Instagram posts can be a humble brag or a way to capture a memory. But other times, they’re a cry for help.
Assistant Director of Community Prevention and Intervention Services Dr. Hannah Roberts said that even though social media can provide a sense of community by promoting mental health awareness, it can also harm those with mental health issues.
“Most of our social media is highlight reels and so it can really create this discrepancy for what is normal,” Roberts said. “We tend to keep our personal stuff very private, so what we see is a lot of students struggling with [the idea of], ‘I’m the only one.’”
Instagram recently collaborated with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to create a new feature that allows users to report posts depicting self-harm or other distressing content. When a concerning image that shows self-injury shows up on their Instagram feed, viewers can report it as inappropriate. These can be images that depict eating disorders, cutting or promotion
The user who posted the content will receive a message notifying them that someone is concerned about their well-being, along with a suggestion to talk to someone, tips and support and links to helplines.
Roberts said this flagging feature can provide support to those who are knowingly or unknowingly asking for help.
“I don’t think anybody’s really sure about when someone reaches out through social media,” art and design senior Dylan Stefanisko said.
Stefanisko said he sometimes suffers from depression and posting his artwork on social media would only strengthen the feeling.
Though social media can be used as a way to subtly ask for help, it can also exacerbate existing mental health issues.
“I’ve been hesitant to post my work on Instagram because I feel like I won’t get enough likes on it that would satisfy me,” Stefanisko said. “It sounds silly but … when I’m suffering from depression it becomes important to get that positive feedback. But like I said, it’s never enough.”
When Stefanisko’s classmates post their artwork to Instagram, he sees them receive praise from their professors as well as positive reinforcement through likes and comments. He worries that that he might not necessarily receive the same validation, causing feelings of self-doubt that feed into depression.
“We have this representation of how all [our] peers are doing and how [our] peers are presenting themselves,” Roberts said. “It can become this really skewed view of ‘Everyone else’s social media looks like they have it all together,’ and then [our] view of [ourselves] is that ‘I don’t have anything together.’”
This plays into a distorted sense of reality. By posting just the good parts of life on social media, it creates a highlight reel that doesn’t necessarily portray real life. Additionally, the validation from likes and comments can create lasting negative effects by fostering a sense of dependence on this interaction.
“It’s this external validation that’s just not really healthy,” Stefanisko said. “Getting your self-worth from other people, I know you don’t need social media for that, but it’s just an easy way to post something and get that kind of positive feedback.”
While social media has some benefits, this negative side makes it a double-edged sword.
“I’ve seen so many students who’ve found support networks, been able to come out, or to talk openly about things that carry stigma, mental health issues … But unfortunately it has that darker side,” Roberts said. “I really do think it depends on how you choose to approach it, what you get from it, what you’re looking for, what you’re putting into it.”
For microbiology senior Lo Johnson, social media and the altered reality it portrays has caused her to struggle more with her mental health.
“For people who already have some sort of questioning in their own life, if I’m doing something properly and looking at all these pictures and thinking that they’re doing it better, it adds a shroud of doubt into my own life,” Johnson said.
Many students place unreasonable pressure on themselves to look or behave a certain way on social media to fit in. However, those “happy” people with their lives seemingly all put together could be doing the exact same thing on the other side of the screen.
It’s just a matter of perception.
“I think we all objectively know when we engage in social media that it is not an accurate picture of reality,” Roberts said. “But I think there are moments … [where it] can be easy to fall down that spiral and forget that that is only one piece of reality.”
Though it may be easy to see a warped reality through the lenses of social media, there are ways of using it in a healthy and mindful way.
“When you approach social media, know why you’re approaching it, know what you’re looking for and do it thoughtfully,” she said. “It’s probably not a great idea to just generically engage in it 24/7, even though I know that’s what most of us do.”