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Articles

The internet overdose: are we facing a social media mental health epidemic?

14 Dec 2021
   —  by Anna Summerfield

This week has seen widespread reports of newly introduced features on Instagram to help people manage their time on the platform.

It is hoped that the introduction of ‘take-a-break’ will help users to stop and think about on how they spend their time online, as well as assist parents to monitor, limit and engage with how much their children use social media.

But realistically, how much of an impact will a 15-minute pause and reflect actually have? Is this simply another attempt by the platforms owners to battle ongoing accusations, without making real changes to how social media is monitored and regulated?

There are definitely a huge number of positives to the use of social media. It’s fantastic that people have a place where they can explore their interests, find like minded people and connect with loved ones across the globe. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook and various other networks provided a lifeline to a great many people and, with proper monitoring, they are a source for a great deal of positivity.

However, with ongoing 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, we have witnessed a significant increase in the average amount of time individuals spend online, with more and more interactions taking place virtually and a blurring between online and real life. This has opened the door to greater levels of comparison and perfectionism, at a time when people have been facing lengthy periods of loneliness and languishing.

New research has highlighted a considerable increase in depression and anxiety, as well as an overall reduction in well-being over the past two decades, coinciding with a rise in the use of social media. This appears to be particularly prevalent in young people and teenagers, where the constant wait for responses and reactions, as well as experiences of online bullying, body image issues and pressure to always be “liked” are creating increasing levels of anxiety.

Regulations across Facebook, Instagram and other sites have caused concerns for some time, and the potential effect of social media on teenagers is troubling to say the least. Recent whistleblower testimony has suggested that social media companies time and time again put profit before people, with claims that Facebook has been well aware of the negative impact of social media on mental health and body image.

And concerns about mental health and the internet are starting to have a very real impact on the corporate and business world. Only recently, Lush announced that it was switching off all social channels until platforms take real action to provide a safer environment for users. The company is well aware that the move will likely cause a loss in earnings but CEO Mark Constantine said in a recent statement that they had no choice following research into the adverse impact of Facebook and Instagram on teen mental health.

Alongside ‘take-a-break’, Instagram is proposing the release of a tool which will help parents to guide their teens as they navigate the internet, as well as helping nudge teens towards more suitable content. It has also announced that it will look to provide parents with greater knowledge from experts, so that they can help and support, as well as learn how to discuss social media to ensure it is used in a positive and healthy way.

What is interesting is that these announced updates came into play a day before Instagram head Adam Mosseri faced questioning over whether the app is harmful to children’s health. They also follow recent demands for Instagram to explain how it plans to protect children online.

It is well known by now that Instagram also found itself in the firing line earlier in the year over leaked reports of an app aimed at under 13s, with significant negative reaction and the eventual decision to pull the plug on the platform.

There remains a lot of skepticism around Instagram’s real motives. Whilst cash remains king, and the platform continues to make itself extremely enticing young people, will we see ongoing increased problems amongst our youth? If other corporates follow in Lush’s steps and start voting with their feet, social media platforms might find their hand is forced. However, only time will tell if we are seeing a move towards real change, or yet another round of papering over the cracks.

Anna Summerfield