Addiction and social media: Is it a real threat to mental health?

September 15, 2022

Jayde Robertson

Social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's an incredibly effective way to connect people—especially young people—and it can be a powerful tool for social good. On the other hand, it's also a major source of anxiety and stress for many users. The latter is certainly true for Gen Zers in particular—a recent study has shown that social media contributes to the mental health problems of these young people in significant ways.

According to Dr. Daniel Boberg, "the number of teens reporting depressive symptoms doubled after they began using social media." He believes this is because "social media provides an outlet for teens to compare themselves against others in a way that was not possible before."

And as education marketers, we must ask ourselves: How do we make sure that we aren't contributing to the problem?

The answer is simple: we need to learn from our mistakes.

Let’s look at some of the most recent studies on social media use and mental health and see what we can learn from them.

A study by JAMA Network found that social media use was strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, and loneliness among teens and young adults. Researchers concluded that "the more time spent using social media sites (SMS), the more likely teens would experience negative psychological outcomes."

Another study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that "significant associations between [social media] use and depressive symptoms were observed." The authors concluded that "heavy use of [social media] may be associated with increased risk for depression among adolescents."

So, what does this say for us as education marketers? It means that even though we want our students to connect with us through social media, we need to be wary of the effects of this connection. Teens who spend too much time on social media are at risk for depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem—all of which can also lead to poor academic performance.

We've entered the digital age of vulnerability

In the past, teens read magazines that contained altered photos of models. Now, these images are one thumb-scroll away at any given time. Apps that provide the user with airbrushing, teeth whitening, and more filters are easy to find and easier to use. It’s not only celebrities who look perfect—it’s everyone.

When there’s a filter applied to the digital world, it can be hard for teens to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which comes at a difficult time for them physically and emotionally. The digital age has created a new type of vulnerability. Teens don’t just see what they think is perfection—they see it everywhere, every day. They see themselves as less attractive and less popular than their peers who are constantly filtered and edited through social media.

This can lead to poor academic performance, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders—all of which can also be symptoms of being bullied. Adults are vulnerable, too. In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests from patients who want to look like their filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos.

A New York Times article that ran in June 2018 features a newlywed couple who nearly separated after their honeymoon. The reason: the wife spent more time on the trip planning and posting selfies than she spent with her husband.

The downside of social media

You might already know social media can potentially hamper mental health. But you might have less awareness of exactly how. In the same way, the internet can provide information and support, but it can also bring on feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. Social media isn’t just a fun way to keep in touch with friends and family. It’s also an important part of our lives. And when it comes to its effect on your mental health, there are many factors to consider: who you follow affects what you see; algorithms determine what gets pushed up or down, and whether someone chooses to unfollow you—or vice versa—can feel like a rejection.

  • Increased feelings of isolation
  • Higher (and more prominent) levels of self-doubt
  • Interrupted sleep patterns
  • Taking the place of real-world experiences

It's not all bad news though

It's human nature to flip the coin, to point out the negatives in something that was designed for good. That said - contributing to the problem, knowingly or not shouldn't be on your agenda.

The upside, of course, is that social media is a tool that provides connections where physical space has been limited. The ability to share our lives and the stories that make up those lives with people around the world is a positive thing. The key is understanding how social media fits into your life, what it's doing for you—and more importantly - what it's not doing for you at all. It also serves as a search engine - creating and granting access to information or resources that may have otherwise been inaccessible to the general public. This accessibility is a positive thing, but it can be detrimental if you're not careful. Information overload can happen quickly and easily when we have unlimited access to content that's relevant to our interests or goals, but not necessarily useful for achieving those things.

What do we think?

Social media can be a force for good. From highlighting (and devising solutions) to current issues to putting the spotlight on areas of interest - the possibilities are endless but with the good comes bad. We’re seeing more and more cases of people using social media as a platform for their personal brand, rather than using it as a tool to communicate with others.

It all boils down to improving your relationship with social media - on an individual, and brand level. As marketers, we're ethically responsible for how we use social media and what we do with it. We need to be mindful of how our content impacts the people who see it, not just for the sake of our brands, but also for their well-being.

More and more, social media is becoming a source of addiction for members of Gen Z. This can harm their mental health. To that end, education marketers must ensure that they are not using aggressive ad techniques to drive signups to their products or courses. Gen Z wants simplicity and convenience, and they should be given that without feeling like they are being pushed into a digital world where they will struggle to maintain their sense of well-being. Of course, this isn't going to apply to everyone—some people are immune to addiction and can handle their social media without much concern. But for others, it's a major issue that they must deal with daily.

It's something we should be concerned about, and something that we should think about when we're developing and implementing marketing strategies.

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