Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing, according to a recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults. While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”
Out of five social networks included in the survey, YouTube received the highest marks for health and wellbeing and was the only site that received a net positive score by respondents. Twitter came in second, followed by Facebook and then Snapchat—with Instagram bringing up the rear.
The #StatusOfMind survey, published by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, included input from 1,479 young people (ages 14 to 24) from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From February through May of this year, people answered questions about how different social media platforms impacted 14 different issues related to their mental or physical health.
There were certainly some benefits associated with social networking. All of the sites received positive scores for self-identity, self-expression, community building and emotional support, for example. YouTube also got high marks for bringing awareness of other people’s health experiences, for providing access to trustworthy health information and for decreasing respondents’ levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
But they all received negative marks, as well—especially for sleep quality, bullying, body image and FOMO. And unlike YouTube, the other four networks were associated with increases in depression and anxiety.
Previous studies have suggested that young people who spend more than two hours a day on social networking sites are more likely to report psychological distress. “Seeing friends constantly on holiday or enjoying nights out can make young people feel like they are missing out while others enjoy life,” the #StatusOfMind report states. “These feelings can promote a ‘compare and despair’ attitude.”
Social media posts can also set unrealistic expectations and create feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, the authors wrote. This may explain why Instagram, where personal photos take center stage, received the worst scores for body image and anxiety. As one survey respondent wrote, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.”
Other research has found that the more social networks a young adult uses, the more likely he or she is to report depression and anxiety. Trying to navigate between different norms and friend networks on various platforms could be to blame, study authors say—although it’s also possible that people with poor mental health are drawn to multiple social-media platforms in the first place.
To reduce the harmful effects of social media on children and young adults, the Royal Society is calling for social media companies to make changes. The report recommends the introduction of a pop-up “heavy usage” warning within these apps or website—something 71% of survey respondents said they’d support.
It also recommends that companies find a way to highlight when photos of people have been digitally manipulated, as well as identify and offer help to users who could be suffering from mental health problems. (A feature rolled out on Instagram last year allowing users to anonymously flag troublesome posts.)
The government can also help, the report states. It calls for “safe social media use” to be taught during health education in schools, for professionals who work with youth to be trained in digital and social media and for more research to be conducted on the effects of social media on mental health.
The Royal Society hopes to empower young adults to use social networks “in a way that protects and promotes their health and wellbeing,” the report states. “Social media isn’t going away soon, nor should it. We must be ready to nurture the innovation that the future holds.”