In the first two decades of the 21st century, the digital revolution has gathered pace and internet technology has evolved at an astonishing rate. In 2019, twelve years after the first iPhone launched in 2007, 79% of UK adults personally use a smartphone, with household internet take-up at 87%.
In the early years of this breakneck growth in personal connectivity, mental health was yet to enter the national conversation in quite the same way that it has now. But with life set to stay resolutely interconnected, and with personal well-being coming into focus, it is important to acknowledge the effects of this technology on mental health.
Research on the relationship between the internet and mental health is now catching up with the technology, with an increasing focus on the experience of young people for whom social media has always existed. For this group especially, research suggests a link between increased social media use and rates of anxiety and depression.
This blog post gives an overview of some of the negative impacts of connected life, some surprising well-being positives of social media, and a few of the online tools which take advantage of instant communication and information access to support mental health.
How can the internet negatively affect mental health?
In May of 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health published their #StatusofMind report focussing on the impact of various social media platforms on the mental health of young people. A survey of 14-24 olds found that, for four of five major social media platforms, the negative impacts on mental health outweighed the positives for those surveyed (pp.17-23).
The report cites the following as some of the ways in which social media can negatively affect mental health.
- Link to anxiety and depression – identified rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the past 25 years. Research suggests that young people described as ‘heavy users’ of social media platforms are more likely to report poor mental health.
- Encourages comparison to other people’s lives – frequent exposure to the notable highlights of contacts’ lives can encourage a ‘compare and despair’ attitude where the users outlook on their own life becomes less favourable and affects their mental well-being. This is due to the belief that other people are living ‘fuller’ lives.
- Interferes with sleep – exposure to LED lights before sleep (it is believed) interfere with brain processes that trigger feelings of sleepiness. Consistently interrupted sleep can be detrimental to mental health. This effect is true of most networked devices.
A brighter side of social media – how being connected online can enhance well-being
Despite the new health challenges brought on by the exponential growth of the online world, there are benefits as well. Learning to navigate connected life more healthily will depend on making the most of its advantages, rather than simply avoiding the source of the problem (which for some will not be an option).
#StatusofMind points out a number of potential positive effects of social media on health. Firstly, social media (and the internet more generally) grants easy access to other people’s health experiences shared online which may be ‘hugely beneficial to those experiencing health issues themselves’. This can take the form of accessing blogs and vlogs, and users can also receive experience-informed support from connections in their social networks.
More surprisingly, although the ‘curated’ element of our online personas can lead to unhelpful self-comparisons, this same feature is also the root of a positive. The report notes that ‘Social media can act as an effective platform for accurate and positive self-expression, letting young people put forward their best self’. Social media users can personalise their feeds with content representing their own view of their identities – something which can lead to a connection with others with shared interests.
And lastly, online interactions can supplement and even enhance real-world relationships. Social networks can connect friends and family from around the world, act as a ‘second phase’ of interaction following brief face-to-face encounters, and revive even dormant ‘real world’ relationships. Social interaction can help well-being, and online networks can make that happen.
Online mental health tools
The other key way in which the internet can actually bolster well-being is an instant connection to knowledge or even mental health practitioners. There are a range of online resources catering to different mental health needs, and these often come with the added benefit of anonymity and discretion. These include:
- Mood tracking and self-assessment – online symptom tracking questionnaires (such as the NHS symptom tracker ) provide the user with a ‘depression score’ and an ‘anxiety score’. Other tests, such as Mind Diagnostics, will plot results on a graph to help visualise the effectiveness of any ongoing treatments. Although these should never be a substitute for professional help, this kind of mood tracking can reassure the user that things are improving, or serve as a reminder of the need to seek further treatment).
- Online courses – local mental health services can grant access to SilverCloud, an online course to help users manage stress, anxiety and depression. A therapist selects a series of topics for the user to work through in an eight-week course. Courses feature videos, activities, quizzes, audio guides and your own online journal.
- Connect to therapists – apps such as ieso (if provided by the NHS in your area in this case) use instant messaging to connect people to therapists trained in cognitive behavioural therapy. Ieso is suitable for people with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias and stress. As communication is text based, users can review their past therapy sessions.