COVID‐19 outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization and characterized as a pandemic.
Strict physical distancing measures were taken to contain the spread of coronavirus; people had no option but to rely on screens heavily, especially on social media, to learn the latest news about the pandemic and maintain connectivity (Limaye et al., 2020) apart from online learning and working.
Through this post, we bring you a well-detailed piece highlighting the increase in social media and mental illness during the COVID era.
The internet and social media have always been part and parcel of our daily life; of course, for a significant role. However, despite the importance of media in spreading urgent information during collective trauma events, numerous studies have suggested that disaster media exposure may evoke poor mental health outcomes. For instance, early 9/11‐ and Iraq War‐related television exposure was prospectively associated with increased post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms (Silver et al., 2013). Or the Boston Marathon bombings (Holman, Garfin, & Silver, 2014) or Sichuan earthquake in 2008, individuals were exposed to distressing media images during incidents, which led to a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 6 months later (Yeung et al., 2018).
In comparison to traditional media, social media has played a multitude of positive roles in information exchange during the COVID‐19 crisis, including disseminating health‐related recommendations, enabling connectivity and psychological first aid (Merchant & Lurie, 2020), showing public attitudes, experience, and perception of the disease as well as sentiment to the government (Zhu, Fu, Grépin, Liang, & Fung, 2020). On the other hand, social media has also fuelled the rapid spread of misinformation and rumors, creating a sense of panic and confusion among the public (Garfin, Silver, & Holman, 2020). However, a shortage of studies has explicitly focused on social media exposure, making it challenging to understand whether and how using social media to access COVID‐19 is associated with mental health.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, scientists across the globe are beginning to understand the role of social media on users’ mental health. For instance, researchers in China interviewed 512 Trusted Source college students from March 24 to April 1, 2020, to determine whether social media harmed mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results showed a link between higher use of social media and an increased risk of depression. Furthermore, the authors suggest that exposure to adverse reports and posts may contribute to the risk of depression in some people.
Additionally, a study appearing in the journal Globalization and HealthTrusted Source found increasing evidence that endless news feeds reporting SARS-CoV-2 infection rates and COVID-19 death rates could influence the mental health of some individuals.
In an interview, Lee Chambers, M.Sc., M.B.Ps.S., founder of Essentialise, stated that all of us are impacted in differing ways by social media consumption; the continual flow of harmful and misinformation for quite some time has spread fear; the highlighting of social and political issues has reduced optimism, and edited photos and toxically positive content leave no space to feel secure or express negative emotions healthily. Social media has likely exacerbated mental health challenges, along with the increased desire for metrics such as likes and comments in these challenging times.
Explaining the benefit of social media in keeping people connected to friends and family, especially during social distancing with limited physical interactions, highlighted that the increased use may have amplified social anxiety and challenges with perfectionism and comparison for some people.
In the same interview, Prof. Steven C. Hayes, Foundation Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, stated that toxic processes produce particular challenges for people: exposure to physical and psychological pain, a comparison with others and judgment, entanglement with self-judgment.
Further explained that social media’s exposure to pain comparison and judgment enormously challenges us all in ways that are orders of magnitude more severe than ever in the history of humanity. Those processes have been toxic from the beginning, but exposure to those processes as a daily diet is new. However, there are features inside social media that have expanded human consciousness. Moreover, it gives us great opportunities.
As Prof. Hayes mentioned, these opportunities may include a heightened awareness of mental health and reduced stigma surrounding mental health conditions.
Another study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Trusted Source suggests that psychosocial expressions have significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that more people express their positive and negative emotions and garner support from others. As a result, the stigma surrounding mental health conditions may decrease.
Prof. Hayes noted that the COVID-19 pandemic exploded the idea that mental health conditions only affect specific individuals. He said, “everybody realizes that mental strength and flexibility — that is, mental and behavioral health and social wellness — applies to all of us. It is not a one-out-of-five issue; it is a five-out-of-five issue, which is the permanent result of this year and a half of [COVID-19].”
