As social media increasingly dominates day-to-day life, it’s not uncommon to see a sudden shift in a friend or family member’s online behaviour. And while we might be inclined to brush it off, the change in attitude may be an indicator of an emerging or reoccurring mental health issue.
Social media activity can be a window into mental well-being because people usually use fewer filters online, says Tracy Markle, a licensed professional counselor who runs a treatment and education centre in Boulder, Colo., aimed at combating digital media overuse.
“(Social media) can be a good thermometer, a good way to read if people’s mental health is shifting one way or another,” says Markle. “Social media can be a rabbit hole for people who are lonely, isolated or experiencing significant mental health issues.”
A Ryerson University Social Media Lab study called State of Social Media in Canada 2020 indicated that 83 per cent of Canadian adults have a Facebook account and that young adults aged 18 to 24 use social media the most.
Markle says there are key factors to watch for without needing to constantly monitor someone’s online activity, such as no longer doing things they previously enjoyed; avoiding spending time with others; staying up at night or sleeping through the day. Other telltale signs are anger, irritability and talking about things that are not based in truth. Excessively aggressive comments (trolling), posting late at night, blocking or “unfriending” contacts and attention-seeking behaviour (like messaging someone after months of radio silence) become common occurrences.
Markle says that because people who are mentally ill tend to be more disconnected from healthy social support systems and more isolated, they’re more vulnerable to the addictiveness of social media. A study published in 2017 used an algorithm to examine the Instagram feeds of 166 people and found that it could identify markers of depression by analyzing the colour(s), setting and subject of a photo. As depression is associated with a reduced social life, the algorithm included an analysis of the presence and number of people in photos.
Since our brains are wired to feel good, clicks and interactions on social media, healthy or not, make us a little bit happier for a moment.
“Each click, each reward you receive, releases a little bit of dopamine and it elevates our mood for a minute, which leads to compulsive behaviours,” she says. “So, the more mentally ill you are, the more you may want to immerse. It’s similar to taking a drug that helps alleviate (mental health problems) in the short term.”
One of Markle’s patients, a 16-year-old, began to send nude pictures of herself to strange men online to relieve her insecurity about not being pretty enough. The positive comments online only led to her sending more and more pictures. Instead of feeling prettier, she felt increasingly depressed. This cycle eventually began to affect her grades and her friendships.
It doesn’t help that people only show the best of their lives on social media. According to Psychology Today, sites where people provide constant updates on the best parts of their lives can worsen depression among those who feel insecure and fear they cannot match up with the poster.
Just as poor mental health can cause negative behaviour on social media, negative social media behaviour can exacerbate existing mental health problems. Markle says that it’s easy for people who are already mentally ill to connect with negative, fear-based information online.
“I’m pretty stable emotionally and my mental health is pretty good. If I did an experiment and I went on (social media) and all I did was click on conspiracy theories and negative information, I would notice an increase in my anxiety,” says Markle. “I would notice that my thought pattern becomes a lot more negative. So, imagine somebody who’s mentally ill.”
For family members and friends who are concerned about their loved one’s abnormal social media activity and want to talk to them about it, Markle recommends approaching them when they’re the most “present.”
“Approach them when they’re the least distracted by their devices and when they are the least offensive. We’re our most vulnerable and open to information when we wake up in the morning,” she said.
However, Markle warns against confronting the person on social media. She says it’s best to talk to them face to face, but over the phone or a Zoom call is OK as well.