The Dangers of Excessive Social Media Usage

Social media: every mental health professional’s worst nightmare.

SCARIEST IN PSYCHIATRY

In this series, Scariest in Psychiatry, we asked clinicians about the scariest topic in mental health. What’s frightening, worrisome, or concerning in psychiatry? Here’s how they answered.

Halloween is right around the corner, and this is a time that many enjoy experiencing haunted houses, dressing up, adorning their homes with creepy decorations, and watching scary movies filled with terrifying creatures, things that are hidden in the dark, and paranormal and supernatural entities. However, as a psychiatrist, what I find scarier than any of these things is something we all deal with on a daily basis: the damage that excessive social media use is causing on our society. Our culture glorifies celebrities and gaining exposure over various media platforms, and social media has provided the opportunity for such success to a much greater number of people. Individuals often utilize these mediums to espouse opinions and misinformation that is often consumed by users as fact. This is every mental health professional’s worst nightmare.

People, especially children and adolescents, are particularly vulnerable to influence from those they are exposed to over social media. Their tips and advice are often blindly followed regardless of whether there is any indication they have the knowledge or authority to share any true guidance on the topic being discussed. These social media influencers may lead viewers to diagnose themselves with mental health disorders without proper evaluation and assessment from trained professionals. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a prime example of this. One of the main concerns about online ADHD diagnoses revolves around the fact that virtual tools are not able to consider the patient as a whole and cannot appreciate what a person is experiencing in their daily life. People are not considering the numerous comorbidities that can masquerade as ADHD. Many physicians are noticing patients, especially adults, coming to their clinics with a self-diagnosis that is questionable and, at times, completely baseless. What is especially concerning is the fact that many patients come in insisting on a specific medication for treatment, such as Adderall, and have a sense that their doctor is doing them a disservice or neglecting their wellbeing if any other treatment modalities are suggested.

The pandemic has worsened this, since the amount of time that is spent online has greatly increased, especially for teens that were starving for things to do and occupy their time during lockdown and school closures. What does not help matters is the algorithm media platforms use to try and lock viewers in and retain their attention continuously. Spent the time to watch a video you found interesting on borderline personality disorder (BPD)? Well, YouTube wants your eyes to remain glued to the screen, so you are bombarded with another video that piques your curiosity. Before you know it, you have spent the next hour going down the rabbit hole of numerous YouTubers providing an incredibly superficial review of signs and symptoms to help you identify and diagnose BPD, some options on how to manage it which often include unproven self-help tools, and the potential prognosis and treatment outcomes without any encouragement to seek out a professional’s opinion.

Platforms such as YouTube and TikTok prioritize engagement over the mental health of their consumers. After a user watches a few videos in a row on the same topic, the algorithm seemingly becomes convinced that this is now their sole interest in life, feeding them with further options to view on the subject. Why is this so problematic? Imagine a teen spending their time watching a couple of videos about people discussing their battle with self-mutilating behavior. Their feed is now inundated with several more videos about cutting behavior. Continuous exposure to this can result in a person’s depression being progressively worsened by them watching a stream of such content. What’s even more disturbing is that social media content not only normalizes, but sometimes even promotes, self-harm and suicidality in youth.

Just as much as social media can uplift a person and make them feel more connected to others, it can also serve to isolate and ostracize a person by highlighting their flaws and deficiencies. Instagram is a perfect example of a medium that many use to share aspects of their life with friends and loved ones, but there is also a sense of pressure to try and capture the moment in a perfect photo. Filters are often utilized to enhance the picture and emphasize particular aspects of an image. Just because it is understood that the photos are manipulated does not mean people won’t still feel insecure about how they look or what’s going on in their life. Yes, we are all aware that people tend to share just the highlights of their lives, and rarely the low points that every human being experiences, but that does not lessen the feelings of envy and dissatisfaction of your own life when you are scrolling through a friend’s airbrushed photos of their day by the pool or a party they attended with friends.

Social media usage has been linked to increased depression, anxiety, parasuicidal behaviors, and body dysmorphia. Many of these social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, can be hotspots for spreading hurtful rumors, lies, and abuse that can leave lasting emotional scars. Many have become overly self-absorbed, feeling an intense need to share endless selfies and all of their innermost thoughts over social media. All this has resulted in an unhealthy egocentricity and has distanced individuals from true real-life connections.

While bringing awareness to the importance of self-care and acknowledging the dangers of ignoring mental health is surely positive, there is plenty of damage being done in the process, even though most have good intentions. People fighting to destigmatize mental health are often inadvertently causing harm to impressionable viewers that are desperately searching for answers as to why they feel so different and desire a quick and easy fix to their problems. We all need to take a step back and recognize the dangers of excessive social media usage and the effects it has on us all, especially our children.

Dr Khan is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.