Today, youth suicide rates in America are at their highest ever recorded and and 40 million Americans regularly take psychiatric drugs; today America is unquestionably in the midst of a mental health crisis. One overwhelmingly popular theory to explain this crisis places the blame squarely on the rise of the internet. Social and digital media, many argue, distances us from one another, pressures us to live up to impossible standards, and even rewires our brain to seek instant validation the same way that a drug would. The truth, however, is far less simple. As technology use becomes increasingly ubiquitous and social media becomes many American’s primary interface with the world, the most destructive aspects of humanity have been pulled from the shadows and put on display—but so have our most constructive tendencies. The internet of today is abounding with communities of mutual support and nurturance that give those struggling with mental illness a safe forum to give and receive aid, illustrating that the internet is a platform that defies black and white analysis.
The effects of internet usage on mental health is by far the hottest topic in the world of psychological research today. Unending studies after studies have tried to prove a causal link between the two, but the process is ultimately extremely difficult—if test subjects are already heavy internet users, they may experience “withdrawal” when separated from their primary source of contact with the outside world, even if the content that they viewed on those platforms negatively contributed to their well-being. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to control for how users will choose to spend their time on social media, or perhaps, how the social media algorithms will choose for them. A feed full of cute puppies and uplifting stories would never produce the same effect as a feed full of depressing news. As a result, researcher’s findings are all over the place.
One study, performed over 5,270 days, with a test group of 388 adolescents, found that there was no correlation between time spent online and subjectively worse mental health. Surprisingly, the same study found that even individuals that already had mental health problems at baseline exhibited no signs of increased symptoms during days when technology use was higher.
Another study from a similarly reputable cohort, though with a much larger study group of 6,595 members, found the precise opposite—that more than 3 hours per day of social media usage puts adolescents at significantly higher risk, and that even 30 minutes online lead to greater “internalizing behavior” including depression and anxiety.
Another Harvard-affiliated study also contradicts the claim that more time online equates to greater mental health issues, but highlights the prevalence of experimental design issues. The study used a test group of only 126 adolescents and relied completely on loose self-reporting. Regardless, the study actually made an very bold assertion: that time spent on a “favorite website” correlated to lower overall anxiety, especially for individuals with existing anxiety.
Another popular framework is that of Internet Addiction (IA), the idea that the Internet as we know it functions like a drug, offering dopamine rushes often in the form of likes and attention, and leading to negative real-world consequences like withdraws. Evidence shows that internet gaming is particularly problematic, as “affected brain regions responsible for reward, impulse control and sensory-motor coordination. Brain activation studies have shown that videogame playing involved changes in reward and loss of control and that gaming pictures have activated regions similarly to those activated by cue-exposure to drugs.”
How, then, does one reconcile these differences? One likely answer could lie in how users interact with the internet. Do they seek out content that calms and uplifts them? Or conversely, do they regularly expose themselves to content that worries them, disturbs them, or makes them feel inadequate? If we conceptualize online spaces as we conceptualize real-world ones, it becomes glaringly obvious that where you spend time online might matter more than how long you spend online.
Perhaps the best place to look for potential psychological benefits of online networking is among those already suffering from mental illness. One groundbreaking paper from 2014 posed the question: how do severely mentally ill individuals use the internet? They found that the internet offered an unstructured web of peer support, which “includes a system of mutual giving and receiving where individuals with severe mental illness can offer hope, companionship, and encouragement to others facing similar challenges.” They performed an ethnographic analysis of YouTubers who chronicled their struggles with severe mental illness online, noting that these individuals attracted followings that shared their experiences, and offered help to each other in the comments sections below videos. This process happened “naturally among individuals with highly stigmatized psychiatric illnesses within an unmonitored and public online platform.”