Amidst the coronavirus, a cross-sectional study was conducted among Chinese citizens aged above18 years old from January 31 to February 2, 2020. A total of 4872 participants from 31 provinces and autonomous regions were involved in the study. Besides demographics and social media exposure (SME), depression was assessed by The Chinese version of the WHO-Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5), and anxiety was assessed by the Chinese version of the generalized anxiety disorder scale (GAD-7); multivariable logistic regressions were used to identify associations between social media exposure with mental health problems after controlling for covariates. It was recorded that the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and combination of depression and anxiety (CDA) was 48.3% (95%CI: 46.9%-49.7%), 22.6% (95%CI: 21.4%-23.8%), and 19.4% (95%CI: 18.3%-20.6%) during COVID-19 outbroke in Wuhan, China. Over 80% (95%CI:80.9%-83.1%) of participants reported being frequently exposed to social media. After controlling for covariates, social media exposure was frequently positively associated with high odds of anxiety (OR = 1.72, 95%CI: 1.31–2.26) and CDA (OR = 1.91, 95%CI: 1.52–2.41) compared with less SME. It was also found that there is a high prevalence of mental health problems, which are positively associated with frequently SME during the COVID-19 outbreak. These findings implicated the government’s need to pay more attention to mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety among the general population, and combat the “infodemic” while combating public health emergencies.
Another study highlighted that people switched online modes of connection during the first wave of COVID-19. Social media engagement rose to 61 percent. Social media has become a lifeline to the outside world.
However, on the flip side, mental health experts warned users to be mindful of how long periods of mindless scrolling can negatively impact their mental health.
Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the Perelman School of Medicine, who often speaks with his patients about the impact of social media, is familiar with the many ways in which it can exacerbate social anxiety, comparison, and perfectionism. He also recognized that social media could be an essential crutch for those looking for connection in a pandemic.
Undoubtedly, the world coming to a halt due to the covid outbreak led to a sudden shift to social media. Individuals began using it more than ever, but with time more than a year later, pandemic-related challenges have slowed down, and social media feeds are swinging back to many of the same old pitfalls that have made them difficult for mental health for years, such as misinformation and heavily edited photos, as aforesaid.
These unrealistic representations impact users, especially those who frequently turn to social media. People diagnosed with social anxiety, for example, are already prone to experiencing the negative consequences of social media.
“Originally, it was thought that people with social anxiety might benefit from social media use since it could serve as a stepping stone for social interaction,” Tyler said. “In many cases, however, the pressure of gaining more ‘likes’ or more ‘friends’ has had the opposite effect. Instead of making people who feel socially anxious more connected, it forces them to realize how disconnected they are.”
Moreover, thanks to feeds filled with doctored photos and sometimes-exaggerated positive experiences, social media also provide increased opportunities for social comparison. Further added, “social media perpetuates the idea that perfectionism is possible and supports the issue of confirmation bias. People see other users who appear to be perfect, who are well-liked, or who have things they may not, and they start to believe some of the negative perceptions about themselves.”
Briefly describing the authenticity of social media content, Tyler stressed that the impact of increased screen time reaches far beyond those struggling with social anxiety. Because the pandemic provides fewer opportunities for in-person interaction, many feel less connected than they did in the pre-pandemic world, despite their intentions to use social media for more connectivity. In the first experimental study of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt, Ph.D., associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology department, found that social media use increases depression and loneliness.
As per the KFF analysis of data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (an ongoing survey created to capture data on health and economic impacts of the pandemic), KFF Health Tracking Poll data, and data on mental health before the COVID-19 pandemic, young adults have experienced several pandemic-related consequences, such as closures of universities and loss of income, that may contribute to poor mental health. During the pandemic, a larger than average share of young adults (ages 18-24) reported anxiety and depressive disorder (56%). Compared to all adults, young adults are more likely to report substance use (25% vs. 13%) and suicidal thoughts (26% vs. 11%). However, before the pandemic, young adults were already at high risk of poor mental health and substance use disorder, though many did not receive treatment.
Research during the pandemic points to concerns around poor mental health and wellbeing for children and their parents, particularly mothers, as many are experiencing challenges with school closures and lack of childcare. Women with children are more likely to report anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms than men (49% vs. 40%). In general, women have reported higher rates of anxiety and depression than men before and during the pandemic.
Furthermore, increased social media use has been witnessed among almost all cohorts during the COVID-19 era , but younger people, especially Generation Z, have been particularly affected [22, 23]. Gen Z constitutes the majority of current college students. College students today are “digital natives”; they were raised during the age of digital technology and therefore have been familiar with the internet and social media from an early age. Although college students’ social media use is ubiquitous at baseline, it has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic [24•, 25]. An increased level of engagement with the internet was required for educational and other purposes due to the pandemic, which potentially predisposed college students to a range of experiences that may be either positive or negative.
