men and women sitting in chairs, lined along a wall, all looking down at their mobile phones

Spotlight Session: Social Media and Mental Health

Clinical Psychologist, Dr Leisa Aitken, spoke at the May 2024 Spotlight Session on ‘Social Media and Mental Health’. This article summarises some key aspects of her presentation.

You can learn more about Spotlight Sessions and events we have coming up, here.


In our digital age, social media plays a major role in many of our lives. It enables us to connect with friends, stay updated on current events, or simply scroll through feeds for entertainment. But as with every form of technology, social media presents challenges that we need to be aware of.

Leisa’s interest in the topic of social media was piqued by a couple of factors. First, it frequently comes up in her clinical practice, especially from parents. Second, Leisa’s doctoral studies considered psychological and theological dimensions of hope, and she came to realise that social media can diminish our experience of hope. One reason for this is that social media can be a form of what’s called ‘avoidance coping’. Hope invariably involves waiting. It’s a long-term endeavour, and while you wait, you need to cope well. Research shows that avoidance coping—forms of distraction such as using a phone, watching movies, etc—undermines hope. Social media, therefore, may not be a healthy way to wait.

Another way that social media can undermine hope is its addictive nature. Any addiction narrows what we’re hoping for. You wake up, and the first thing you’re thinking in the morning is, “Who has liked what I’ve posted? How many comments have I received?” Or, if you’re a gamer, it might be, “What’s the next level in my game?” Your sense of good possibilities for the future is now narrowed to these immediate gratifications.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial, as they have profound implications for both mental health and the ability to maintain a hopeful outlook on life.

What is Social Media?

Defining social media might seem straightforward, but there are three important criteria at play:

  • First, social media requires setting up a profile. This profile serves as your digital identity on the platform.
  • Second, social media is intended for a broad audience. It’s not limited to one-on-one communication but designed to reach and connect with many people.
  • Third, it involves networking. You can follow other people’s profiles, become friends, join groups, and engage with content through likes, comments, shares, and direct messages (DMs).

So, platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook are considered social media because they meet these criteria, as are the chat functions within games.

Platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or traditional text messaging, however, are not considered social media because they don’t involve profiles and are primarily for one-to-one communication rather than group interaction.

How using social media shapes us

Drawing upon the insights of John Dyer, in his book From the Garden to the City, Leisa emphasised that technology not only transforms the world around us, but also changes us. As Marshall McLuhan’s famously said, “The medium is the message,” that is, the way we choose to communicate shapes the message itself and our response to it.

So, what are some of the ways that social media is forming us?

  • Social media and identity formation Creating a profile allows individuals to mould their online identities. In keeping with the “expressive individualism” of our age, there is the freedom to choose who you want to be. And giving expression to one’s true self is seen as paramount to finding meaning and identity.
  • Reflecting and reinforcing societal trends Social media platforms not only mirror societal trends but also reinforce them through the algorithms they use.
  • The world adjusting to individuals In his book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that young people today expect the world to adjust to their needs and feelings. Social media can facilitate this trend.
  • Self-promotion and self-absorption Christian writer, Andy Crouch, points out that self-promotion and the quest for recognition, once the domain of movie stars, are now common among social media users. This widespread practice can lead to anxious self-absorption and aggressive online behaviour.
  • Online Harassment Online harassment, including “flaming” and trolling, can create a hostile environment that discourages open dialogue. This phenomenon contributes to a culture where extreme views dominate, and moderate voices are silenced.
  • Sensitivity to social judgment The constant feedback loop of likes and comments on social media can heighten users’ sensitivity to social judgment.

The impact of social media on mental health

It’s clear, then, that the way social media shapes us is not always to our benefit. Negative impacts may emerge across a range of ages and stages of live, but particular concerns have been raised regarding young people. Adolescent and young adult brains are at a pivotal stage of development. The prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, limiting the ability to manage their time, emotions, and other critical aspects of their lives. Also, a fundamental aspect of teenage development is a process of forming and pruning masses of connections in the brain. Given this, what we focus on during the teenage years is crucial. These years are typically times of rapid growth and change, making it vital to address and understand the influences that shape young people’s lives, such as social media.

As noted by psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, research has indicated that in the past 15 years there have been significant increases in anxiety and other forms of psychological distress amongst young people in the USA. The same trend is apparent in Australia. Mission Australia’s Annual Youth Survey found that in 2012, one in five young people reported psychological distress. By 2020, this number had increased to one in four, and by 2022, it was one in three.

Haidt & Twenge believe social media use is a major factor in this upturn. And with data suggesting that most Australian teens spend about two hours a day on social media, out of roughly seven hours of total screen time, the potential for harm to occur is apparent. Especially for girls.

Leisa pointed out that girls use social media platforms more than boys and are more impacted by them. Girls are particularly affected by social comparison, anxiety, fear of missing out (FOMO), and availability stress (the demand to be permanently available on a platform). Furthermore, they are more likely to develop internalising disorders and body image dysphoria due to their social media exposure, especially with the pervasive use of filters which lead to a distorted perception of beauty and self-worth.

Social media and addiction

Social media use can also be addictive. At the heart of addiction lies the intensification of rewarding stimuli beyond natural levels, leading to dysregulation of the brain’s dopamine system. Dopamine, often referred to as the “reward molecule,” plays a central role in addiction. When exposed to heightened levels of rewarding stimuli, (such as sugar, drugs, or social media engagement), dopamine levels skyrocket, creating a temporary sensation of pleasure and euphoria. However, this surge is short-lived. A sharp decline quickly follows, prompting individuals to seek out more of the addictive substance or behaviour to bring dopamine levels back to normal.