Those with existing mental health issues are using the internet to seek and give support, this much is certain. What remains unaccounted for is whether or not the support genuinely helps or hinders the healing process for those with existing mental health issues. One Cambridge study suggests that is does; “People with serious mental illness,” the study asserts, “report benefits from interacting with peers online from greater social connectedness, feelings of group belonging and by sharing personal stories and strategies for coping with day-to-day challenges of living with a mental illness. Within online communities, individuals with serious mental illness could challenge stigma through personal empowerment and providing hope. By learning from peers online, these individuals may gain insight about important health care decisions, which could promote mental health care seeking behaviours.”
The potential to avoid and combat stigma remains one of the largest benefits of peer-to-peer support online. Whereas, in the real world, individuals with existing mental illnesses are often forced to suffer in secret for fear of judgement (or worse) from friends, family, and colleagues, online spaces offer liberatingly open and honest forums for discussion. Just talking to others, being recognized, and having one’s experience validated can greatly reduce the feelings of isolation and “defectiveness” associated with mental illness. However, the question remains: what happens next?
The best-case scenario is that individuals give and receive validation that helps them come to terms with their illness, learn what has worked for others, and develop healthy coping strategies in the process. Spaces like this do exist, especially on YouTube (as mentioned previously), where many genuine psychotherapists produce content and use YouTube as a “front-end” to their businesses. Ideally, these individuals will also be guided towards proven therapy methods that can be completed online, drawing from the internet’s vast free resources of knowledge, or in-person for a more individualized, tailored approach.
The problem is, lots of people do not go that route. Many online spaces for mentally ill people do not live up to these lofty expectations, and many others are just plain toxic. Unmonitored group therapy—a group discussion among those suffering from mental illness that is not supervised by a professional social worker or therapist—is seen as a negligent and often dangerous practice by mental health professionals and the digital version of it should be considered equally fraught. This issue is especially prevalent in online communities that are comprised mostly of teenagers and thus lack the voices and perspectives of those who have successfully sought treatment and “come out the other side”.
The result is everything from unhealthy to catastrophic. On one hand we have sad online culture—borne of Tumblr angst, melancholic photography, poetry, and art—depression-centric media come to dominate internet culture, birthing the hashtags #sadgirl and #sadboy, the entire careers of artists from XXXTENTACION to Lana Del Rey, funding a new wave of clothing and accessory makers angling to monetize mental illness, and giving disorders like depression a decided coolness and cultural cachet that leads young people to indulge their worst impulses rather than seek help.
An even more dangerous result is that of a positive feedback loop, whereby group members fuel each other’s mental illness by validating, and encouraging the same patterns of thought that the illness creates. When no outside perspective is taken into consideration, communities of peer support can become communities of mutually assured destruction.
Examples of just this situation are unfortunately numerous; perhaps the most egregious example of a destructive feedback loop is the Pro-Ana community, short for Pro-Anorexia. Pro-Ana groups have sprung up across many social media sites including Tumblr, Facebook, Xanga, Myspace. The contents of these communities are deeply disturbing—members post photos and receive public fat shaming, offer advice on how to induce vomiting, fast together in solidarity, and post thinspiration or “thinspo” images of emaciated models and celebrities to motivate further starvation.
Another, more male-centric subculture is that of the “doomer,” borne out of 4chan, the doomer is a character meant to represent a 20 to 30-year-old male who has seemingly exhausted the potential in his life. He works in a job that he actively despises, is often addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, and opioids, and wades through a profoundly isolated world. Communities of doomers exist across the internet, where they collectively despair about the state of society, their loneliness, and the meaninglessness of modern life, sometimes blaming women and minorities for their woes in an act called “blackpilling”. They often share playlists of music that are meant to complement or evoke these emotions, which often contains explicit references to suicide.
The question of how the Internet is shaping the mental health of America is clearly not a simple one. Its complexity lies in the infinite depth and breath of the internet—a multitude of communities and experiences that defy singular definition. These many examples prove why we must view the internet as a tool and a platform not one monolithic whole. Internet users can travel down both profoundly uplifting and profoundly destructive paths, but through effective moderation and increased awareness of toxic behavior online, we can funnel people towards an internet that changes people’s lives for the better.