Social media: boosting self-esteem or risking self-harm?

By Tracy Brighten

Scientists identify social media use as a risk factor in the rising trend of teenage depression

Girl looking at social media on phone

Olivia checks Facebook to see what’s been happening since she looked an hour ago. It’s 11.30pm. She may spend ten minutes, or it may be a couple of hours if there are lots of posts. Olivia has 453 friends. She posts a selfie showing her Deep Chestnut hair and waits for a response. Three likes come through. She relaxes a little.

Olivia is one of the increasing number of young people at risk of mental health problems from social media experiences. With over 1.2 billion active users monthly on Facebook – and more than 757 million users interacting every day – we are more publicly exposed than ever.

Young people have access to iPods, iPads, smart phones and laptops, with round-the-clock connection to online social circles. Recent news and research has linked increased social media use to detrimental effects on wellbeing as the social media debate intensifies.

Cyber-bullying goes under the radar

Cyber-bullying is in the spotlight. BBC’s Newsbeat recently interviewed a teenager who received counselling after being bullied on question-and-answer social networking site ask.fm; ‘It really damaged my self-confidence, I was much more quiet.’ With over 117 million users worldwide, half of them under 18, ask.fm is worryingly popular.

‘The whole idea is to have fun and create a unique online community,’ says ask.fm, but this ethos has been trampled by bullies. Although safety has improved, and New Zealand’s NetSafe advises young people to use new privacy settings to prevent anonymous questions, ask.fm still refuses to change the anonymity option.

Talking to BBC’s Newsbeat, ask.fm’s director of external affairs, Liva Biseniece, defends anonymity where ‘young people can ask questions anonymously, explore important issues and be safe at the same time.’ But just how safe is advice from anonymous strangers?

Teenage suicides linked to online hate and blackmail

Several teenagers have committed suicide following hateful or blackmailing messages from anonymous users.

Erin Gallagher, 13, took her life in October 2012, naming ask.fm in her suicide note. Daniel Perry, 17, jumped from Edinburgh’s Forth Road Bridge, a victim of several online suicide prompts – ‘let a blade meet your throat’ – as well as an online blackmailing scam. Con artists trick young men into believing they are having conversations with a girl who asks them to strip off in front of their webcam. The blackmailers then threaten to release the video to friends and family.

New Zealand police informed ask.fm of cyber-bullying several months ago. An Auckland mother whose 14-year-old daughter was targeted told the New Zealand Herald, ‘It’s actually quite addictive, as they want to know what’s being said about them, both negative and positive.’ Young people’s access is often unsupervised but when parents are vigilant enough to check, their stalking is resented.

Social media site ask.fm in firing line

Parents are calling for ask.fm social media site to be banned but with advertising revenue topping $32,000 a day, Russian internet entrepreneurs, and founders, Ilya and Mark Terebin, will resist. They blame the fall in moral standards for the suicides but British anti-bullying agencies disagree. ‘Young people are encouraged to say things they would not say face-to-face or if they were named,’ says Emma-Jane Cross, BeatBullying chief executive.

With no controls to ensure real identities, there is an absence of responsibility and users can gang up. The victim may even know the bully hiding behind anonymity.

The Dominion Post reports that New Zealand teenagers urged via social media to commit suicide have needed psychiatric care, and that evidence of abuse has been submitted to a government committee considering tougher laws against cyber-bullying.

Youthline national spokesman Stephen Bell says online bullying is often a manifestation of problems in the real world, but the internet connects to a far wider social circle.

UK teenage suicide trending upwards 

Trolled Nation, a 2013 UK survey of over 2,000 teenagers conducted for knowthenet.org.uk, provides statistics showing the impact of trolling with young males representing a high-risk group for suicide. Trolling involves deliberately provoking an emotional response by upsetting people in online environments.

Nineteen-year-old males were top trolling targets with 85% having experienced online bullying. However, only one third of teens report it to social media sites and less than 1 in 5 tell parents.

Psychologist and trolling expert Arthur Cassidy says boys are pressured into bravado, especially via social media, but this attitude, combined with poor coping strategies, increases vulnerability. Of those reporting bullying or trolling, 87% said they had experienced it on Facebook, 19% on Twitter and 9% on ask.fm.

Social media relationships can be habitual and unsatisfying

Social media has changed the way we develop and maintain relationships. Pew Research Center’s survey in the U.S. reveals 27% of 18-29 year olds have 500+ friends. With 10% of users sending messages multiple times daily and 31% commenting on other people’s photos daily, addiction waits in the wings.

