Owning a smartphone is now the norm, whether you’re in school, halfway through your career or enjoying your retirement, and having access to the internet 24×7 from your fingertips means the time spent on social media has significantly increased. No longer do we have to log in to a computer to check our Facebook notifications or post a Tweet — we can do it anywhere in the world. In fact, the number of social media users worldwide last year reached 3.196 billion, which is up 13% year on year. Worryingly, the average person will spend more than five years of their lives on social media, according to research.
While social channels like Instagram allow us to share cute pet photos, boast about the fact we are enjoying a sun-filled holiday or post a new filtered selfie to our followers, they have unfortunately also become platforms for viewing harmful and distressing content — leading to self-harm, and even suicide in some cases.
The social giant, Instagram has recently been criticised by the NSPCC for not protecting its users well enough from harmful content found through damaging hashtags such as #anorexic and #depression. Although certain images found under these types of search terms do show a warning before the content is shown, users are still given the choice whether or not they want to view the image. And because of algorithms, the platform actually recommends similar hashtags that do not come with a warning.
I agree that more work needs to be done across social media platforms to prevent such easy access to posts that either encourage or promote self-harm, and thankfully the issue is being widely recognised. Facebook has in fact pledged to do more on self-harm.
But while we’re constantly hearing about the downsides to social media and the detrimental effect it has on our mental health, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, social media can benefit mental health, and there are several frequently-overlooked positive effects that it can have on us.
- Social media can help to relieve social isolation and loneliness by opening up new communication pathways. Those who are suffering with mental illness have the ability to express themselves and their emotions, as well as to seek advice without having to reveal their identity and therefore worry about judgement
- It can also help to inspire healthy lifestyle changes, and become a motivational tool for those who wish to achieve healthy goals such as eating better, quitting smoking or attending the gym more frequently. By announcing a goal through social media and posting about it promotes accountability to others, creating positive reinforcement from your friends and family, and acts as an online support system
- It helps to build and strengthen relationships, therefore meaning we are more ‘socially happy’. Thanks to these platforms we are able to connect with old friends and colleagues, or those who live on the other side of the world
Social media of course has its downsides, but it’s important that we recognise how it can also benefit us.