I recently wrote an article for Bella on how social media can have a negative effect on mental health - with parents being singled out as being particularly at risk. It seemed to resonate with a lot of people so I thought I should post the content of the article here, too.*
This article first appeared in Bella (2 October 2018)
Is Instagram making you ill? - New research suggests social media is fuelling anxiety and depression among parents
A recent survey by the Priory Group has found that as many as half of parents think that sites like Instagram and Facebook create unrealistic and unattainable expectations of family life, which fuel anxiety and trigger depression. More than one in five parents said that other people’s happy family pictures or exuberant baby blog posts made them feel “inadequate”, while 23 per cent said it made them feel “depressed”.
So how did social media become so anti-social? Hashtags like ‘mumgoals’ (37,000 Instagram posts) and ‘instakids’ (16 million posts) are widely used to tag parenting-related posts, but it seems instead of creating a friendly online community, they could be contributing to other users feeling more isolated.
Terms like ‘over-sharenting’ and ‘baby boasting’ have been coined to describe the trend for broadcasting family life on social media platforms – something which some parents are forging careers from. However innocent or innocuous their posts might seem, over a third of parents said they thought that baby bloggers and Instamums contribute to rising rates of depression.
Compare and despair
The link between social media and mental health problems is not new. One in 10 people in the UK suffers from anxiety, and Anxiety.org has already condemned social media as ‘an anxiety-provoking factor’. They cite the ‘compare-and-despair’ factor - doctored photos or misleading posts that can cause self-consciousness and feelings of personal failure in others – or ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) as the two main triggers.
A 2015 study found that regularly using Facebook could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user, and a separate one found that people who spend the night checking social media are more likely to suffer from mood problems, such as neuroticism and bipolar disorder, and rate themselves as less happy and more lonely.
Executives at Facebook have even acknowledged the connection. “Reading about others online might lead to negative social comparison - and perhaps even more so than offline, since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering,” admits David Ginsberg, Director of Research at Facebook.
Such negativity has been researched and highlighted before, but what is new is that parents – especially mums - are being singled out as especially vulnerable.
“These findings are very concerning, but sadly not surprising,” says Dr Lucinda Green, Priory Consultant Perinatal Psychologist at Priory’s Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic. “Around one in five women have mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Depression and anxiety are common, but women can experience a wide range of mental health problems at this important time in their lives. There are many factors which contribute and these unrealistic representations of motherhood on social media definitely do not help.
“Women who criticise themselves, or assume others will judge them, for failing to be the perfect mother they aspire to be, are at increased risk of Postnatal Depression. When social media projects idealised images of parenthood as the norm, it’s easy for parents to feel guilty or inadequate if their experience does not match this.”
The Duchess of Cambridge – a mental health ambassador – has voiced her concerns, too. “Some of this fear is about the pressure to be a perfect parent; pretending we’re all coping perfectly and loving every minute of it,” she said. “It’s right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains.”
Dr Green adds, “Previous surveys, such as Maternal Mental Health – Women’s Voices (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) have identified the pressure to enjoy motherhood as a reason for women feeling isolated, guilty for not being happy and finding parenting hard. Women highlighted the importance of having a realistic picture of motherhood and an acceptance that it is experienced differently by different women. Being a parent can be tough. Most parents find it overwhelming, exhausting and stressful at times.”
Are you at risk?
Consider how you use social media. If you’re active, do you find yourself conscious of other peoples’ reactions to your posts and feel like you’re chasing likes? A single ‘like’, message or text can generate a dopamine spike in the brain, also known as the feel-good chemical. This spike causes people to be addicted to or reliant on social media because it makes them feel better about themselves - or worse if the positive reactions don’t appear.
Passive users, who simply scroll and observe, generally report worse moods than those who actively post themselves or communicate with others. If this is you, you’re essentially exposing yourself to a constant barrage of perfectly filtered photos – something that is bound to knock anyone’s self-esteem.
If you regularly feel a sense of dread, have difficulty concentrating, are irritable, restless or constantly on edge, you might be displaying symptoms associated with anxiety. If you feel yourself wanting to withdraw from social contact or take time off work, these are signals that things are snowballing.
“Women’s sense of shame, embarrassment and failure at being perceived as not coping as a mother is a significant reason for their reluctance to disclose symptoms of depression or anxiety,” adds Dr Green. “Pictures of apparently ‘perfect parents’ on social media can reinforce this. However, it’s crucial that women have treatment for mental health problems – the impact of untreated illness is longstanding for women, partners and children.”
How to help
• Take a break. To combat social media anxiety, the first thing to try is to step away from the sites. Even if you only do one full day without social media, the difference in your mood might be enough to convince you to try abstaining for longer.
• Unfollow or unfriend. Hitting the unfollow button on a ‘friend’s’ Instagram or Facebook account can be a huge relief. Unfollowing celebrity mums or “Instamums” will protect you from constantly comparing yourself to them.
• Make time for real-time relationships. It’s much harder to put a filter on real life so your interactions will be more genuine. Try apps like Mush or Peanut, which can help you to connect with like-minded mums in your local area in order to form friendships and support networks.
• Spend time helping others. Social media encourages narcissistic, self-obsessed thinking. Try volunteer work or helping out at your kids’ school or nursery – it’s been proven to counter both loneliness and depression, raise self-esteem and lessen patterns of negative thinking.
• Do a course. Netmums offers a free ‘Helping with Depression’ course, suitable for mums of babies and toddlers. It consists of 11 weekly sessions that build onto each other and are emailed to you directly. If your children are older, you can try the “Making Mums Happy’ course – a fortnight’s worth of daily tasks followed by a maintenance programme that’s said to improve happiness levels after three weeks.
*FYI, the week before I was mostly getting complaint letters because I included an armchair with the word "Shit" scrawled on it in a Homes feature. Let's just say my articles are engaging and thought-provoking, yeah?