By Cody Schmitz
Two years ago, Leyli Beims was starting her freshman year of college, had thousands of followers between her Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Vine, and Facebook accounts, and was just learning to cope with severe depression. But as she logged in to her social media circles in search of connection, Beims says she was met with an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.
“Comparing myself with others on social media fueled my depression,” Beims said. “When I was home alone on a Saturday night, I saw my friends having fun at a party or cuddling with a boyfriend. And that kind of content just made me feel worse and worse about myself.”
Beims, now 21 and a junior at Washburn University, says deactivating all of her social media accounts in early 2015 was an answer to a question of mental health. In vulnerable moments, as Beims scanned a virtual highlight reel of her friends’ lives, she felt completely alone. The problem with modern social media use, however, is just how widespread these feelings of isolation have become.
Benjamin Stodt, a researcher in the department of cognitive psychology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, co-authored a study about the consequences of heavy social networking in teens. The study focuses on “FOMO,” or the fear of missing out on experiences that one’s friends may have and post about online. Stodt says, “The results of our study showed that having more severe symptoms of depression and anxiety lead to a higher experience of FOMO and a more excessive use of social media. This overuse could lead to further intensification of mental health problems.”
According to a study performed by the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, Canada, children and teens who used social networking sites for more than two hours a day also independently reported high levels of psychological distress, a poor self-rating of overall mental health, and suicidal ideation.
What makes this statistic even more alarming is that compulsive social media use as described in this study is no longer an anomaly in modern teens. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens say they go online daily, and 24 percent go online “almost constantly.” Stodt says that — while most individuals use social media as a functional and inherent part of everyday life — “research indicated that a small amount of younger adults and teens show problematic social media use. Although an ‘internet use disorder’ or ‘internet communication disorder’ is not officially classified as an addiction, past research has shown that these behaviors share common symptoms with other substance-related or behavioral addictions.”
Before she deleted her accounts, Beims says she found herself compulsively refreshing the familiar apps in order to feel a connection to the outside world. But what she saw online only fed her feelings of disconnection.
“People get so worked up about a million different issues, and then they dump all of their thoughts on social media. And then you as a user ingest all of that anger. Ingesting all of that toxicity all day long paints the way you see the world,” Beims said. “I got hooked on that high emotion, so I kept going back to it. Even when I wasn’t online, I was thinking, ‘What am I missing? What are people posting?’ That’s how our world is set up right now. You never get any peace of mind when you’re doing that.”
Finding peace on the web may soon be a dream of the past. As politics grow more polarizing, so do our Facebook posts, according to a study performed by Facebook scientists and published in the journal Science. In fact, the months following the 2016 presidential election have seen Facebook, Twitter, and Google implementing new features in order to stop the growing trends of fake news and online harassment, according to NPR. But adding new ways to mute certain sites and individuals may not be enough to quell the often overwhelming sense of negativity that can be found online.
According to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of adults now get their news from social media. Alyssa Soto, a junior at the University of Kansas, says Facebook is one of her primary sources for staying on top of current events, but she’s finding it harder to keep up as her feed is flooded with bad news and strong opinion. “I like to know what’s happening in the world, but I also find it to be overwhelming. The majority of what I see is negative,” Soto says. “I usually leave Facebook feeling drained.”
These feelings of helplessness in young adults magnify when they are observed with a wider lens. Close to 3 million American teens had one or more significant depressive episode in 2015, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Almost 6.5 million have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Stodt doesn’t think a simple solution like banning smartphones in schools is the solution to such a complicated problem. “Communication through mobile devices is integrated into today’s society, and not every young adult suffers from consequences because of smartphone use,” Stodt says. “Nevertheless, we have to use our devices consciously in order to maintain control over them. Choose to put the smartphone aside and have a face-to-face conversation. Self-regulation is a necessary skill for internet use without negative consequences. Our research showed that these skills can be key competencies to prevent problematic use.”
Two years after first disconnecting from social media, Beims says she has made great strides in managing her depression through regular therapy and medication. Beims also attributes a significant portion of this shift to the release she felt after removing social media from her daily life.
“The peace of mind I felt after deleting my accounts changed everything,” Beims said. “Being on social media really is carrying something around with you. All day long I used to carry around my Twitter and Instagram feeds, and it never led to a positive feeling. To have that weight gone and to be able to think about things that mattered to me — one day I was suddenly like, ‘I am really into my life.’ And after a while, when you are just really working on school and really forming connections with people offline, you think, ‘Oh. I haven’t even thought about what’s happening on Facebook.’”