Social Media and Technology and the Impact on Mental Health

By Jen Milau, APRN, PMHNP-BC
Lindner Center of HOPE,
Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner

 There’s no denying it: the advent of social media has changed the way we connect with one another. In some ways, these programs have offered an opportunity to locate and reconnect with lost friends or family members – a phenomenon that was not even fathomable until recent decades. However, this near-immediate accessibility of information, coupled with the rapid growth of social media sources, has not been accompanied by a “user guide” or an algorithm for appropriate and healthy incorporation into our daily lives. Instead, the technology has been thrust upon us as a society, and we have been left with the task of “figuring it out as we go.” In the field of psychiatry and mental health, we are seeing the repercussions of this in a number of unexpected ways, and those who have been hit the hardest are among our most vulnerable – children, adolescents, and young adults.

As a clinician working primarily with this population, I have been struck by the stark and abrupt increase in suicidality and mental health concerns within the last five years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2017, suicide stood as a leading cause of death for individuals aged 10-34, second only to accidental injury. Just this year, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published data Continued from page 1 which cites that “more U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s (vs. the mid-2000s) experienced serious psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide and took their own lives… These trends are weak or nonexistent among adults 26 years old and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes rather than an overall increase across all ages.” The specific data presented within this report reflect a 40-122% increase (depending on specific age range) in suicidality and psychological/mood disturbances among individuals age 12-25. So the question stands: why have young people been so disproportionately affected?

The answer to this is complex, and certainly not yet fully understood. It is important to first consider what we know: Adolescence is a period of significant neurochemical and biological transformation. With these physiological changes comes the development of a sense of identity – a process fueled by social interactions, sexual exploration, experimentation with interests, exposure to information, and individual expression. These facets of development have not changed by any means. Rather, the way in which today’s youth is exposed to these experiences has shifted from primarily organic, physical, human interactions to online exchanges through a variety of social media and communication apps available with a simple tap of a finger. Since this happens behind a screen, kids are not faced with the immediate implications of their words or actions, as they do not witness the non-verbal cues accompanying a person’s response, and do not experience the inevitable feeling of anxiety that goes along with confrontation or conflict in a real-time situation. They have the opportunity to carefully calculate their responses over time, or blatantly ignore a person with whom they do not want to interact, rather than being placed into a situation that requires problem-solving and relational abilities in the immediate moment. This has led to a generation of individuals who have largely avoided natural social responses; in turn, we are seeing a serious rise in the prevalence of social anxiety and kids who are devoid of many vital interpersonal skills.

Additionally, within the world of social media, we are offered the opportunity to customize our “online identities” to mirror whichever characteristics we choose to share with others. Due to our human need for acceptance and attention, this usually results in the meticulous formation of an “ideal self” – one which typically is not reflective of our inherently flawed (and beautifully unique) personalities and instead represents a false utopian identity used to highlight those traits of ourselves and our lives that we feel may be most desirable to others. As this practice becomes typical of an entire society, we begin to unconsciously accept these “pseudo-selves” as reality, leading to the habit of comparing our actual lives to those that are portrayed on the internet. This can result in significant issues with self-esteem, increased self-doubt, shame, body image concerns, and social isolation – problems which, for an individual predisposed to mental illness, could trigger a major mood episode or exacerbation of anxiety symptoms.

Further, the immediate accessibility of information to which we have become accustomed has unfortunately led to an expectation for instant feedback and gratification that is simply not applicable to most real-life scenarios. Studies suggest that the neurochemical response to “likes” on a post or picture actually mirror that which is experienced with illicit drug use or other behavioral addictions. This, then, leads to further desire to obtain more likes, and the consequent sense of disappointment and desperation when posts do not receive the attention that we were expecting.

When we view these ideas in the context of an adolescent who is developmentally tasked with the goal of exploring and forming a sense of self while also battling the physical and emotional implications of rapid growth and hormone changes, this becomes extraordinarily problematic. Many patients that I see describe feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness due to their perception that they are not as “successful” as others they see online. For a child who has endured trauma, the ability to form harmful connections with ill-intentioned adults is too readily accessible, leading to exploitation and further exacerbation of trauma-related symptoms. Children with attention issues are experiencing insomnia due to being constantly stimulated by their devices into the nights, resulting in reduced academic performance and mood dysregulation. And most importantly – families are not connecting in the ways that are imperative for fostering well-adjusted and cognitively flexible young adults.

This being said – there is certainly hope for change moving forward. As we adapt to the presence of technology within our lives, we are learning more and more about the importance of moderation in regards to screen time and devices. As a clinician, I preach to my patients and their parents about the risks of social media and unlimited time with technology and encourage open conversations regarding limits and expectations for its use. I challenge parents to model what it looks like to balance screen time and “real” time, and recommend the implementation of rules for all members of the family, not just children or adolescents. By increasing the number of organic experiences and social interactions that our children have, we are preparing them to be able to adjust to the unexpected, unpredictable twists and turns.