Social Media and Mental Health: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

April 09, 2024 - by Helen Veazey - in Health, Medical

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How technology changes society

With each wave of new technology, society changes profoundly. With the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century the dissemination of information sped up dramatically leading to increased literacy, the spread of new ideas, and the democratization of knowledge. Disruptive technologies like the telegraph and the TV have long been stirring up anxiety as their impacts on society unfold. Today, the internet, AI, and mobile devices have again transformed society leading to new concerns about what their impacts might be. The economy, healthcare, education, environment, social life, access to information, and communication have been revolutionized. While this revolution has undoubtedly led to many positive changes, such a change to such fundamental elements of our society has had a complicated effect on mental health.  This article will explore how the increasing ubiquity of social media may be impacting our mental health. In particular, we will explore what psychoanalytic thought may be able to offer us in understanding social media’s impacts.

Research Outcomes on Mental Health and Social Media as it relates to addiction, self-esteem, loneliness, social connectedness, depression, anxiety

As of 2021, an estimated 4.3 billion people had social media accounts (Braghieri, Levy, and Makarin, 2022). That amounts to more than half the world’s population. The average user spends 2.5 hours per day on social media, which combined is more than one month of the year spent on social media. According to several recent studies, time spent on social media has significant consequences for our mental health. The study by Braghieri et al found that after Facebook was introduced to college campuses in the mid-2000s, the mental health of students declined significantly. The study found that for those students most susceptible to mental illness, rates of clinical depression, and use of antidepressants increased. Students who were more susceptible to viewing their lives as unfavorable compared to peers such as those living off-campus, those not affiliated with student groups, and those of low socioeconomic status were especially negatively impacted by the introduction of Facebook.

Identity development and social media: the imagined audience

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson proposed that individuals go through eight distinct stages of development. In Erikson’s time, there was no social media. In considering what the impact of social media might be on psychosocial development from a psychoanalytic perspective, it may be important to consider how key stages of development may be shaped and/or complicated by the involvement of social media. On average, people start using social media at around age twelve (NCBI, 2018). According to Erikson’s model, individuals of this age are at the “identity vs confusion” stage. In this stage, adolescents explore their personal identity and values, leading to either a sense of self-assurance or a state of uncertainty and role confusion. Failure to successfully navigate any of Erikson’s stages, he argues, can lead to serious mental illness, relational issues, and difficulties with basic tasks of life. We can imagine that the confluence of the onset of identity formation as well as social media use may result in uncertainty and role confusion rather than self-assurance.

One such way that we might understand the way that social media might directly impact identity exploration and formation is through examining the adolescent-development concept, “the imagined audience.” The imagined audience is a concept that was initially proposed by psychologist David Elkind in the 1960s as part of his theory of adolescent egocentrism. The imagined audience refers to a phenomenon where individuals believe that they are the focus of other people’s attention, judgments, and evaluations, even when those people may not actually be paying attention to them or may not exist at all. This concept is closely related to the broader notion of self-awareness and self-consciousness.

Social media may intensify the experience of the imagined audience by expanding the potential reach of one’s communication, shaping selective self-presentation and identity performance, influencing validation and feedback dynamics, and creating pressure to conform to perceived norms. As individuals- especially those still exploring their identities- navigate the complexities of online communication, the imagined audience remains a central consideration in shaping their online interactions and self-representations. With the ubiquity of social media, the imagined audience may persist beyond the appropriate period of adolescent development. The experience of feeling judged and evaluated by a perceived audience may lead to older social media users to experience the increased anxiety and depression that is characteristic of this stage of adolescence. 

Object relations and social media

Object Relations Theory is a psychoanalytic approach to understanding human relationships and personality development. It focuses on how individuals internalize and relate to others (their objects) based on early experiences (or relationships) with primary caregivers. object relations theory may offer insights into how individuals engage with digital platforms, form online relationships, and negotiate the complexities of virtual social interaction. From an object relationships perspective, Internal objects are mental models unconsciously held of early caregivers that inform how we interact with others. A kind of heuristic that we carry in our minds to help us navigate any person we may meet, that allows for a fast response without having to treat each new encounter as foreign or novel. Sometimes this is helpful, but as you may suspect, this can often also lead to inaccurate interpretations of the actions of our objects. In the context of social media, such inaccuracies are likely rampant where individuals may project aspects of these internalized objects onto their online interactions, seeking validation, connection, or intimacy through digital channels in ways that may not ultimately serve them. 

Object relations theory emphasizes the importance of a transitional space, or object between inner psychic reality and external reality. A child’s blanket, or stuffed animal, is a common example of such a phenomenon. While a tangible object, a child may simultaneously imbue it with a parent-like ability to provide comfort–helping them transition into a space where they can tolerate the risks of being independent without feeling completely alone and separate from the parent or caregiver. Social media platforms, as a result of their partially concrete and partially imaginative nature, arguably can serve as a digital transitional space onto which individuals- particularly young people may project their needs and unconscious phantasies (as opposed to conscious fantasies), looking for comfort, meaning, identity, and growth. While this may not be all bad, looking to social media platforms, which can be dangerous spaces for young people as well as harmful to self-esteem, is quite risky. Following Erikson’s model, using social media as a transitional space heightens the risk of young people failing to successfully navigate the identity formation vs confusion stage. This makes navigating the following stages more difficult, increasing anxious and depressive symptoms and lowering self-esteem. 

Concerned about your social media use?

Therapy may be an effective tool for understanding and changing your relationship with social media. At Bay Psychology Group, our therapists are trained to think deeply with you about the ways that social media may be contributing to your mental health. We encourage you to bring up your concerns with your therapist and begin a conversation that can help bring insight and change to your patterns of behavior. 

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