Does Instagram really lead to mental health issues in teens?

Does Instagram really lead to mental health issues in teens?

Social media and its impact on mental health

It is no secret that we live in a world saturated by social media. Our lives are consumed by our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter newsfeeds. In actual fact, social media has become so pervasive that platforms like Facebook often serve as a means of getting information on real-world events and trustworthy news sources are starting to take a seat on the bench.

As social media becomes an integral part of daily life, medical science and particularly those in the field of psychology, have taken a keen interest in the impact it is having on various aspects of our lives and are examining everything from how it affects the chemicals in our brains, to the effect it has on both platonic and romantic relationships.

Teenage girls on their phones

It is no wonder then, that over the years, a number of studies have been done and articles written on the positive and negative effects of various social media platforms on society.  Some of which have made accusations against the popular social media tool, Instagram, saying that it creates a picture of a false reality where filters and ‘posed pictures’ are sprawled across the site, allowing for users to battle with issues such as life satisfaction, self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

But, just how true are these findings for Instagram users (the majority of whom are teens and young adults)?

A recent survey on the link between social media and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety in teens resulted in Instagram being ranked as the platform most responsible for contributing to these mental conditions in teens.

The UK survey which asked 1,479 teens, known as “digital natives”, having never lived without the internet, to score the most popular social media platforms on their potential to induce issues like depression, anxiety, bullying, loneliness, FOMO (fear of missing out) and body image in the user.

To explain the idea behind FOMO a little further, the term denotes feeling as though your peers on social media are enjoying and experiencing a better life than yours or that fun things may be taking place without you being there, something many of us and not only teens, have experienced. This has a strong link to the anxiety felt in teens as they begin to believe that their own lives are inadequate and they are constantly missing out on the fun that is supposedly happening without them.

This survey formed part of a larger report, published by the RSPH (Royal Society for Public Health), a charity that works towards improving the wellbeing and health of the general public, that looked at the impact of social media on modern youth. The report explored both the negative and positive influences of social media on adolescents and made recommendations for managing these in future.

The negative impacts surveyed revolved around bullying, lack of sleep and, of course, FOMO. Positive impacts surveyed focused on self-identity, self-expression and a sense of building involvement and community.

According to the RSPH survey, they used their results to rank the social media platforms from those with the highest levels of positive impact to those with the most negative impact. YouTube ranked the most positive, followed by Twitter and then Facebook. Snapchat and Instagram ranked the most negative of the five social media giants.

Some of the main benefits of social media that were found include having an improved sense of self-identity and community. With the video sharing platform, YouTube being found to be the most positive platform in terms of impact on younger people, and Instagram, a platform to share photos on, having the most negative impact.

With this information, the RSPH called for measures to aid in protecting teens and other individuals on the use of social media. They recommended that education on cyber security be increased so as to help protect and improve the well-being of teens.

The organisation suggested that social media developers implement icons to highlight when an image has been altered to change the appearance of the individual. They also recommended that any health information that is posted on social media should be certified to be a trustworthy source and that the use of safe social media practices be taught in schools, among other suggestions.

In implementing these proposals, the RSPH noted that issues such as body image and bullying will become far less significant on social media. They added that in teaching the youth to explore and navigate social media platforms in a more positive way, this would, in turn, promote their own well-being. They also called for more thorough research to be conducted in order to draw more accurate and in-depth results that could possibly explore social media on a different level.

This report comes at a crucial time as 91% of youths aged 16 to 24 in the United Kingdom make regular use of the internet and social media. With over 700 million users worldwide being on Instagram.

Many argue that social media is a platform that creates the idea of a global village, where people from across the world can be connected and, in turn, a strong sense of community is created. However, in this social media era, the rates of depression and anxiety in adolescents and younger people alike, have increased by a whopping 70% over the past 25 years. With this in mind, there seems to be a strong link between social media and the mental health of younger people.

In conclusion, we live in a digitalised world, and although there is far more research needing to be conducted, it is safe to say that social media has many negative and positive effects.

Platforms such as Twitter and YouTube may have a more positive ranking due to individuals wanting to view things that are not associated but rather removed, from their daily lives, such as amusing videos or celebrity news. Whereas Snapchat and Instagram have a closer association with the individual’s life and tend to revolve around family and friends.

Teen using their phone

Instagram boasts altered and airbrushed images which can have a direct impact on self-confidence and lead some individuals to feel as though they are not good enough. Yet it may also provide a platform for self-expression for others.  It is evident from the report that each platform has its own negative and positive attributes.

So, in answer to the initial question on the validity on the claims of bashing Instagram as an unhealthy platform, the objective answer is that the platform brings both positive (self-expression and a sense of community and global village) and negative (bullying and self-esteem issues) aspects to the use of it. And as the RSPH stated in their report, it is dangerous to blame the medium for the message.

It would, therefore, be valuable for further exploration to be done on the different platforms and their exact impact on the wellbeing of an individual. However, the report does raise some valid and important questions and points on how social media should be managed to best benefit the youth.

Until more research is done, it may be beneficial to teach younger people about the impact of social media and how to cope with it as there is no running from the digital age we now live in.