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Social currency: likes, limits, and social media anxiety

Dr Phoebe Hill

21 Jul, 2017


Social media is causing anxiety among young people for numerous reasons. Phoebe Hill explores how to help young people draw healthy boundaries online.


I was walking home with one of the girls from my youth group last night, and chatting about the holidays. We were talking about a big trip she is going on, which involved staying in a place with no Wi-fi for three weeks. She was sharing with me how anxious she feels about it, and asked if I would pray for her while she is away. When I asked her why she felt anxious, she said that she was worried for her friendships. I assumed she meant being out of touch for so long, but she continued to explain that she wouldn’t be able to like their pictures on Instagram while she is away, and that they therefore may no longer be friends with her by the time she’s back. Her way of processing her anxiety was to say that she would like all of their pictures as soon as she got Wifi at the airport.

I had no idea that the digital rules for young people were so complicated. It seems that secure friendships for young people these days involve consistently liking each other’s pictures, for fear of what may happen if they don’t. Digital interactions trump physical ones, with friendships seemingly continuing or ceasing depending on the ultimate social currency: likes.

The saddest thing for me is that in the majority of conversations I have with young people around social media, they tell me that they wish social media didn’t exist. It’s a lose lose situation for them, as to opt out of Instagram or Snapchat is akin to a social death, but opting in demands a certain level of participation and interaction. It’s a bind that many don’t feel able to break free from.

I’m so grateful that I grew up before the social media onslaught, and therefore feel free to opt in and out of digital platforms as I please. It’s hard to relate my own teenage experience to that of my young people’s. I’ve been trying to imagine an equivalent social scenario from my days as a teenager, and the only thing that seems to come near was the outrage of not showing up to someone’s party, and the subsequent fall-out or drama that ensued. With social media, young people have to show up to their friends ‘parties’ every day to prevent fall-outs and drama. It’s an impossible and demanding reality.

This isn’t the only reason social media causes anxiety. Here are a few pieces of research which highlight the prevalence of anxiety in young people around social media, for various different reasons:

1. Comparison

A new study from two health organisations (The Young Health Movement & Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), May 2017) reveals that four of the five most popular forms of social media harm young people’s mental health, with Instagram being the most damaging. The health groups accused it of deepening young people’s feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

2. Sleep deprivation

One in five young people regularly wake up in the night to send or check messages on social media, according to new research (Sally Power, Chris Taylor, Kim Horton. Sleepless in school? The social dimensions of young people’s bedtime rest and routines. Journal of Youth Studies, 2017; 1). Their constant checking of social media through the night leads to tiredness, and could be affecting their happiness and wellbeing. A longitudinal study of 1,101 Australian high school students aged between 13 and 16 found poor-quality sleep was linked to a decline in mental health, such as depressed moods and declines in self-esteem and coping ability (Murdoch University, Perth).

3. FOMO and numbers of likes

The Clute Institute has created a scale for measuring FOMO (fear of missing out), which includes measures around inadequacy, irritability, anxiety, and self-esteem. In a video made by SheKnows, a group of teen girls explain how texting, a lack of “Likes” and FOMO can make you second-guess yourself. As one participant explained, even when texting a close friend to make plans, she doesn’t want her words to be mistaken for apathy, so she’ll always put a smiley face with her response. Many young people report deleting photos from their social media profiles when they don’t get enough likes.

So how can we help young people navigate the difficult world of social media, and safeguard their mental health? Here are a few tips to share with your young people, from SelfharmUK’s Jess Whittaker (the full blog can be found here):

Limit the time you spend on there:

Like all social medias, Instagram can get kind of addictive. Whilst you might feel like time stands still when you’re on there, it doesn’t. You can literally Insta-away your whole weekend and before you know it, it’s Monday already and your back at School or College again! Just think of all that time wasted and all the fun things you could of been doing instead!? Next time you’re on there, set an alarm to ensure you don’t stay on there for too long, or only look during a short car ride somewhere. As soon as you are where you need to be, close your Instagram app and engage with your surroundings.

Stop comparing yourself to others:

This is a tough one. It’s easy for people to tell you not to compare yourself to others, but the truth is, it’s something that everyone has to deal with throughout their lives every now and again. It becomes a problem, however, when it starts to affect your self-esteem, so how you feel about yourself, and you stop doing the things you used to enjoy because you can’t see the point anymore. If you think Instagram (or any social media for that matter) is starting to make you feel that way, tell a family member or trusted adult. Speaking up isn’t easy, but talking about how you feel is the first step to getting help.

Think that if it looks too good to be true - it probably is:

Chances are you already know this, but lots of photos we see on social media have been digitally manipulated. This means that they have been edited on a computer using software like Photoshop to make them look better than they are. Many of the Fashion brands or Celebrities you follow will use this technique, but it’s something we constantly have to remind ourselves of as they can become the norm and start to look real. Next time you see a photo of someone on Instagram, who looks too perfect to be real, have a laugh about the fact that nine times out of ten, they probably aren’t!

Know where you can go for support if something you’ve seen is bothering you:

If you see something on Instagram (or any other social media platform) that upsets you for any reason - report it using the options available, then tell a family member or trusted adult immediately. If you don’t want to talk about it with someone you know, you can call The Samaritans or Childline at any time.

Don’t go on Instagram alone:

At the end of the day, if you’re someone that has always struggled with how social media makes you feel, schedule times to login with your friends after School or College. This way you can instantly discuss anything that you have seen that is upsetting you and find out what your friends think. Again, if you’re still unsure, you can always talk to a family member or trusted adult.

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