Concerns about young people’s excessive use of social media are nothing new. But, for many, the alarm was sounded most urgently with the release of Jeff Orlowski’s docudrama The Social Dilemma, which reached Netflix last September. Marshalling an impressive roster of former engineers and executives from companies such as Facebook and Google, the film puts forward a compelling case against our compulsive posting and scrolling.
You might have heard the phrase: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” In other words, advertisers are the clients, and your attention is what is being sold to them – and the more of it they can claim, the better. In The Social Dilemma, Silicon Valley computer scientist Jaron Lanier takes this sentiment one step further: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product… changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”
There can be no doubt that social media has changed the way we think and behave. But what is equally true is that Lanier’s appeal for us to delete our social media accounts is unrealistic. The discussion around social media too often presupposes that it is something that can be ignored – as if the experiences that young people are having online were unimportant. So, here’s a different question: can changing the way we use it influence our behaviour for the better?
“I was 26 when my mum died,” Rachel Wilson tells me over Zoom. Wilson, now 28, is a writer and the founder of the Grief Network, an Instagram account with more than 5,000 followers. “Grievers have felt a sense of community on Instagram,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of people join the Grief Network this year because they’ve been bereaved – whether by the coronavirus or by something else – and they haven’t even had something that looks like a normal funeral.”
The Grief Network describes itself as “a community by and for bereaved young people”, and the page hosts Wilson’s thoughts and reflections on the subject of loss, alongside coping strategies. Despite its painful subject matter, the tone is upbeat and hopeful. The phrase “No one should go through this alone” features often.
In a sense, its followers aren’t alone. At a time when most people living in the UK have been physically distanced for the best part of a year, social media communities such as Wilson’s have provided a lifeline for young people whose traditional support systems have been disrupted. “They’ve saved a lot of people from feeling intensely alone,” says Wilson. “Particularly young people, who might feel like no one has ever been through this before. Even finding one other person with a story similar to yours takes that feeling away.” During the first lockdown, Wilson received at least a dozen direct messages a day.
There is, nonetheless, something dystopian about the idea of using technology as a means to cope with the intensely human emotion of loss, or loneliness. After all, 2020 was the year when the word “doomscrolling” entered the general lexicon, used to describe the compulsive consumption of negative news stories in a futile attempt to counteract feelings of uncertainty.
But while it’s hard to make a case for the mental health benefits of refreshing the daily COVID-19 statistics, many of us have leaned heavily on social media to stave off the lockdown blues. For some people, it has prevented a lonely 12 months from being even lonelier.
When Instagram was launched in October 2010, its USP was its photo-editing tools. Built-in smartphone cameras weren’t as advanced as they are now, so it offered a way to make photos of variable quality look better than they really were. Over time, its users began to apply this same logic to their lifestyles.
Most criticisms of Instagram focus on this aspect of the platform: that it presents an idealised version of other people’s lives, which consequently makes us feel bad about our own. But while the pandemic hasn’t quite killed off the holiday pics and humblebrags, it has dampened their popularity. After a year in which few of us had much to show off about, many who tried were swiftly branded tone-deaf and out of touch. Love Island stars reportedly lost followers by their thousands after they posted pictures of themselves in Dubai during a national lockdown. Meanwhile, a different breed of social poster has been rising in popularity.
Reasons to be Cheerful
The Happy Broadcast is an Instagram page with more than 578,000 followers. It specialises in colourful, illustrated images featuring good-news stories from around the world, as well as tips for maintaining your mental health (including, ironically, dealing with social-media-induced anxiety). It has had a significant spike in engagement since late March 2020.
Mauro Gatti, the illustrator who operates the page, thinks that this is partly a matter of logistics: most of us are spending more time staring at our screens. But it’s also a reflection of our appetite for optimism over narcissism. “People have had enough of doomscrolling through the latest COVID news, and instead they want a beacon of positivity,” says Gatti, who created the page as a salve for his own mental health struggles, as much as for those of others.
“I’ve always been a bundle of anxiety,” he says. “That’s why I decided to invest time and energy into [creating the page], to highlight the work of the fixers, the doers and the problem-solvers. It’s a place where the news can provide inspiration, rather than cause fear.” The page’s most popular post of 2020 was about Scotland becoming the first nation to include LGBTQ+ history in the national curriculum, with 95,807 likes.
Gatti believes that the way in which we use social media could well be changing for the better. “Instagram is increasingly a place where users go in search of help and support,” he says. “That’s where the Happy Broadcast wants to exist.”
According to a Mental Health Foundation survey conducted last April, a quarter of adults experienced feelings of loneliness during lockdown – but the figure rises to four in 10 among the younger demographic. “Many young people don’t have that core family unit,” says Wilson. “Maybe you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but you probably don’t live with them. You’re either alone, or locked down with your parents or flatmates. You need your own space.” Online communities can provide that space, offering a chance to exchange ideas with like-minded people.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell my friends directly that I feel like shit,” Wilson continues. “Instead, I’ll post a story about how I’m feeling, and that provides the spark for people to check in.” Wilson concedes that broadcasting her emotions to thousands of near strangers might seem egotistical. “But it’s just the way that younger people communicate. Our understanding of the etiquette of social media means that when you see your friend posting more or less than usual, it’s a bit like if they’re behaving strangely in real life.”
Few would argue that our online communications can act as a substitute for real-world relationships, but that doesn’t mean that they are without merit. Research shows that interacting with people via social media can have tangible mental health benefits – even if the conversation only flows one way.
Kindness of Strangers
Shaaba Lotun is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Essex. She also has around 45,100 Instagram followers and 83,900 YouTube subscribers. Lotun studies the impact of “para-social relationships”: the one-sided relationships that we form with a personality on a media platform.
