we all know social media can seriously harm your mental health, so what now?

Despite the detrimental effects of social media, we’re still completely hooked. Refinery29 Editor at Large Sarah Raphael shares her tips on how to use it safely.

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02 January 2019, 8:00am

This article originally appeared in i-D's The Superstar Issue, no. 354, Winter 2018

“I wouldn’t go on that if I were you, you won’t be able to handle it,” my brother warned. It was 2006 and I’d joined this new thing called Facebook. A website where you could see photos of everyone’s lives. I wanted to join so I could ascertain whether my boyfriend at the time had cheated on me at university. I was desperate for ‘the truth’. The ability to see behind walls and into nights out that I hadn’t been on. A few clicks in and I found what I was looking for: several pictures of him with the girl (so much prettier than me) I had always suspected he liked. And so began my unhealthy relationship with social media.

I have always had generalised anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Facebook felt like a beast bespoke-designed to feed my insecurities and anxieties, plant new irrational fears in my mind, create masterful user journeys for my obsessional thinking. My brother knew this when he warned me against Facebook, but there was no way I was overcoming the temptation. 12 years later, certain Silicon Valley rebels are confirming that Facebook was actually designed to stir these emotions and feelings.

In December 2017, Facebook’s Director of Research, David Ginsberg, and Moira Burke, a research scientist, published a blog post admitting that the social network was having a negative impact on people’s mental health. They described how social media “might lead to negative social comparison – perhaps even more so than offline, since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering.” Facebook (who also own Instagram) admitting this was a relief, but it did grossly underestimate the scale of the problem.

In a recent article in The Telegraph, Chief Executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens, described the effect of social media and online addiction on young people’s mental health as “an epidemic”. A recent survey of 14 to 24-year-olds by The Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement showed that image-based apps in particular deepen young people’s feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, with Instagram listed as the worst app for mental health, followed by Snapchat and Facebook. All fuel anxiety, depression, poor sleep, loneliness, bullying, body image issues and FOMO.

Earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted he doesn’t allow his nephew to use social media. And no one has gone further in the exposing of Silicon Valley than former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris; described by The Atlantic magazine as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”. Harris left Google in 2016 and started the non-profit organisation Time Well Spent, which aims to hold tech companies and app creators to account for their impact on young people’s wellbeing. In a recent interview, released on the 5th of July 2018 on YouTube, Harris detailed the real-life Black Mirror world of social media app creators. “When I was in college at Stanford, I studied at a persuasive technology lab that basically taught a lot of young engineering students the principles of persuasive psychology. You learn about clicker training for dogs, you learn how casinos manipulate and shape the choice-making environment that gets people to play slot machines... My friends in that class were the founders of Instagram. The narrative that’s so common is that Facebook is just a tool, it’s just a hammer, and it’s up to us how we use it. But that’s not true at all. Behind the screen there are 100 engineers who know exactly how your psychology works.”

“Social comparison plagues me the most on social media. It’s not the influencers or models or celebrities that get to me – it’s the acquaintances and friends of friends. When all you know about a person is their perfect pout on a night out, their most recent work success, it’s all too easy to assume that that is their reality.”

Social comparison plagues me the most on social media. It’s not the influencers or models or celebrities that get to me – it’s the acquaintances and friends of friends. It’s the people who I very rarely see in real life that I compare myself to most, and constantly come up short. When all you know about a person is what their dazzling smile looks like on a pristine beach, their perfect pout on a night out, how amazing their midriff looks in a crop top and their most recent work success, it’s all too easy to assume that’s their reality.

Advertising has sold us beautiful people and aspiration since there have been things to sell, but this peripheral social scene is new. “It’s never before been true in human history that when I wake up in the morning and I turn this screen over, I can see photo after photo of evidence that my friends’ lives are better than my life,” Tristan Harris says. “I can see photo after photo of my friends having the time of their lives without me. That’s a new experience for humans.”

As a woman in her early 30s, Marianne Mikhail MSc of 5th Avenue Counselling is one of the few councillors I’ve come across who is an active user of social media, which gives her a unique perspective when working with young clients. “I’ve had clients as young as 14 suffering greatly from comparing themselves to each other on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Young people are seeing their friends presenting themselves in a way that seems gloriously attractive but totally unattainable for them, leading their own self-image to be dashed and diminished, their self-worth shattered.” Mikhail refers to social media as “a stage for many people’s insecurities to be exposed and potentially exacerbated, providing an opportunity to create a visible online persona, which can be edited and adapted to eliminate negative realities.”

