Likes, retweets, follows: How social media can hurt or help mental health

A study from Pew Research Center shows 72 percent of individuals in the U.S. use some form of social media. This is up from five percent of individuals in 2005. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

The rise of any trend or phenomenon comes with benefits and consequences. Social media usage has boomed over the last few years.

A study by the Pew Research Center from earlier this year shows 72 percent of Americans use some form of social media — up from five percent in 2005.

“Social media is a way for users to connect with multiple audiences across a number of platforms,” Heather Woods, assistant professor in communication studies, said. “It is a form of computer-mediated communication.”

Since the boom, social media and other forms of digital entertainment have become suspects in suicidal ideation and mental illness.

“There is a correlation between social media use and suicide rates, but I don’t think social media is the cause of people taking their own lives,” Kodee Walls, psychologist at Counseling Services, said. “However, social media, if used for good, can be integral in suicide prevention efforts.”

Walls said some issues arise when social media comes into play.

“A significant challenge mental health professionals and people interested in suicide prevention run into with social media is that we cannot contain the information that gets out,” Walls said.

That said, some people take social media and turn it into a tool for advocacy, but they are not always professionals. These influencers take stands against suicide and other mental health issues, Lauren Cooper, senior in apparel and textiles, said.

“I’ve seen influencers share unedited photos, which I know a lot of people are doing nowadays,” Cooper said. “I know Demi Lovato did one not too long ago where she did a side-by-side almost. Chrissy Teigen does it too — where they share unedited pictures.”

Sharing unedited photos can battle the false depiction of beauty put on display on social media.

“People need to be posting real things and being honest when it comes to their flaws and acknowledging it so that the rest of the world can feel like they can do that too,” Cooper said.

Attention in the form of likes, retweets and shares drives social media — which isn’t always positive, Walls said.

“Research consistently shows us that we pay more attention to negative feedback than we do positive feedback,” Walls said. “This can be very difficult for people who are struggling with feelings of isolation or believe that they don’t matter.”

Jennifer Jennings, senior in psychology, said she believes people have come a long way when it comes to stigma, but there is still a ways to go.

“The best that we can do as users is be kind to each other online, and unfollow any accounts that may strike negative feelings,” Jennings said. “If you are constantly envious of, say, an individual that runs a health and fitness account because of how thin or fit they are, unfollow them and focus on your current goals.”

Social media users often focus heavily on their followers or numbers of likes received.

“When we don’t get the likes, views or retweets we expect, we don’t get the little dopamine dump we anticipated which decreases motivation and can impact our feelings of hope,” Walls said. “If someone cannot unplug from all forms of social media for at least a day to have meaningful relationships outside the digital world, we may be in trouble.”

Jennings said while social media platforms are limited in their ability, there are a few ways they can help.

“They cannot necessarily curate content that is posted, but they have the opportunity as a platform to promote mental health and wellness,” Jennings said.

Walls said not to view potential warning signs on social media as attention-seeking.

“Take it seriously and direct message the question, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?'” Walls said. “If they answer ‘Yes,’ then have them contact 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-273-8255), contact their parents, friends or partner. Worst case scenario, find their location and call the police.

“It’s better to have someone be angry at you for keeping them alive than have to remember someone fondly who killed themselves,” Walls continued.

Students who struggle with suicidal ideation can access several campus resources including Lafene Health Center’s mental health nurse case manager and alcohol and other drug education director.

“These professional staff, along with all of our medical providers, can address mental health challenges faced by students dealing with suicide ideation and make appropriate referrals as necessary,” said Shawn Funk, communications and marketing specialist at Lafene.

Students can also utilize Counseling Services for help.