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Social media: Impact of Instagram and TikTok on mental health

We are living in a virtual world. To be young, outgoing, and to not have social media – a categorial paradox.

Instagram. TikTok. The two websites to define my generation, whether I asked for it or not. Nowadays, simply not joining the hype is increasingly less of an option.

The shock on people’s faces when you tell them you don’t have Instagram is a little unnerving, when you think about it. I am living in a world with almost eight billion people, almost two-hundred countries, and weird and wonderful things to see outside my own front door all day and all night long. But the fact that I don’t have a virtual profile on a virtual app in a virtual world is considered, to most people, simply horrifying.

Instagram is the site on which celebrity influencers, often with millions to their names, promote the new normal of expensive dinners, exquisite jewellery, and lavish holidays to the millions of average citizens. The same people who have watched them on ‘Love Island’ all summer long can now feel closer to them than ever, their every move being only one tap away.

And when it’s not our favourite reality TV stars’ lives we are consuming online, it’s those with whom we went to school, worked in our part-time job two summers ago, those whom we met last month when we were merry at a festival. A two second username swap, and a lifetime of stalking, a lifetime of comparison, with ease and with obsession. Surely, that can’t be healthy.

Naturally, humans are aware of and want to combat competition. However, is there any way the brain could be developed enough to deal with the colossal number of people, and hence competition, to which we are exposed through social media? Anthropologist Dr Anna Machin says biological evolution isn't adapted to online relationships. “We're whipping ahead with all this innovation, doing these amazing things, but the biological evolution hasn't evolved and isn't adapted to having social relationships online. So, there's this massive mismatch.” (1)

The exposure to the never-ending supply of videos, photos, and information about the so-considered perfect people we see on the internet was something people didn’t have to contend with twenty years ago. Celebrities were celebrities. Their lives were a world away from ours. These days, their lives are just one click away. We can digest more of them than ever before, and even interact with them, and our brains don’t always do well with that.

The negative impacts of TikTok resemble those of Instagram: overexposure to skewed information, addiction, unhealthy comparison. But there is one extra issue to be noted. TikTok is a website on which the users post videos of one minute or shorter in length to their page, resulting in consumers of these videos being required to concentrate on one topic for no more than sixty seconds. Whatever happened to reading a novel, or a non-fiction book about a topic of interest? Do people still enjoy listening to an album, a full body of work, or a podcast, or watching a documentary? Or are we all just reaching for our phones, hoping the TikTok algorithm will ensure that a whole playlist of thirty-second videos on some topic of other, made by goodness-knows-who, will keep us entertained for two hours? Alternatively, do we just reach for our phone out of comfort, not realising that we are about to be hooked on what can end up being complete nonsense but will rob the next two hours of our day from us? How can people be expected to end their session and close the app, despite knowing the next video lined up for them could be the funniest thing they have seen all week? Could the answer be to not open the app at all? Is TikTok stealing our true passions and interests for a short-lived laugh?

Have you ever considered the way in which social media is like gambling? There is no mistaking the rush of adrenaline we get when opening our apps, animatedly waiting to find out whether we have new likes, new messages, new followers. And when we do – an instant rush of dopamine. This hit makes us happy and is exactly that what can lead us to become addicted – we want more! (2) This sensation can be likened to gambling, and heavy social media usage can even result in a brain scan with a notable similarity to that of an addicted gambler. (2)

But it is not all bad. Following friends’ travels as if you’re there with them, sharing some love on someone’s post about whom you care, but to whom you haven’t had the time to reach out, and finding out about events, parties, opportunities… can all be heart-warming experiences. It is, as with many things in life, best consumed in moderation. However, one final message we would perhaps all do well to remember: if you do not pay for the product, you are the product.

1. Martin, A., 2018. Have our brains just not evolved for social media?. [online] TechRadar. Available at: <https://www.techradar.com/news/have-our-brains-just-not-evolved-for-social-media> [Accessed 16 June 2022].

2. Fotuhi, M., 2020. What Social Media Does to Your Brain - NeuroGrow. [online] NeuroGrow. Available at: <https://neurogrow.com/what-social-media-does-to-your-brain/> [Accessed 16 June 2022].



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