Instagram “Worst Social Media Platform” for Mental Health, Teenage Survey Claims

Wednesday 24th May 2017

In a survey of young people, Instagram was rated as the social media platform that has the most negative effect on mental health, according to research looking at the effects of social media on the mental health and wellbeing of young people who have never lived in a world without the internet, both positive and negative, and a world where 91% of 16-24 year olds regularly use the internet.

According to the survey, produced by the Royal Society of Public Health, the three most negative social media platforms were Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook respectively, ranking each platform on their effects on health and wellbeing in various forms. According to the study, the greatest negative impacts were found around sleep, bullying and the fear of missing out, whilst the biggest positive impacts were in self-expression, self-identity and community building. Youtube and Twitter, the other two social media platforms that were part of the survey were rated more positively, although many of the positive and negative aspects of social media raised surrounding social media.

The recommendations of the report are interesting, and given the near-ubiquity of social media online, could help promote positive behaviours and protect young people. These include:

  • A heavy usage warning that pops up when a user has been online for a long period of time: This may not be as helpful given that many people use social media platforms on their phones and by some metrics are “always” online. However paying attention to actual view time, viewing habits, and the times of the day could be helpful to make social media users aware of the levels of usage

  • An icon to highlight digitally manipulated photographs of people: This will rely on detection software, which have been prone to false positives when it comes to other content. However if there is a way to detect significant alteration beyond typical filters used by Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, that could be beneficial, even just to allow for a sceptical eye. It would need to be trialled to see how well it works in practice.

  • Certification for trustworthy health information: There are initiatives in place to verify news stories as coming from legitimate or trusted sources (Google filtering news stories that are press releases or blog posts), but a specific health standard would be useful to ensure that health information is trustworthy. Given that a lot of information on social media, particularly with regards to health is available through images and videos as well as articles, certification may not be a universal solution.

  • Safe Social Media use lessons in schools: Depending on how the topics are taught, classes on cyber-bullying, social media addiction and other effects on mental wellbeing should be taught in schools, and information on where young people who are suffering these effects can find help.

  • Social Media Platforms are to identify vulnerable users and signpost support: The report notes that technology can identify posts that suggest users are affected by mental health issues and provide discreet information on how they can seek help. In practice this could be difficult to ascertain without a large number of false positives, although broader things like targeting people who like certain pages, mention specific keywords or meet other analytics criteria could possibly be targeted in this way, although the key to an initiative like this being successful will very much be tactfulness and subtlety.

  • Provide training for all youth workers: Education for mentors and all adults working with young people will be very helpful to avoid affected young people slipping the net because not enough is known about the platforms they use.

  • Further research to be carried out into the effects of social media on people’s mental health, specifically the effects on younger people for whom this is a major part of their lives.

There are limitations to any research of this type, namely based on the focus on a social media platform. Twitter and Youtube focus on wider groups of people to interact with so young people tend to follow and interact with celebrities and people away from their life, whilst Facebook and Instagram tend to focus on a closer circle of friends geographically closer, which can magnify some of the more negative effects of the platform.

In any case, it is a positive survey that going forward could help to provide a more informed approach to managing mental wellbeing among young people.