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Adult mental healthanxietyMental health and societySuicide

Social media and mental health

27 January 2017

Social media has rapidly become part of our everyday lives and, like the rise of any new technology, questions are inevitably being asked about how it might be impacting on the way we live – and feel.

Two years ago I found myself reflecting on whether my habitual Facebook checking might, unconsciously, be doing me harm in terms of warping my perceptions of normality, particularly in relation to happiness.

For 13 years I was a researcher in psychology studying seafarers’, maritime health and technology onboard ships. As I have moved into a career making films – both within the university and outside – I’ve naturally carried my interest in psychology with me.

From a personal perspective, I could see that social media was becoming embedded in my daily routine, and was starting to affect the way I perceived my own life. Central to the social media dilemma is the question of what we post concerning our lives. Much like a photo album, we don’t generally like to capture and share our worst moments, but the inevitable consequence of this is that platforms such as Facebook are filled with the selected highlights of people’s lives. The troubling thing I found was that having awareness of this process did not seem to immunise me from internalising the overly-positive narratives that I was seeing on a daily basis.

I wasn’t in a great place myself at the time and I think this leaves us particularly vulnerable to this ‘grass is greener’ phenomenon, looking at other people’s lives and wondering why we aren’t so happy.  The funny thing is that you wouldn’t have known it from my own social media feed – there was little indication of someone suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. It was at this point that I started to consider my own role in the process – to what extent might the things I’m posting be making other people feel miserable, albeit unintentionally?

It’s complex, of course, because most of our friends and family will be very happy to see positive photos and updates from our life, and even the most well-intentioned post could cause someone distress if it relates to a raw area of their life. I think the problem is greatest when we have little real-world contact with the people we are following on social media, when we have no other means of validating the narrative that we’re seeing.

What proportion of out Facebook friends do we see in person, however? I’m betting it’s low – and getting lower (cull dependent). I have school friends on my social media feed who I haven’t seen in 20 years. If they tell me they’re an astronaut and living a life of bliss then I’m just going to have to take them on their (social media) word.

The film that we made, ‘All My Happy Friends’, looked to explore some of the ideas described above and in particular the idea of social projection. I wondered what it would look like if people presented their social media posts like they would at an academic conference – using PowerPoint. When presented in this way I wanted to show how hideously self-promotional it might all sound. I also wanted to highlight the circular nature of positive posting, and how we might be unconsciously dragging each other down by mutually believing each other’s hype.

The mental health aspect is implicit in the film as the main character, in tears in front of a GP, says “I just don’t know why I’m feeling like this”. When we’re bombarded with positive messages about our friends having seemingly better lives then it’s no surprise that it might get through our defences – consciously or not.

The film was promoted by Mind UK as a blog post and then on their Facebook page (ironically). A cursory read through the Facebook comments paints a clear picture of people’s conflicted views towards this powerful new medium creeping into all aspects of our lives. You can’t hope for much from a three minute film, but if it’s prompted some discussion then I’ll give that a ‘like’.