It was a sunny afternoon in Edinburgh and I was having a cup of coffee with my friend. Suddenly, he reacted to a short video clip appearing on his smartphone, tagged as #mentalhealthawarnesweek“.
“You know - he said, while scrolling down his social media feed - I’ve recently read, on Facebook, that Facebook is bad for your mental health”
“So, are you quitting Facebook?” I asked. “
“Oh no, it’s fine. I later read on Twitter that social media is actually good for you!”.
He then took a photo of his beautifully composed and filtered soya-flat-white and posted it on Instagram (adding an appropriate, self-care related comment & the hashtag #mentalhealthawarenessweek).
I sat there for a while, thinking about the irony of the situation. As a digital researcher, I enjoyed listening to my friend's reflections related to his ‘digital dilemmas’, but wasn’t too keen to get into an in-depth debates about the possible social impact of digital technologies on people’s well being. Instead, I decided to dwell about it for a while and then let it all out in a form of a blog post.
Should we blame our digital habits for the increasing number of mental health problems in the United Kingdom? Or should we thank the technology for providing us with resources supporting our mental well-being? I have been thinking about this a lot lately. As a person who is actively involved in raising awareness of chronic pain condition online, I’m surrounded with feeds filled with hope, support but equally pain and despair. In the virtual world where sensitive issues are being discussed, it is sometimes hard to pinpoint what the actual meaning and purpose of the message is.
But before I get into my personal confusion over hashtags and well-being and [most of the time] well-meaning online feeds, I’d like to dive investigate what information is available to us when it comes to the pros and cons of the digital world in the context of mental health.
*As my academic research is focused on young people (aged 16-25), most of the resources that I refer to are linked to this age group.
To digital detox or not detox: what do we know about the impact of the digital world on our (and young people’s) mental health?
If you decide to do a quick online browse on the effect of (for example) social media on mental health, you will find the results quite confusing. At first (depending on your browser), you might come across some articles clearly pointing out the damaging effect of social media on our well-being. Here, for some reason, young generations get the worst press with titles such as:It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies (Kardaras, 2016). We can read about the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy among young people caused as a result of interactions with Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter (Campbell, 2017). Some UK based school headteachers, go as far as to claim that the use of social media use might be linked to the increased number of self-harm cases reported in recent years (Busby, 2018).
Well, to deal with the national “social-media mental-health-crisis”, the wonderful world of the Internet explores different solutions, for example (the choice is yours!):
1) ban mobile phones from all schools
2) Digital Detoxing ( and yes, there is a hashtag for that #digitaldetox)
3) Digital Literacy
Despite the above apocalyptic vision of the digital future, mainstream online media outlets also provide examples of positive ‘digital-stories’. If you decide to dig a little bit deeper, there are examples of articles that illustrate positive impacts of social media on mental health. For instance, this “Teens, technology and Friendships” (Lenhart,2015) report suggests that online communication can strengthen friendships among teenagers (an interesting fact: Video games play a critical role in the development and maintenance of boys’ friendships). Elsewhere, technologies like Skype and WhatsApp are described as great ways to keep in touch with friends and relatives, especially when long distance is involved. This story from the Independent emphasise the importance of online community and support while dealing with mental health problems. Finally, in her article for the Metro, a mental health blogger Fiona Thomas refers to the idea of digital detox: “Stop telling me to go on a digital detox; social media is actually helping my mental health”.
Mental Health, Chronic Illness & Social-Media: a love-hate relationship (#selfcare #mentalhealth #chronicpain)
Personally, I agree with Fiona Thomas, who writes that for someone who struggles with either a metal health or physical health related problems, social media can be a real 'godsend'. As a permanent member of chronic pain online support community ( and #ENDOwarrior), I get to spend quite a lot of time receiving or sharing support via social media.
Image/article source: ABC News
For someone like me, who deals with an under researched and incurable condition (endometriosis), keeping in touch with other ‘endo-fighters’ allows me to get up to date on the latest research, nutritional tips and occasional “miracle supplements”. It certainly helps me during the difficult moments. When I’m in pain or unable to socialise in the real world, I always have my online community of people like me, who continuously adapt to their new way of living. Getting to know the community of endosisters is definitely one of the best things that happened to me in recent years. However, it has taken me a while to find my way around different the different types of well-meaning well-being content that appears online and here is why….
