The TikTok app's logo seen on a mobile phone screen in this picture illustration
Half of the world's population has at least one social media account. Reuters

With the advancement of technology and a wide variety of communication methods, keeping in contact with our loved ones and getting updates on new developments in the modern world has never been easier. Gone are the days of sending handwritten letters and waiting for an operator at the end of a phone line to manually connect you to a loved one.

However, the paradox of this situation is that, for millions upon millions of people including myself, despite how many of these countless apps that we can use to stay digitally connected to friends and family – we somehow feel lonelier than ever. Even though we can send text messages in the blink of an eye, make phone calls across oceans and join communities of people that share our favourite hobbies, we are gradually, and sadly, losing touch with what it truly means to communicate.

When I was fifteen, I signed up for my first Facebook account out of curiosity, but primarily to keep in contact with my classmates outside of school. At the time, I genuinely believed that Facebook was the best thing ever. I would frequently spend elongated periods of time browsing through the lives of others, liking photos, commenting with every emoji on the keyboard, and playing those mind-numbingly addictive games.

Throughout my teenage years, I was introduced to apps of a similar nature such as Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram. Regrettably, it took me a very long time to realise the poisonous impact that social media was having on my mind and overall well-being. Hours would pass where I would unremittingly scroll through the pigeon-holed vignettes into people's exotic vacations, wild parties, nights out, surprise birthday parties, job updates, love lives, break-ups, marriages, baby showers, daily walks and the most mundane activities imaginable; sometimes this was from people I didn't even know.

I began to negatively compare my own life to the ones I saw online every day. I would even ask myself rhetorical questions like: Why can't I have a holiday like that? Why can't I look that happy in my job? Why can't I have a relationship like that?

Every question always had "that" as the subject. I wanted "that", without recognising exactly what it was I wanted. It felt like a competition on who was living the best life and who could showcase it better.

Over time, depression set in, and I became fidgety, anxious and deeply unhappy. I voraciously craved the external validation of others, and this hunger subsequently became just as addictive as a sugar rush, if not more.

However, there is some comfort in knowing that I'm not the only one to experience these feelings.

In 2020, the National Library of Medicine carried out a qualitative and quantitative study to analyse the effect that social media can have on mental health. The study involved systematically searching for multiple research papers with relevance to the question of whether or not social media impacted mental health; this was based on time spent online, frequent activity and social media addiction. Eventually, peers of the Library selected only sixteen papers out of thousands, and they discovered that anxiety and depression were the most commonly measured outcome of using social media.

The social media epidemic
A study found that 94 per cent of participants felt troubled without their phones. PHOTO: SOCIAL MEDIA MAGAZINE

According to a 2018 study carried out by the National Centre for Health Research, 31 per cent of adolescents believed that social media made a positive impact on their lives, whilst 25 per cent believed that it had a negative impact on theirs. The organisation put these figures down to the fact that adolescence is a time for young people where connections are extremely important, particularly with their peers, and social media can provide them with these bonding opportunities.

Despite the advantage of helping young people stay connected to friends and family, it has led to them feeling worse. Concerningly, 13 per cent of children aged 12 to 17 reported that they were feeling depressed, and 32 per cent reported that they were experiencing anxiety. Researchers believed that the rapid increase in mental illness was, at least, partly connected to the rise of social media usage by young adults.

Teenagers themselves have expressed mixed opinions on the adverse effects of social media on their mental well-being. A 2018 study from the Pew Research Centre in Washington, DC saw various students stating that social media helped them connect with others, whilst others suggested that the platform could be used for cyberbullying and spreading cruel rumours.

Caroline Miller, the Editorial Director of the Child Mind Institute, recently wrote an informative article about the question of heavy social media usage causing depression in young adults. According to the article, which also references other articles and studies from the same organisation, 92 per cent of teens and young adults owned a smartphone by 2015. There was a significant rise in depressive symptoms around this same time period, and there was a sharp spike in the number of students who sought counselling for anxiety and depression.

And then there are the extreme, tragic cases where the constant anxiety, depression and negative thinking have led to suicides. According to a 2017 study by SAGE Journals, between 2010 and 2015 there was a 65 per cent increase in suicides of girls aged 13-18.

Netflix's "The Social Dilemma" documentary revealed the devastating global impact that cyberbullying and desperation for approval and "addictive" usage of social media has had on children's mental health.

This is where it gets truly terrifying.

The figures from the documentary showed an absolutely horrific increase in child suicides by 150 per cent over the last decade, and non-fatal, self-harming by girls aged 10 to 14 has since tripled in that timeframe. Adding to this tragedy in numbers, the suicide rate of pre-teen girls in the US has risen by 151 per cent in the last decade too. Social psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt stated in the documentary that "the patterns point to social media". Commenting on the growing use of mobile devices, Haidt said: "A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed."

So what would cause a landslide in these statistics? What changes can be made to prevent social media from negatively impacting any more lives?

Perhaps the answer lies in the sparing uses of these platforms. Last year, the University of Bath carried out a study that involved a team of researchers abstaining from social media for a whole week. The results showed that just one week away from social media had improved the individuals' overall level of well-being, as well as reduced levels of anxiety and depression.

British author Matt Haig wrote an eye-opening book about the effects of mental health from social media called "Notes on A Nervous Planet" (2018). Haig himself, in his usual empathetic style, brilliantly suggests the idea of shutting ourselves off from the digital forums and other aspects of the modern world that seem specifically designed to cause us total panic.

The only social platform I now use is Instagram, but even this I use sparingly to showcase my written work and connect with creative communities. Since I limited myself on time spent on Instagram, I've already noticed a gradual, and somewhat freeing difference in my well-being and mental health. It's difficult – but feels richly rewarding – when you conquer the temptation of seeking fake shots of dopamine from a few dozen followers liking your awkward selfie. Talking to people in real life instead of spamming each other with text messages can be rewarding too. Scary, yes, but rewarding nonetheless.

Social media can be a terrifying, toxic and temperamental void of dismal darkness. It's full of unrealistic, cherry-picked fairytales wrapped in fancy pink ribbons and subtly encourages us to compare our lives to others. But when used maturely, and with a modicum of caution and self-awareness, it can be a beautiful thing that keeps us connected to the people that matter most. Unlike influencers.