Social media is an everyday part of life for the vast majority of young adults. 90% of adults aged 18-22 use some form of social media, with the majority using at least two platforms on a daily basis. Despite its very high usage rates, the effects of social media on the development and mental health of young adults are not well understood.
Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube play a big part in the everyday interactions of many emerging adults and form a key context in the way young adults form their identity and maintain social connections.
While social media sites allow users to easily stay in touch and share news, pictures and stories with each other, they can also be a place of cyber-bullying and harassment. The distracting nature of social media websites can also lead to social isolation and avoidant behaviour where people refuse to engage with their problems in the “real world” and instead opt for the continuous distraction of their social media feeds.
Anxiety is a big problem for young adults. Early adulthood is a high risk time for developing anxiety disorders and anxiety is the second highest cause of disability in emerging adulthood. The current study aimed to establish if there is a link between high social media use and levels of anxiety.
600 participants with an average age of 20 were asked to rate the time they spent on social media. They were then assessed for dispositional anxiety (how anxious they are generally as a person) and recent levels of anxiety.
Participants spent an average of 6 hours on social media per day- a huge proportion of their time. It was found that social media use was strongly correlated with dispositional anxiety. Higher social media use was also associated with higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
So social media and anxiety at a personality level are strongly linked. But what is the underlying reason? One theory is that social media is a source of stress– it can be linked to cyber bullying and leads to pressure to provide regular updates and present an ideal image of yourself. This way that people tend to portray idealised versions of themselves online also leads to unfavourable social comparisons where many people believe your own life is inferior to that of others. Social media usage could also lead to information overload, with the constant barrage of information being thrown at you through your feed.
Of course, the link could be the other way round- people with high levels of anxiety could use social media more, rather than social media directly causing anxiety. Those with high anxiety may turn to social media as a less stressful way of interacting with people, or for validation through comments and “likes”. Further research needs to establish exactly how the link between anxiety and social media works, in order to better understand how young adults can learn to cope with anxiety. Since social media is such a huge part of life for so many people, understanding its role in anxiety could lead to the development of better treatment for anxiety in the future.