s state of mind or prompt them to reach out to a family member or friend to ask for help — but it’s only one piece of a larger puzzle.”

Gravel-Patry agrees that social media should only be part of the equation.

“In your toolbox, you might have a therapist, yoga, a pet, friends, your social life — Instagram content can be one of these tools,” she says. But, she maintains, “Social media is here to stay. If we continue to see it through a panicked lens, we’re not really moving forward in trying to see how we can use it in beneficial ways.”

Back to top

© Concordia University