Prior studies regarding the relationship between social media use and college student mental health have had mixed findings. Some have shown that excessive screen time during the pandemic harms mental health [26•, 27]. Social media use, in particular, appears to be linked to depression and secondary trauma during the pandemic [28•, 29•]. Psychological distress from social media may be partially explained by extensive COVID-19 coverage [30, 31] and partly due to the algorithmic structure of social media programming [32•]. Although social media may exacerbate COVID-19-related stress [33•], social media use has skyrocketed during the pandemic , and at least one study found an inverse relationship between social media use and depression [34••]. This seemingly bidirectional relationship is complex and indicates that social media use has positive and negative effects during the pandemic.
Another large-scale Chinese cross-sectional study [34••] also found that social media was associated with negative mental health measures. Social media use (average time spent per day accessing COVID-19-related content) was significantly associated with secondary trauma (b = 0.18, p < 0.001), depressive symptoms (b = 0.11, p = 0.019), and anxiety symptoms (b = 0.12, p = 0.014). Additionally, high social media use was positively associated with depressive symptoms when college students reported higher levels of COVID-19 stress (assessed using a 10-item COVID stressor scale, e.g., witnessed a near-death, lack of medical care, and lack of disinfectants), an interaction that the low COVID-19 stressor group did not exhibit. This suggests that COVID-19 stress moderates the relationship between social media use and depression. COVID-19 stress was not found to moderate the relationship between social media and anxiety or secondary trauma. Furthermore, negative affect accounted for the relationship between social media use and mental health.
On the flip side, a Netherlands study [42••] did not find that social media use had a negative impact on mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers found that social media use was negatively associated with depressive symptoms suggesting that social media use and depression have an inverse relationship. There was no statistically significant association between social media use and anxiety, loneliness, or the COVID-19 stressor.
Given the mixed results, the relationship between social media use and college student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic appears complicated and may be explained by moderating factors such as COVID-19 stress [34••]. Other mediating and moderating factors may affect this relationship, which could explain why social media use and depression were inversely related in a study that accounted for social media intensity and meaning [42••]. It may be that social media use attenuates depressive symptoms in college students who have meaningful relationships through social media (i.e., a sense of belonging to an online community), who use it as a form of coping, or who use it as a replacement for maladaptive behaviors.
Another Saudi Arabia-based study on the psychosocial effects of social media showed a significant prevalence of mental health problems within the Saudi society due to the COVID-19 pandemic; moreover, these issues are positively associated with the substantial and frequent exposure to social media during the outbreak. Results indicated that the Saudi Arabian government should pay more attention to the general population’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saudi government was the first to implement preventive measures to protect its citizens, contributing significantly to the low levels of active cases or mortality compared to several other developed countries. Moreover, the Saudi government has provided mental health services through various channels, including electronic applications, hotlines, online counseling and courses, and outpatient consultation.  However, depression, anxiety, and social isolation need to be addressed more concertedly to prevent their effects on infected individuals’ well-being. The country’s government has also imposed numerous financial penalties and imprisoned those who published inaccurate and misleading information on social media. We suggest that, in addition to upscaling the legal actions related to the publishing of misleading COVID-19 information, the Kingdom needs to monitor social media, filter out false information, and promote the spread of accurate information through cooperation with the WHO.
To help combat mental illness and use social media effectively, another report exploring how social media is used concerning health during COVID-19 for young people and other population groups who are shielded/vulnerable and active or inactive suggests a key and essential step focus on adult digital literacy.
Digital literacy support should help adults critically evaluate the relevance of health-related information for their and young people’s lives and develop the digital skills to navigate social media sites to understand and offer appropriate support to young people.
Another study highlighted that college students had been significantly affected as their social media use increased. The pandemic made internet use non-negotiable. Depending on various factors, college students had positive and negative experiences online. We found that excessive or problematic social media use correlated with worse mental health outcomes, especially depression. COVID-19 acts as a moderator by strengthening the relationship between social media use and mental health. Dialectical thinking, optimism, mindfulness, and cognitive reappraisal are all possible strategies to mitigate the negative impact of social media on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Clinicians should ask college students about their social media use to screen for associated mental health issues and promote healthy internet use. The scarcity of literature about this topic limits the generalizability of this review. Future studies should consider the impact of social media on college student's mental health and concentrate on intervention initiatives to ensure the psychological well-being of college students during a global pandemic.
However, to conclude, there is a mixed response as to whether the increase in mental illness and social media use is due to post-coronavirus restrictions. But experts recommend less use of social media for better mental health and life.