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A State of Mind: The role of social media in mental health
The mass adoption of social media has forever altered how we communicate, maintain relationships, entertain ourselves and even stay up-to-date on current events. Current events have sparked important conversations around the topic. This week and next week, I will explore social media from a mental health perspective.
The number and types of social media platforms seems to continually be evolving. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, LinkedIn, Reddit — the list goes on. The interactions that occur on these platforms have become, in some ways, an important and valuable part of the human experience. Certainly there is value in enabling people to easily build and maintain connections with others. However, social media usage also carries potentially significant risks.
Using social media activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical linked to pleasurable activities, and too much or too little of it has been linked with mental health disorders and challenges. Simply put, these platforms are designed to be addictive, not unlike drugs, sugar or gambling. Social media users constantly seek out unpredictable rewards as they gather likes and comments with the (perhaps subconscious) hope of boosting self-esteem and a sense of belonging and accomplishment.
This addictive nature combines with a fear of missing out. When we perceive that everyone around us is on social media, we fear that we’re losing out on connections and experiences. This is further exacerbated by the fact that social media often presents a carefully manicured and sometimes drastically altered version of reality. Whether it’s a selfie posted with filters applied to artificially remove any blemishes, pictures of someone’s latest house or vehicle purchase without any mention of the debt accrued in the process, or meticulously crafted relationship or vacation stories that highlight only the best of someone’s life, social media skews our perception of normal.
Within this new version of normal, our minds begin comparing our lives to these curated myths. Advertisers pile onto this with hundreds of highly targeted messages bombarding our subconscious as we mindlessly scroll past, further driving discontent. While users might think they control the content they consume, social media platforms themselves in fact carefully dictate the limited scope of what users see, which generally prioritizes intense reactions over accuracy, often by appealing to preexisting biases.
While these realities are true for young and old alike, biological differences can add to the challenges for adolescents. The last part of the brain to fully develop — around age 25 on average — is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making. This explains why teenagers are more apt to engage in risky situations and often struggle with impulsivity.
Within this context, consider a teen’s experience on a platform that exists primarily for the purpose of taking and sending pictures to others with the intent that the visual evidence will automatically delete itself shortly after being opened or a platform that exists to highlight only the most artificially visually appealing parts of people. The concerns when placing this technology in the hands of 8-, 12- or 16-year-olds who may be intelligent but don’t yet have the biological ability to appropriately identify and manage risk become clear. In addition, the constant comparisons, competition for acceptance, and the opportunity for faceless or even anonymous interactions invite an environment ripe for bullying and harassment without physical barriers or limitations.
Taken together, all of these truths behind social media hold important implications for our mental health. Next week I will further explore those effects and the ways in which we can mitigate and address potential issues.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.