Intermittent reinforcement further perpetuates this addiction cycle. You become more hooked when rewards come at unpredictable times. For problem gamblers, the uncertainty of winning maintains a compulsive desire to continue despite adverse consequences. Social media companies are alert to the power of intermittent reinforcement, and use it to keep people on their platforms for longer. As Leisa put it, “young brains are up against a multi-million dollar industry.”

Taking responsibility for our social media usage

At the heart of Christian identity and calling is a journey from bondage to freedom. Leisa noted that one of the tragic implications of addiction is the way it strips away autonomy and freedom. But rather than acquiescing to the constant tug towards social media or other addictive behaviours, Leisa’s counsel is to be mindful of what we give our attention to. A little more thoughtfulness and intentionality can make a difference. She suggests asking ourselves questions such as:

  • What is the best use of the precious commodity of my attention today?
  • Is this app actually supporting my main goals for my life?
  • We have limited days, weeks, months, and years in our lives. Is my social media usage supporting my values as to how I make use of this limited time?
  • Do I need a regular social media Sabbath each week? Or a month long digital declutter to ensure I’m free from addiction?

Some relatively simple small steps can mitigate against digital distractions and help reclaim focus in our daily lives. Leisa highlighted some recommendations from Australian researcher, Christy Goodwin:

  • Disable all non-essential notifications and schedule bundled notification intervals;
  • Keep phones out of sight during focused activities, because research shows a significant decline in cognitive performance when phones are present but inactive.

Implementing recommendations like these helps create environments conducive to deep work and minimises the detrimental effects of digital distractions on productivity and wellbeing.

But the distractions arising from social media impact not only our work and mental health, but also bear spiritual consequences. Leisa drew upon the wisdom of Simone Weil, a French Christian activist philosopher, whose profound reflections on attention and prayer offer timeless insights for navigating the complexities of modern life.

In her writings, Weil emphasizes the importance of directing one’s attention towards God, seen most intently when we pray. Weil writes: “Prayer is the orientation of all the attention which the soul is capable of towards God.” And these words are apt for those prone to social media distraction: “Happy are those who pass their adolescence and use building the muscles of long sustained attention to not be distracted as we speak with God.” How easy it is for the nurturing practices of bible reading and prayer to be sidelined by habits of constant scrolling and responding to notifications.

There are further costs from over-use of social media. It can impact our in-person relationships, which are so important for our health and wellbeing. Physical touch releases oxytocin, the “tend and befriend’ hormone, which promotes relaxation and healing in contrast to the stress-inducing effects of digital interactions. Leisa contrasted the idea of an uploaded virtual existence with the Christian belief in embodied existence, emphasizing the value of face-to-face interactions and the joy they bring. We see this, for example, in 2 John 12, where the apostle John says he would rather meet with them face to face than write them a letter.

Too much social media can disturb our sleep. The blue light emitted from screens interferes with the production of melatonin, a hormone essential for regulating sleep-wake cycles. Healthy sleep habits involve avoiding screen exposure, especially before bedtime. Furthermore, Leisa noted the alarming trend of increased sleep deprivation since 2010, coinciding with the rise in screen time. Lack of sleep has significant mind and mental health implications, including impaired memory, poor decision-making, irritability, anxiety, and depression.

A final consequence of over-use of social media is less time alone in our heads. The default mode network is a brain system that becomes active during periods of daydreaming and boredom. This network facilitates the connection of past, present, and future experiences, allowing for the creation of narratives and the cultivation of meaning in life. Engaging in activities that promote daydreaming and background mental processing, such as staring into space or going for a walk in nature, can stimulate creativity and foster a sense of hope. Leisa encouraged individuals to prioritise “green time” over “screen time,” and to embrace moments of solitude as opportunities for mental exploration and growth.

The role of parents in promoting healthy use of social media

Leisa urged parents to be proactive and intentional in managing their children’s technology usage. They need to clarify their parental values and use these to set boundaries regarding social media, gaming, and technology. Navigating the digital landscape is a challenge, but children will benefit from open communication, monitoring, and parental involvement. Implementing technology-free areas and times in the household, and utilising parental controls and content filters to ensure safe online experiences, will be of real benefit.

Furthermore, Leisa encouraged collaboration with other parents to establish common guidelines and shared social media and gaming times for children. Churches and youth group leaders can also play a role in supporting parents and fostering discussions about responsible technology use among young people.

In keeping with her scholarly interests, Leisa concluded with a message of hope. She reminded parents of their power, love, and self-discipline in guiding their children through the complexities of the digital age. She encouraged them to leverage resources such as the ScreenStrong website for guidance and support in managing technology use effectively.

Dr Leisa Aitken’s tips for those trying to break a social media addiction

  • Don’t underestimate how painful the withdrawal is, and how antsy, isolated and anxious you will feel.
  • Set yourself up for success by telling the people around you so that they can support you and help keep you accountable.
  • Increase your face-to-face contact with people
  • Try keeping a journal each day, to plan how you’re going to manage, and to write down how you’re feeling.
  • Prepare a list of physical activities that are calming, that you can do when you’re craving time on social media, such as going for a walk, deep breathing, or yoga.

Resources

  • The Anxious Generation, a recent book by Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist. The book, subtitled “How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” explores the effects of social media and modern technology on youth.
  • Jean Twenge has also been researching this area extensively. Her book is: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
  • Jonathan Haidt also publishes essays on his Substack, “After Babel,” where he, along with Twenge and other collaborators, share their findings. Their rigorous approach to statistics and data analysis lends credibility to their work, making their conclusions reliable.
  • Australian Federal Police’s initiative, “Think You Know,” is an invaluable resource for parents and guardians seeking guidance on navigating the digital landscape responsibly.

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