According to a new report by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK, Instagram is the most detrimental social networking app for young people’s mental health, followed closely by Snapchat.
Their study, #StatusofMind, surveyed almost 1,500 young people between the ages of 14 to 24 on how certain social media platforms impact health and well-being issues such as anxiety, depression, self-identity and body image.
YouTube was found to have the most positive impact, while Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter all demonstrated negative affects overall on young people’s mental health.
Instagram — the image-saturated app with over 700 million users worldwide — topped the list in terms of negative impact, most notably among young women, stated the report, published on Friday (May 19).
Instagram draws young women to “compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality,” said Matt Keracher, author of the report.
“Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect,’ ” an anonymous female respondent said in the report.
The impact of five social media sites were evaluated in the following order:
YouTube (the only platform with a positive net impact)
Instagram (most negative)
To tackle the problem, the Royal Society for Public Health has called for social media platforms to take action in order to help combat young users’ feelings of inadequacy and anxiety by placing a warning on images that have been digitally manipulated.
“We’re not asking these platforms to ban Photoshop or filters but rather to let people know when images have been altered so that users don’t take the images on face value as real,” Keracher said.
“We really want to equip young people with the tools and the knowledge to be able to navigate social media platforms not only in a positive way but in a way that promotes good mental health,” he added.
The survey concluded that while Instagram negatively affected body image, sleep patterns and added to a sense of “FOMO” — the fear of missing out — the image app was also a positive outlet for self-expression and self-identity for many of its young users.
Professional YouTuber Laci Green, a health vlogger with 1.5 million subscribers, said that education surrounding mental health issues in a digital age is an educational imperative for young people.
“Because platforms like Instagram and Facebook present highly curated versions of the people we know and the world around us. It is easy for our perspective of reality to become distorted,” she said. “Socialising from behind a screen can also be uniquely isolating, obscuring mental health challenges even more than usual.”
Green added that it is important we lay the groundwork now to minimize potential harm as the first generation of social media users become adults.
Dr Harish Shetty, psychiatrist, Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital opined, “We are winessing a rise in number of youngsters with social media addiction. Instagram and Snapchat are very popular apps among them. Youngsters addicted to them upload their photos on these networking sites are low on self-esteem and are insecure of their looks.”
YouTube was the only social media platform that demonstrated an overall positive impact on young people’s mental health in the study.
The report also found that it’s not just what young people are engaging with on social media but also how long they are engaging with it.
Young people who spend more than two hours per day connecting on social networking sites are more likely to report poor mental health, including psychological distress, according to the report.
“Platforms that are supposed to help young people connect with each other may actually be fuelling a mental health crisis,” Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the royal society, noted in the report.
Dr Avinash Desousa, psychiatrist at LTMG Sion Hospital said, “Instagram or snapchat addiction depends on number of posts shared by the user in a day. It can be detrimental if misused. We have seen youngsters sharing his/her photos on half hourly or hourly basis, comparing their post with others and getting depressed.”
To address this, the society has also recommended the introduction of a pop-up warning to alert users that they have been online for too long.
Seven in 10 young people surveyed supported the recommendation, but with experts describing social media use as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, it’s not clear whether a “heavy usage” pop-up would be enough to break through that barrier.
Sir Simon Wessely, president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, supports an education-based approach and warns that demonizing social media is not the answer.
“I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives,” he said. “We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media — good and bad — to prepare them for an increasingly digitized world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.”