Laughing and crying online

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Laughing and crying online


A story of cause and effect doesn’t tell us everything about the relationship between use of social media and mental health, writes Marcus Gilroy-Ware.

There are good things about social media, like finding interesting news stories and keeping up-to-date with your family, but many think that is bad for us. Recent research shows that depression, anxiety, loneliness, and body insecurity are all connected to regular use of social media.

There is most criticism for Facebook. A study in 2013 showed that use of Facebook was connected in the short term to a feeling of less wellbeing and in the longer term to less happiness with life. A 2012 study found that ‘the longer people have used Facebook, the more they believed that others were happier than them’. Another study, from 2009, found that Facebook can cause jealousy and suspicion in romantic relationships.

But a simple idea of cause and effect does not tell us everything when we are thinking about social media’s effect on mental health. Very often scientific studies do not find that there is a cause.

For example, there was a large, long study – one of the best so far – from February 2017 by two researchers in the US. It found that the use of Facebook, including posting updates, liking other people’s posts, and clicking on links posted by other users, ‘was negatively connected with wellbeing’.

Another study of the use of Facebook by students in South India found a ‘positive connection between addiction to use of Facebook and feelings of loneliness’. But again, it did not show a cause.

Of course, a lot depends on how we use a social media site. One study found that the greater the number of strangers you follow on Instagram, compared to friends you know, the more likely Instagram use is connected to depression. But if you only follow your friends, it is possible it will create positive feelings.

There was a global study of social media from University College London. It found that in Northern Chile, where men often work for long periods away from their families, social media gave them a way to stay connected.

Perhaps a better question is, what makes social media so attractive? There are other reasons why people feel unhappy in different ways. It is possible that one of the main reasons for use of social media at least in capitalist countries in the West, is that people are looking for an escape. They want an escape from a lonely, unhappy, overworked life, particularly in urbanized consumer societies.

Recently I asked a room full of young people in Bristol, UK, why social media was so hard to resist. ‘You can sort of avoid being on your own,’ one young woman said. ‘It’s something to distract you,’ said a young man.

But like tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, these companies are there not to help us feel better but to make money from our anxiety, loneliness, and boredom. At the same time they make these feelings worse. This creates dependency and also gives them valuable data about us and what we want in life.

But how do we escape from this?

Facebook, Twitter, and other networks are always trying to control their platforms to make money. But this is not sustainable. We see how they delete or censor content. As the groups that use social media moves further into different cultures and away from Californian, white, and male groups, more problems will appear.

We can’t switch off social media so it is difficult to see how we can escape from it. One third of Facebook users have closed their accounts but then started them again.

Our dependence on social media is a cause and an effect of our relationship with capital. When we find a way to stop our dependence on social media, we will see that a real ‘social’ media looks very different. Before that, the job of young people is to think about and question the system.

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.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).