Jayne Hardy is the founder of The Blurt Foundation, a digital community which provides peer support for those battling mental illness. She believes in honest representation online. “I want my social presence to be a realistic window into my life: the good, the bad and the ugly,” she tells me. “There’s this horrible notion that vulnerability is a sign of weakness, but in my experience, when I’ve opened the door of vulnerability, it’s made it much easier for others to share their experiences.” After her #WhatYouDontSee campaign went viral, with people tagging their experiences of mental health, Jayne was invited to give a talk at TEDx, a platform she used to share her personal experiences of the depression that swallowed up her twenties. Hardy also struggles with social comparison. “We have front row seats to the ins and outs of other people’s lives,” she says. “We get to see what projects they’re working on and what opportunities might have come their way and it’s so easy to feel as though you don’t, and won’t, match up. But I always remind myself that social media is never the full story, it’s a snapshot of a second in time that doesn’t share the pain, the compromise, the sacrifice, their hard work, their insecurities, their anything. We take the images at face value but there’s so much that leads up to that point in time.”

Last summer was the lowest point in my mental health history. I was sleeping two hours a night, I felt dizzy from exhaustion, like nothing was real. I started a ritual of listing every feature I hated about myself over and over and comparing them to other people’s features on Instagram. I even hit myself a few times out of frustration. During this period, I went to the pub and saw a friend there I hadn’t seen for a while. He said “How are you mate? Well, I already know from Instagram, you’re having the best time ever. I don’t think anyone in London is having as good a summer as you.” I looked back over my posts that summer: Glastonbury, Notting Hill Carnival, a press trip on a private jet, countless humble brags about work successes. I had projected this ultimately happy person online. It was far from my reality.

"Realising I was part of the problem, when Mental Health Awareness Week came around this year, I decided to tell the truth and posted a list of my conditions and medications alongside mantras that help me cope."

Realising I was part of the problem, when Mental Health Awareness Week came around this year, I decided to tell the truth and posted a list of my conditions and medications alongside mantras that help me cope with OCD, such as ‘You are not your thoughts, and your thoughts are not facts.’ That post got more likes than any exotic holiday pic, and 66 comments of empathy and support.

@mytherapistsays is a meme account with 2.7 million followers including everyone who works in fashion, run by two friends Nicole Argiris and Lola Tash who draw on their own experiences in therapy and with anxiety. The account posts funny memes about not wanting to get out of bed, only wanting to socialise with dogs, self-loathing, loneliness and the great lengths people go to to hide how they’re really feeling. “Having this account has definitely helped us laugh at some of the more questionable moments in our mental health history,” Nicole and Lola tell me, “but at the same time, spending so much time on our phones and turning it into a business has increased… not anxiety… but responsibility.” Being able to joke about these feelings comes from having experienced them. “We constantly compare ourselves to people on Instagram too; when we observe how somebody has transformed themselves with the help of plastic surgery or filters, we can’t help but be affected by what we see, not what went into it.” After three years spent articulating these complex feelings, Nicole and Lola have become wise to the problems – “You should always strive to be the best version of yourself,” they advise, “that should be your only source of comparison.” They also point to the positives of sharing dark feelings in the digital space – “We’re so incredibly grateful to the people who relate, reach out, and live out our memes with us. It’s always a nice reminder to know you’re not alone.”

Hardy also emphasises the mass power that social media can have in providing support. “Social media has been incredibly helpful for my mental health,” she says. “Especially when I was unwell with depression and isolated – it was my window into the outside world. It connected me with people who understood what I was going through and were incredibly kind. I was able to use their hindsight as my foresight and learnt more about depression from their experiences of it than I had from any book.”

Social media can be a dangerous game, but it can also provide friends and community support, a blue-light window in a dark room. So whatever measures the NHS, the government or Silicon Valley app creators put in place to tackle the epidemic of mental illness in young people, it mustn’t interfere with the positive aspects of online communication.

“I think it’s good self-care to understand ‘why’ in all that we do and to listen to how things make us feel,” Hardy offers. “If we’re having a visceral reaction to something and it’s leaving us feeling down, then it’s a good idea to take stock.” Mikhail also suggests building in time for reflection. “Put away your devices, pull out a journal, and give yourself space to reflect and process your thoughts and feelings. Writing something down on paper can give perspective and make it easier to challenge unhelpful thoughts. If you find yourself writing negative things about yourself, ask yourself what you would tell a friend who was saying these things about themselves. Use facts and logic to counteract the irrational negative thoughts. The likelihood is that the reality is not as perfect as the post.”

Replacing self-sabotage with self-care, talking to yourself like a friend, and trying to see the bigger picture on everyone else’s posts is a start. Personally, since that comment in the pub, I’m much more conscious of what I post, because the last thing I want is to get so obsessed with presenting the very best version of myself online, that I trigger someone else’s insecurities in my peripheral social scene. Change starts with your own profile.