Well-being on social media: green smoothies or old pyjamas?
As I'm scrolling down my social feeds , I see images and statements related to various aspects of well-being. There is the motivational stuff on a Monday, tagged as #MondayMotivation. There is the running community on Instagram and their generic #running or more adventurous ones like #FitLife and #FitFam. I'd have several yoga and mindfulness folks popping into my timeline with things like #yogi, #namaste and #meditation. Finally, there are the healthy eating social media gurus, who share their success stories tagged as #cleaneating #food4thought and #avotoast.
I'd like to believe that the aim of these images is to truly empower people to pay a little bit more attention to their eating habits. Surely, having a little bit of avo-toast every now and again can't do any harm? (some might disagree, see:"Millionaire tells millennials: if you want a house, stop buying avocado toast" by Sam Levin, 2018). But my gut tells me that this type of aspirational content can't really have a positive impact on my mental well-being. Especially during my endometriosis flares, when I'm unable to move much due to some intense pain, I'm 100% that seeing acro-yoga post will not help me to relax (instead I'll just dwell about the limited physical abilities of my own body and so on).
Image source: Insider
On the other, there is the 'dark' side of the mental well-being and health related social media content. Here, you get to experience people's stories of struggle and despair. Tags such as #thinkgray, #illness, #chronicpain or #spoonie often provide a grim contrast to the green-smoothies-motivational-stories. These posts are important. They allow me to do a quick reality check and recognise that my chronic pain is not that unique after all. These real life statements do not only help me to deal with the guilt related to missing out on this like #acroyoga (!), but provide me with ways to support others and feel useful - especially in the endometriosis community. In the case of endo-sisters online community, I often think of the social media feeds as a collective endo voice, a scream for help from women (and trans men) from all over the world, who share their pain, mental health struggles, problems with access to health care and many other issues. (Among the community of endofighters, you might find strong women, creative souls and endo-activitsts such as Lenha Dunham, Ellie Kammer and Georgie Wileman)
However, I occasionally do have a problem with this negative side of the well-being social media feeds - they often leave me mentally exhausted. After reading about the pain and despair, I sometimes feel hopeless and powerless.Old pyjamas, ceilings, duvets, pills, drips, pre-laporoscopic selfies and post-laporoscopic scars are common visual narratives among so many of us, and seeing these images over and over again can sometimes have a negative impact on my mental-health.
Keeping the balance right: #mentalhealthawarnessweek
Mental Health Awareness Week has taken place between 14th May and on 20th May. Over the last seven days, my
Twitter account was flooded with tons social media content tagged as #mentalhealthawarnessweek. I've experienced a healthy variety of both honest and good quality content. At least the posts that made it into my social media bubble, provided me with a fresh feeling of hope that mental health related messages (personal or organisational) do not need to use positive psychology motivational qoutes (which were actually proved to have a negative impact on your mental well-being...) to get your attention, and there is no need to use shocking/saddening images either.
Whilst the posts related to the campaign have been often polarised (ranging from super positive motivational stuff to heart-breaking statements about loneliness, depression and many other problems), they seem to fit well into the overall social-media narrative of mental health week. You can also see a huge variety of content and people's interpretations of well-being and mental-health. There are posts of people simply taking a walk or photos of their beloved pets, sharing their top tips on how to deal with anxiety or posting words of support to others fighting with mental health problems. During the Mental Health Awareness Week, the online community managed to co-create compassionate and mindful streams of posts, images, gifs and video clips tagged as #mentalhealthawarnessweek
The campaign proves that kindness online kind an incredibly powerful tool. This is particularly important at the time many believe that social media " create divisions, exploit our insecurities and risk our health" (Haig, 2017), there is slight chance that we can fight back with kindness and [once again] use social media as tools for social change.
Coming soon: Examples of balanced & inclusive social media accounts focusing on well-being and mental-health.