A story of cause and effect doesn’t tell us everything about the relationship between social media use and mental health, argues Marcus Gilroy-Ware.
Despite the practical benefits we are afforded by social media platforms, like finding interesting news stories and keeping up-to-date with your baby nephew’s first steps, there is also a common belief that they are bad for us. This may be well founded – recent research has showed that depression, anxiety, loneliness and body insecurity are all connected to regular social media use.
Facebook in particular has come in for criticism. A study in 2013 showed that Facebook usage was linked to both a short-term decrease in subjective wellbeing and a longer-term decrease in life satisfaction. A 2012 study found that ‘the longer people have used Facebook, the stronger was their belief that others were happier than themselves’. Another, from 2009, found that Facebook ‘may be responsible for creating jealousy and suspicion in romantic relationships’.
But a simple model of cause and effect does not tell the whole story when it comes to social media’s effect on mental health. For starters, more often than not, scientific studies stop short of establishing a causal link.
For example, a large-scale longitudinal study – one of the most thorough to date – conducted in February 2017 by two US-based researchers simply concluded that the use of Facebook, including posting updates, liking other people’s posts, and clicking on links posted by other users, ‘was negatively associated with wellbeing’.
Another study of Facebook use among students in South India found a ‘significant positive correlation between severity of Facebook addiction and extent of experience of loneliness’, but again, failed to show causation.
Of course, a lot depends on how a social network site is used: one study found that the greater the number of strangers you follow on picture-sharing network Instagram, relative to friends you know, the more likely Instagram use is to be associated with symptoms of depression. But stick with following your friends and it might even ‘trigger positive feelings’.
A global study of social media from University College London found that in Northern Chile, where men often work for extended periods away from their families, social media provided a way to stay connected.
Perhaps a better question to be asking ourselves is, what makes social media so appealing in the first place? There are other factors implicated in making people miserable in various ways, and in fact one of the main drivers of social-media use, at the very least in capitalist societies in the West, may be compensatory: people are seeking an escape from a lonely, unfulfilling, overworked reality, particularly in urbanized consumer societies.
This was borne out when I recently asked a room full of young people in Bristol, UK, why social media was so hard to resist. ‘You can sort of avoid your own company,’ one young woman said. ‘It’s something to distract you,’ said a young man.
But this is not to let social-media companies off the hook. Similar to tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, these corporations exist not to provide salve, but to exploit our anxiety, loneliness and boredom while simultaneously making them worse – creating a powerful cycle of dependency and extracting valuable data about our deepest desires in the process.
When one considers the normalization of social media platforms, their intricate relationship to our cognitive and emotional lives and their increasingly broad role in the lives of young people, what is left is a relatively bleak picture. But how do we escape?
Facebook, Twitter, and other such networks constantly try to control their platforms in order to impose their commercial imperatives on them. Ultimately, it is the controversies that arise over how they do this, such as when they delete or censor content, that offer the strongest indication that this model is not sustainable. As the user base of social media platforms expands further into increasingly diverse cultures – further from the Californian, white, and largely male subjectivities of its origins – in its quest for ‘growth’, more cracks will appear.
But short of social media simply being switched off one day, it is hard to see a way that we can simply extricate ourselves en masse. One third of current Facebook users have deactivated their account only to reactivate again, and even if you left social media tomorrow, you still participate in the broader system that made it possible.
Our habitual reliance on social media is a both a cause and effect of our relationship with capital. When we have found a way to undermine and reverse the hegemonic grip that this broader relationship holds on people, we will discover that a genuinely ‘social’ media looks like something else entirely. Until then, the job of young people is to question the seeming inevitability of that system as a whole.
Marcus Gilroy-Ware is the author of Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media (Repeater). He is a senior lecturer in digital journalism at the University of the West of England.