Instagram and Facebook aim to create positive effects of social media on users’ mental health.
Countless think pieces have been written about social media’s negative impact on mental health, but are there positive effects of social media on our psyches?
It’s often still a cultural taboo to openly discuss one’s struggles with mental health, but many celebrities have used social media as a platform to be honest about their experiences. Justin Bieber mentioned on Instagram that he became overwhelmed with his workload and the pressure of his overzealous fans. Cara Delevingne tweeted about her depression. Kesha spoke about her abuse. Celebrities who open up on social media about pressure or mental struggles are sometimes still met with online ridicule. But their bravery also creates space for conversations about mental health.
NAMI reports that an estimated one in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year. But for many, it’s still hard to openly discuss these challenges. Social media creates the illusion of intimacy. When you look at the screen of your iPhone or computer, you’re just a few clicks away from interacting with another person.
When celebrities dare to use that space to be vulnerable with their mental health struggles, they expose the stigma. In October 2016, rapper Kid Cudi (real name Scott Mescudi) posted on his Facebook about his ongoing battle with anxiety and depression. Mescudi described himself as “a damaged human swimming in a pool of emotions every day of my life.” As a solution, Mescudi had checked himself into rehab “for depression and suicidal urges.”
His post set social media ablaze. For every 10 fans wishing him well, however, someone else was accusing him of being weak, thus underlining the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Nevertheless, the general consensus on Cudi’s candid post was positive. The overwhelming social media support led to a trending Twitter hashtag about mental illness among Black men: #YouGoodMan. Via the hashtag, Black men were able to share their struggles with mental health, find support in others, and talk about their experiences of seeking professional help. Mescudi’s Facebook post showed the positive effects of social media on mental health.
In 2016 Instagram announced a new feature: “Perfectly Me.” A collaboration between Instagram, Hearst Magazines Digital Media and Seventeen, the feature creates a digital safety net. If an Instagram user noticed another user seemed to be struggling with an eating disorder, self-harm or suicide, they could now anonymously report it. The person would then receive a message that said, “Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we’d like to help.” The app would then offer tips about where to seek help or encourage users to talk to a family member or friend.
Instagram’s chief operating officer shared the process behind the feature with Seventeen: “We listen to mental health experts when they tell us that outreach from a loved one can make a real difference for those who may be in distress. At the same time, we understand friends and family often want to offer support but don’t know how to best reach out.” Levine’s reasoning for launching the feature: “These tools are designed to let you know that you are surrounded by a community that cares about you, at a moment when you might most need that reminder.”
The company decided to be hands-on and, instead of using an algorithm, enlisted a team of people who review flagged posts 24 hours a day. To design the new feature, they also worked with individuals who have had experiences with eating disorders, self-harm or suicide. Instagram also enlisted the help of groups such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and National Eating Disorders Association to come up with the best language for its feature.
It’s not the first time Instagram has attempted to help users suffering from mental health issues and to monitor the effects of social media on users’ well-being. The company has previously been linked as a barometer for mental health. According to a study based on a computer algorithm, researchers from Harvard and the University of Vermont observed the Instagram accounts of 166 individuals and could predict which users had depression based on what filters they did or didn’t use. While the computer-based outcome has been fairly accurate, it can’t truly diagnose a person with depression. The study hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, and it is not a substitute for professional medical care, but it could be useful additional data for professionals.
Instagram also started testing a troll filter function that automatically deletes abusive comments. Going back to 2012, the app banned a range of hashtags including the words proana, thinspiration and thighgaps in order to try to prevent searches for the subjects. After the Instagram team realized the preventive measures only encouraged users to use creative spelling, they changed their approach. Users will now receive a message before seeing flagged content.
While innovative, Instagram’s feature is not a totally new tool. In 2011, Facebook introduced similar services, when it also began a partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Facebook allows users to report a suicidal comment they see posted by a friend and offers the ability to send a direct Facebook message to a mutual friend to coordinate help or to the friend in distress. Facebook provides a suggested text message to send, or users can fill in their own words.
Facebook and Instagram should be commended for their efforts to create positive effects of social media on mental health. Of course, mental health issues are nuanced, complex and individual, and addressing them fully is far more complicated than flagging an Instagram or Facebook post. However, these tools are a small step toward removing the stigma, providing access to professional help and opening honest dialogue.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.