Like drinking alcohol or taking drugs, by the time we realize there’s a problem it’s difficult to break the habit.

While social media can satisfy a need to belong, it can also leave us feeling rejected or isolated and negatively impact our self-esteem. Researchers are increasingly interested in the potential consequences of social networking sites that have become deeply rooted in daily life.

New research published in February in the journal Social Influence looks at two potential threats to belonging: lack of active participation and lack of response from others.

Led by Dr Stephanie Tobin from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology, researchers studied people who posted frequently on Facebook. Participants were restricted in their ability to post and in feedback they received, and then asked about their sense of belonging, control, and meaningful existence.

Researchers found that when active participation in the form of sharing information or receiving feedback is restricted, people feel less important and sense of belonging and self-esteem are affected.

Fear of Missing Out drives social media addiction

Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) describes a concern that others may be having more enjoyable experiences and this generates a compulsion to know what others are doing. Lead researcher and psychologist Dr. Andy Przybylski says FoMO isn’t new, but social media offers a new window into people’s lives.

In this study measuring FoMO, researchers found that people with a high level may become so involved in their friends’ lives they neglect what they enjoy. FoMO was more prevalent in those under 30 and with deprived psychological needs. ‘We have to learn new skills to control our usage and enjoy social media in moderation,’ says Dr. Pryzbylski.

Social media increases feelings of connectedness but not happpiness

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) report that while Facebook helps people feel connected, it doesn’t necessarily make them happier. Published in PLOS ONE, this study led by U-M psychologist Ethan Kross is the first to examine Facebook’s influence on wellbeing over time.

Researchers identified that the more participants used Facebook the worse they subsequently felt, and the more they used Facebook over the two-week study period, the more life satisfaction levels declined over time. Direct interactions by contrast were found to increase wellbeing over time.

‘This is a result of critical importance because it goes to the very heart of the influence that social networks may have on people’s lives,’ says U-M cognitive neuroscientist and co-author John Jonides.  

Socially embarrassing events can go viral

Socially embarrassing situations can have a worse impact on our wellbeing than they used to. A story or photograph that may once have been passed among friends may now find a global audience.

Researchers at Northwestern University in the U.S. observed the strength of emotional response to embarrassing Facebook situations. The most common threats were norm violations, where exposed behaviour could lead to social and emotional consequences, and ideal self-presentation violations, where content posted is inconsistent with a person’s Facebook persona.

Jeremy Birnholtz, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Northwestern, comments that experienced social media users are less affected by these threats, knowing how to control settings and delete pictures and comments.

People most affected were those with a high level of social appropriateness and a wide network that included family, co-workers, clients and friends, as well as people who valued their online reputation. It’s worth considering a friend’s Facebook audience before posting on their page.

Comparing unfavourably to friends’ online persona causes depression

Although social media enables us to network and connect with distant friends, a 2013 U.S. study led by Brian Feinstein reveals that Facebook can also have unhealthy side effects. After studying 268 Stony Brook University students (average age 20), researchers suggest negative social comparison can lead to rumination – a focus on one’s distress – and then to depression.

The tendency to ruminate is compounded because people tend to post more positive information compared to real life. Facebook users are bombarded with comparison situations – birthdays, holidays, weddings, babies and children – a Molotov cocktail that can ignite inadequacy.

Invisible risk of high social media use, inactivity and lack of sleep  

Published recently in World Psychiatry, a large international study by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet highlights an invisible risk for depression among adolescents identified by a combination of lack of physical activity, high social media use, and decreased sleep.

This risk group showed the same mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts, identified in the high-risk group of alcohol and drug users. First author, Vladimir Carli, warns that parents and teachers are probably unaware of this invisible risk but 30% of adolescents in the study were in this group.

According to Depression.org.nz, one in seven young people in New Zealand will experience a major depressive disorder before the age of 24. Scrutinised, compared and judged more than ever, teens and young adults are vulnerable.

However, positive outcomes of Facebook use identified in other studies, such as decreased feelings of loneliness and increased connectedness, suggest that it’s the way we use Facebook, as well as our personality and emotional state that determines a positive or negative experience.

With better awareness of how social media experiences can negatively affect self-esteem, we can take control and protect ourselves and others from anxiety and depression. We can protect vulnerable young people like Olivia.

Image credit: Girl looking at phone on Pixabay


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About Tracy Brighten

With her passion for nature, health, education, and sustainability, Tracy writes creative content that connects with readers. She helps tell people's stories, build brands, and grow businesses. Thrives on words, birds and enthusiasm. For hire at www.tracybrightenwriter.com.