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Common Misconceptions about Social Media and Mental Health

April 21, 2022
By Fanny Gravel-Patry

Credit: Hello I’m Nik

In recent years, stories about the negative effects of social media on mental health have been making headlines. Instead of addressing the systemic issues affecting mental health in society, these stories  paint a narrow picture in which social media users are to blame. While I agree that social media may at times aggravate feelings of anxiety or depression, I also believe that framing social media as either good or bad overlooks the complexity of social media practices, and the larger social dynamics they reveal.

In this article, I address three of the most common misconceptions about social media’s impact on mental health to shed light on the rather complex ways in which social media shape our understanding of health and wellbeing.

Credit: Christopher Ott

Mental distress has increased with the rise of social networks

There may be some correlations between the advent of social media and an increase in mental health problems, but it doesn’t mean that the two are related. Over the last decade we have registered an increase in registered mental health problems. This is due less to an actual increase in mental health issues, and more with the fact that it has become more socially acceptable to talk about them.

One of the reasons why people are more openly talking about their struggles with mental illness is actually thanks to the accessibility of these conversations on social media. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and more recently, TikTok, are spaces where people are forging communities with whom they can talk about their mental health struggles, seek advice, and find the proper care services.

The fact that people are turning to social networks to talk about mental illness sheds light on the pressing need for more accessible mental health resources and social changes in general. If anything, putting the blame on social media rather than public infrastructures diverts the conversation from much needed policy changes.

Girls and young women are more susceptible of being negatively affected by social networks

Girls and young women are often the first to be targeted in stories about the negative effects of social media. These conversations come from preconceived notions about young women and their moral judgment. Historically, young women are seen as lacking agency and clear judgement, and their media practices have been framed as superficial and unimportant. These deeply ingrained ideas continue to inform how we perceive young women’s use of social media, overlooking their agency in carefully choosing who and what they follow online, as well as their knowledge of digital technology. To frame young women as susceptible of being negatively affected by social networks ignores their important contribution to social issues such as gender equality and mental health advocacy through social media, and the space that these practices hold in their identity formation.

Pinning young women’s mental health problems on their use of social networks encourages the idea that mental illness is an individual problem rather than a social one. Instead of addressing the multiple systemic limits that young women face based on gender, race, class, and disability, this discourse puts the responsibility of mental health on the shoulders of young women themselves, as if changing their online behaviors would cure all their problems.

Credit: Shingi Rice

Time spent on social media decreases psychological wellbeing

Some researchers have demonstrated that there can be health consequences to spending too much time on social media platforms and looking at screens. But this does not mean that any time spent on social media is  bad for your mental wellbeing. Social media researchers working with marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ youth or disabled people have demonstrated repeatedly that for some, social media platforms have been the only way to learn about their sexuality, their bodies, and meet people with similar experiences. From this perspective, time spent on social media can increase wellbeing rather than decrease it. Mental health is an intersectional issue that affects people differently, and on multiple levels, and research on social media and psychological wellbeing needs to take these varying dimensions into account.

Social media shapes our understanding of mental health

Public conversations about social media and mental health tend to ignore the agency that people have in using social networks to their advantage. Common misconceptions augment the moral panic around social media which hurt those suffering with their mental health by ignoring their experiences of building knowledge online. Even though I refrain from framing Instagram use as either positive or negative, I do believe, however, that social media changed the way we understand and talk about mental health and illness. Social media platforms allow people to participate in public conversations that would have otherwise stayed private, but it also pressures them to speak about their mental health struggles. Being vocal about one’s mental health, whether that is online or in our private lives, has become a new norm. I call this phenomenon the “hypervisibility” of mental health since mental health and illness are more present in public conversations yet care services remain highly inaccessible and focused on individual responsibility.

But the most dangerous myth of all is the idea that our relationship to social media must be either good or bad, helpful or detrimental, when social media are complex, tension-filled spaces. Looking at social media practices can reveal a lot about social dynamics should we choose to look at them carefully.

About the author

Photo of Fanny Gravel-Patry

Fanny Gravel-Patry (she/her) is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the communication studies department at Concordia University. She holds a BA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Université de Montréal. She studies mental illness, media practices of care, and digital visual culture.

Her dissertation looks at the Instagram practices of women living with mental illness and their use of the app as a tool for care. Her work was recently published by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal in a special issue on digital images. In addition to her research, Fanny has been the communications officer of the Communication Doctoral Student Association since 2019 and she is an active member of the Feminist Media Studio. Her doctoral research is supported by Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Société et Culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University.

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