The unfettered world of social media can have a negative impact on mental health. Improving education and amplifying the positive characteristics of the channels can have a protective effect, explains Rick Evans, social strategy director at global healthcare communications consultancy 90TEN.
(PART 2 of 5) Re:solve Global Health’s new Q&A series explores strategies to improve mental wellbeing. We asked five experts from diverse backgrounds (health promotion, social media strategy, public health, suicide prevention and international advocacy) to answer this key question: How can we prevent mental health problems at a population level?
How does social media contribute to mental health issues?
One of the issues with social media is it presents a skewed version of the real world. It's almost a world of your own choosing, as everything that we see revolves around our interests as a result of the algorithms and everything that's promoted to us.
You can become really convinced that the world is a particular way and that you're different to everybody else, loads of people are against you or you don't live up to society's expectations, largely because your view of the world is built around algorithms. The more you interact with content, the more the channels will feed you content that is similar.
This ‘echo chamber’ means we often don't read or see things that are balanced or have a lot of nuance—perspectives are binary on these channels. Things are either this or that, and there's no room for anything in between. But people aren’t zero or one, they’re everywhere, everyone and somewhere in between. So the experience of social media can be very disorienting and upsetting for people.
How are the social media channels working to alleviate these problems?
Stewardship of the channels is getting better. Earlier this year, Meta, the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, removed some of the targeting options for marketers in the health area.
Previously, the channels would allow marketers to target people who had interacted with particular content—for example, content about HIV. A lot of people felt stigmatised by the advertising that they received on these channels and it made them feel worse about themselves. Now it’s harder for companies to specifically market products or ads towards certain population groups.
TikTok is also running education programmes for young people on how to recognise good sources. They did a lot around vaccine hesitancy, for example. It’s also gotten easier to report and block people who troll or upset you across all channels.
What can we do at a community level to reduce the impact of social media on mental wellbeing?
There needs to be better education in schools. Young people should be taught how the channels work, how to mediate their relationship with the channels, how to tell the difference between accurate and inaccurate information, and how to identify bias.
Some countries have started to look into education in schools, but it’s not something that’s happening globally even though it’s a problem for people worldwide. This is an issue for which governments and education departments have to take responsibility. The channels can help, but unless it becomes part of school curriculum, it's not really going to sink in.
How can using the positive power of social media help mitigate some of the negative effects?
It’s really about patient groups, charities, organisations and the pharmaceutical industry working with the right messengers to make sure that important messages get through on the channels. I'm not talking about Kardashian-style influencers, I'm talking about people who are educated to be able to speak on a particular topic.
For example, on TikTok there are lots of young doctor influencers. They are closer to the age and life experience of the users of the channel and are much more convincing messengers than old white men in suits telling them what they should or shouldn't do.
If the right messages come from the right messengers, they can have an incredibly transformative power.