On 6th February, Reclaim Social Day and Safer Internet Day both raise awareness of the importance of enjoying the internet safely and intentionally. MQ are currently facilitating an exciting new review that looks at giving clear guidelines into how we can have a mentally healthier relationship with the internet. With so many of us being active online and new social media platforms popping up frequently, is social media good or bad for mental health?
Last month in New York City, social media was designated a public health hazard for its effect on youth mental health. This makes New York the first major city in the United States to take such a step. New York City Mayor Eric Adams spoke about the dangers of social media in the annual State of the City address on Wednesday 24th January.
“Companies like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook are fuelling a mental health crisis by designing their platforms with addictive and dangerous features.” Eric Adams, New York City Mayor
In an advisory issued the same day as Eric Adams spoke, New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan noted the worsening state of young people’s mental health in the city, offering some guidance on healthy social media use, for example observing ‘tech-free times’ and ‘tech-free places’, keeping track of how you’re feeling while you’re on social media, and sharing concerns regarding social media and mental health with adults.
On this side of the Atlantic, the UK’s Online safety Bill, passed last year, aims to better protect children and young people from malicious content by making it tech companies responsibility to tackle illegal and harmful material on their sites. The European Unions Digital Services Act, which came into force in August, goes a step further by also requiring companies to take active steps to prevent disinformation.
But are these legal frameworks the answer when it comes to protecting the mental health and wellbeing of internet users? Given the lack of research into social media, and the internet in general, how do we know that the true impact is of the internet on our mental health?
This is why MQ are facilitating a report, currently underway, that looks into both the positive and negative effects of the internet in general on mental health. In collaboration with Melbourne university and other researchers, the private sector and lived experience experts, the review began in September 2023 and the report is due to be published in summer 2024.
It’s undeniable the internet is now a huge part of our lives, our environment and community globally. Just this week Facebook turned 20 years old, with over 3 billion active users, including 70% of the population of the USA. While the internet, and social media in turn, may bring a great many opportunities to improve mental health knowledge, address stigma and connect people to services and communities, it also brings risks and challenges that maintain or exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions.
In the UK, the highest users of social media are 16 to 24 year olds (91%) with young people stating that 4 out of 5 major social platforms make their anxieties worse. Additionally, cyber-bullying is a growing problem with 7 in 10 young people saying they have experienced it.
The Internet study MQ are supporting is a systemic review, answering questions like ‘what do we know so far about the internet and its effects on mental health?’ The report aims to investigate how using the internet impacts our mental health – the content (what we see online), the behaviour (how we interact with it), the structures (how it’s shown to us, the design and algorithms) or the commercial practices (what business do to sell their products as a result, their marketing strategies).
Online risks and challenges that might affect our mental health can range from cyber-bullying, trolling, advertisingmental bandwidth exhaustion, risk to developing eating disorders as well as over-exposure to disinformation and anxiety-provoking media. Related to this, MQ provided informal suggestions on how to manage your mental well-being when the news is traumatic.
MQ’s Grants and Programmes Manager Mariana Bolivar explains the importance of examining ‘commercial practices’ and the effects they might have on people’s mental health.
“An example of commercial practices might be, say, a teenage girl searching online using search terms on search engines like ‘how to lose weight’ and a business might use that information to sell products to that person which could exacerbate eating disorder symptoms.” Mariana Bolivar, Grants and Programmes Manager MQ Mental Health Research
Mental health research in this area has already been incredibly useful in guiding policy and intervention. Important research conducted has connected the use of dieting products and eating disorders in children and young people. This led to a US regulation that prohibits dieting companies to advertise to under 18s on social media.
Additionally, Professor Ann John and her MQ-funded research found cyberbullying can indeed cause suicidal thoughts and behaviourswhich led to an evidence-based influence on policy design to combat cyberbullying across Wales.
PLEASE NOTE: If you or someone you know is thinking of hurting themselves or taking their life, help is available now. You are not alone and people do care. Get help now by clicking this link.
While there might be dangers to our mental health associated with social media, there are also potentially lots of benefits.
Reclaim Social Day on 6th February 2024 is all about focusing on and acknowledging the positive aspects of social media, celebrating the connection it can offer us. The campaign cites movements like #MeToo and the annual charity giving day Giving Tuesdayin which MQ takes partas a benefit to society and suggests that the success of these comes partly down to social media.
For people with mental health challenges and conditions this might include finding your tribe or learning about personal experiences of your condition, getting access to help more easily.
Whether we live with a mental health condition or not, there are benefits to be found online for our mental well-being too such as social connectionenjoying hobbies or interestscelebrating happy moments, engaging with the wider world and hearing from a range of voices different to those you might meet in your daily life.
The MQ report currently underway crucially aims to assess both the positive and negative effects of the internet on our mental health. Many people might focus on the negative effects of the internet on our mental health but we will be also considering the positives on our mental health and well-being.
“It is known the internet has marginal effects; it will not cause a mental illness but it could exacerbate one. However, the report will aim to show exactly how the internet may exacerbate or indeed improve our mental health.” Mariana Bolivar, Grants and Programmes Manager MQ Mental Health Research
Social media can be inspirational, educational, connective, and empowering. But how to consciously, intentionally cultivate the positive effects while avoiding the negative impacts is something no adult has been taught. Those who are in their 30s and 40s or above nowadays, also using social media regularly, didn’t have access to it as children. This is why this year’s report could change the landscape of the internet, and how we can engage with it in a more empowered way.
Once published, the review will outline specific recommendations for various groups to implement moving forwards to look after our mental health while using the internet. Those groups will include parents, schools, individuals, the private sector, and researchers.
This summer, MQ’s much-anticipated review will be available to us all, offering vital guidance for all of us in various sectors of society to help ourselves and each other navigate the internet with more informed and evidence-based strategies, keeping us mentally healthier while engaging with the wealth of information the worldwide web has to offer.
This is why mental health research matters. Before now, we’ve all been guessing how to best engage with the internet and social media, guessing at whether it is good or bad or a combination of both. But this summer, thanks to research and MQ’s efforts, we’ll finally have the answers for which we’ve been searching for years.
By supporting MQ you are supporting research, reports and reviews like this one looking into vital, evidence-based solutions to mental health problems for a mentally healthier world. Thank you for your support.