“Our research shows that para-social relationships in general, but particularly via social media, really do impact us and should be considered an important part of our social networks,” says Lotun. “Social media often gets a bad rap for its negative and addictive effects. And while we should monitor our use and consume it sensibly, para-social connections can be used for multiple good things, such as emotional need fulfilment.”
In other words, following someone whose work, viewpoint or ethos you admire can inspire you, in the same way that socialising with like-minded friends would do. Deprived of your regular training community, for example, following people with a fitness ethic that you relate to might help you maintain your motivation. Or, if you’re living with people whose political views don’t align with your own, engaging with online activists could counteract feelings of frustration.
“We’re continuing to look into the behavioural benefits, too, like reducing stigma,” says Lotun. She points to similar effects observed with other forms of media. “[The 1990s sitcom] Will & Grace was found to increase accepting feelings towards the gay community. Reading excerpts of Harry Potter has been found to increase accommodation of diversity among schoolchildren. Even radio soap operas in Africa with fictional storylines about HIV and AIDS led to an increased use of condoms and safe sex practice.”
Even the much derided selfie isn’t entirely without its merits. In her book The Selfie Generation, author Alicia Eler has argued that sharing photos of yourself can be an act of empowerment, particularly for marginalised or underrepresented communities. “I’m all for the representational power of the selfie,” says Lotun. “When a confused teen from a conservative community is struggling with feelings of self-identity and has never had the privilege of feeling reassured that their existence is OK – there’s no one on TV like them, the books they read as children didn’t prepare them for how they’re feeling – being able to go online to express yourself, or access people like you who are doing the same, can be invaluable.”
It would be remiss not to acknowledge the body of research linking excessive social media use with poorer mental well-being. In recent years, articles with titles such as “Instagram ‘worst for mental health’” and “NHS to launch first internet addiction clinic” have had a constant media presence.
However, others argue that the issue is nuanced and that, more pertinently, simply logging out is impracticable. “This technology is fully integrated into our lives, and that’s not inherently a problem,” says Brit Davidson, assistant professor in analytics at the University of Bath and an honorary lecturer in digital health at the University of Bristol. “Everyone’s screen time has gone up during COVID. That’s generally a good thing – it means that we’re still communicating.”
Davidson’s research is starting to show a link between how much people worry about their internet use and their overall well-being. Those who scrutinise their own behaviour tend to be more anxious, whether focused on diet, step count or weekly screen-time metrics.
However, Davidson says, “Studies have failed to indicate a significant relationship between how long you’re on your smartphone and your overall levels of depression, anxiety and stress.” Which suggests that how you engage with others is more meaningful than the amount of time you dedicate to it.
She argues that many of our concerns around social media simply reflect our natural scepticism towards revolutionary new technologies. “When the telephone started taking off, rumours were spread about how overuse could make you deaf or mentally ill. Who started those rumours? The telegram companies.” She points to a New York Times article from 1901 that suggests that driving at 80mph could leave you with an elongated brain.
“My hope is that people don’t feel guilty if their screen time has gone up – which it probably has,” says Davidson. “We need to remember that these devices are used for everything from work to banking and seeing your GP. Online communities can be wonderful, too, provided they represent a supportive environment for people who have a shared experience.”
Join the Club
It’s possible that the benefits of social media could be greater for men than for women. Studies show that men are less likely to access psychological support; only 36% of NHS referrals for talking therapies are for men.
Social isolation may have increased over the past months, but evidence suggests that even in the pre-pandemic era, our social iCalendars weren’t exactly full. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 32% of men had no one they would call a best friend, compared to 25% of women. Men are also more likely to seek social connections through their jobs, which is growing more difficult as remote working becomes the norm.
Talking about our problems can sometimes be a solution in itself. “Just being listened to can help you feel supported and less alone,” says Simon Gunning, CEO of suicide prevention campaign CALM. “And opening up can encourage others to do the same and seek the help they need. So many of us will struggle at some stage in our lives.”
For Luke Ambler, this was a painful lesson to learn. A former professional rugby player and now mental health campaigner, Ambler’s brother-in-law, Andy Roberts, took his own life in
2016. Determined to ensure that other families wouldn’t go through the same thing, he devised a plan: he took a selfie.
In his post, Ambler made an OK sign with his fingers; below it, he shared the troubling statistic that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45, along with a simple message (and now globally viral hashtag): #ItsOkayToTalk. “It just blew up on Instagram,” he says. “It seemed to really resonate with people. And it connected people from all over the world.”
Ambler is now the founder of Andy’s Man Club, a network of men’s support groups that exists both in the real world and on social media. Each meet-up group – of which there are many, scattered across the UK – has its own private Facebook group, so that members can keep in contact in between their weekly meetings, sharing messages of support or asking for help when they’re struggling.
“We talk about things like connection and loneliness,” says Ambler. “Well, the groups that Andy’s Man Club has created on social media are starting to solve a lot of these problems. You have guys who are isolated, [going through] relationship breakdowns, debt problems, and they can come together online and talk with someone else who’s been through the exact same thing, but got out the other side.”
Like Wilson’s grief group and Gatti’s anxiety-free news network, Andy’s Man Club has experienced significant growth on both Facebook and Instagram during the pandemic. “We’re getting a lot of engagement, a lot of messages, a lot of DMs,” says Ambler. “These are people from all sorts of backgrounds, from professional sportsmen to men who are getting referred to us via homelessness charities.”
In a recent post, Ambler put a question out to the group on the subject of social media. Did they ever worry about its negative effects on their mental health? “It was interesting,” he says. “A lot of them said they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for social media, because they wouldn’t have seen our posts, or seen vulnerability in another man. So, not only can it have a positive effect, it could save someone’s life.”
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