Social Media and Mental Health

The Promise and the Peril

Photo from Pexel

Last Wednesday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned UK social media providers to work towards reducing the harmful effects of social media—especially among children—or face legislation (Donnelly, 2019).

This warning came as the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, released a review on the effects of screen-time on children’s mental health and advised parents to limit their children’s daily use to two hours or less. There wasn’t enough evidence to establish a causal link, but the review found that heavy social media use was associated with a doubling in depressive symptoms among youth. (Donnelly, 2019)

Canada is no stranger to the harms social media can visit on youth if it is misused. Look no further than Nadia Kajouji, Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The online world also holds great promise for mental health.

The Promise

In a recent interview on TVO’s The Agenda, psychiatrist Dr. David Gratzer was asked how he would characterize the promise of artificial intelligence and digital solutions for mental health care. He replied, “There’s hope that by tapping into the data that we’re generating with our phones, with our computers and with our interactions, maybe we’ll be able to get people better and faster help.” (Gratzer, 2019) e-Mental health is a priority area for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) precisely because of its potential to improve access (Mental Health Commission of Canada, no date).

Certainly better access is sorely needed. According to the MHCC, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem this year (MHCC, 2013, p. 1). In his blog, Why the future of psychiatry could be digital, Dr. Gratzer cites one study that found only 13 per cent of Canadians with depression have access to psychotherapy, a treatment of choice (2019).

Online treatment

Many of Gratzer’s patients already use apps to get information on their illnesses, as medication reminders, or to track their mood over time. And now people are increasingly looking to online therapy. It’s low-cost and, when done right, can be as effective as face-to-face care, he writes. (Gratzer, 2019)

Take Woebot for example. It’s a free therapy chatbot and app for depression and anxiety. It encourages users to engage in mental health practices every day and teaches cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques in the moment, as needed. The app has been proven to reduce symptoms of depression by 28% and symptoms of anxiety by 38% after only four weeks of therapy says psychologist Alison Darcy, Founder and CEO of Woebot Labs and Adjunct Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019)

But it’s buyer beware when it comes to picking a mental health app cautions Gratzer. Of the hundreds of depression apps, only a quarter of them meet basic quality standards (Gratzer, 2019). And popularity is no guarantee of effectiveness. Many of the most popular mindfulness apps are not the ones that work best (There’s an app for that, 2019). Darcy agrees that the best mental health apps are not built on persuasive tech that keeps your coming back for more. Rather, good mental health apps, like Woebot, typically rely on brief daily exposures of 5-10 minutes each. (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019)

Diagnosis and prediction of illness

It’s early days yet, but according to Gratzer, in the future we may be able to tap into Facebook posts and tweets to identify early signs of emerging illness. “It may be we can gather that information—information which would be pretty invisible to providers like me—we could harness that information and come back with a diagnosis long before a person is even sad.” (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019).

He points to one study that analyzed the data of 638 Facebook users and was able to predict future depression diagnoses as much as three months before it appeared in patient medical records as a diagnosed condition (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019).

Ability to identify communities at risk of suicide

I recall a meeting I attended with former Health Minister Jane Philpott a few years back. She expressed her frustration at our inability to identify communities like Attiwapiskat who are at risk of cluster suicides so we could deploy resources early and avoid needless deaths. It seems Philpott’s wish has come true.

Polly is an artificial intelligence (AI) forecaster developed by Advanced Symbolics Inc. Using aggregate, anonymised social media data Polly can detect, predict and prescribe changes in human behaviour. (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019). Consider, this AI accurately projected Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the last Ontarian election results (Beaulieu, 2018).

Working with researchers at the University of Ottawa, Polly has now learned to predict when a community is at high risk of experiencing a rash of suicides says Erin Kelly, President and CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc.

Watch this video to learn more about Woebot, Polly or the potential of digital media to predict, diagnose and treat mental illness. Mental Health: There’s An App for That, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, TVO, January 28, 2019.

A stigma-buster

Digital media can also help reduce the stigma of mental illness. Journalism professor Gavin Adamson studied how people share mental health and illness news online.  He found people in Canada tend to share positive mental health stories about recovery and interventions on social media and typically don’t share negative stories that linked crime and violence to mental illness. Stories that link mental illness with violence and crime are quite common in traditional media (Adamson, 2016).

A solution for social isolation

One of the often touted benefits of social media is how it can reduce social isolation. It can overcome distance and disability barriers and help you stay connected to family and friends. It can also help you find like-minded communities to share ideas or give you emotional support to cope with difficulties you’re facing, whether that be a mental illness or a child with a rare disease.

The Perils

Too much can lead to social isolation

Photo from Pexel

Social media can cut both ways when it comes to social isolation. One U.S. report suggests that too much time spent on social media can make people lonelier. It examined 200 adult users of Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr and found that those who spent more than two hours per day on social media had double the chance of experiencing social isolation. The study wasn’t able to determine whether socially isolated people were more likely to use these apps or if their use of apps caused their social isolation. (US psychologists claim social media, 2017)

Low self-esteem

The link between social media and low self-esteem has been made by numerous studies. Envy seems to be at the root of the problem. In her blog, Mental Health and the Effects of Social Media, Allison Abrams highlights a study of Facebook users which measured the effects of Facebook on mental health. It found, “regular use could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user.” But in the case where Facebook was used primarily to stay connected and did not trigger feelings of envy, there was a positive overall effect on the user’s mental well-being.(2017)

Why are we drawn to social media?

Photo from Pexel

It seems social media lights up the areas of the brain typically involved when someone engages in rewarding behaviours such as eating chocolate or winning money. Using brain scans, the UCLA study found that this reward circuitry was activated when teenagers saw large numbers of “likes” on their own photos or that of their peers. (Wolpert, 2016)

How to engage in a healthy way

The UK is attacking this issue at the highest level. Whether it will be done voluntarily, or their hand will be forced by legislation, social media providers are being asked to change the ways sites are built in the hopes of removing “addictive capabilities” which keep users hooked. This means getting rid of functions like “auto-play” where content runs on a continuous loop, “you might like” nudges towards particular videos or games and praise for regularly logging in. (Donnelly, 2019)

Measures to effectively verify the age of users, to generate age-appropriate ads and to remove harmful content such as bullying and self-harm image are also part of government demands. In theory, UK children under 13 can’t register for social media accounts. (Donnelly, 2019)

But you can take measures to safeguard your social mental mental health at the individual level. In Canada, has a social media screening tool you can use to see if your use is problematic and an information sheet for families which provides lots of great advice on mitigating the risks of social media.

Social media is here to stay. And like most young technologies we’re still figuring out, as a society and as individuals, how to harness its power while minimizing its potentially harmful effects.

Do you think your use of social media or that of your child might be problematic? Screen your use with the tools in the above paragraph and share your thoughts on what you find.

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Abrams, A. (2017, March 5). Mental health and the effects of social media [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Adamson, G. & Donaldson, L. & Whitley, R. (2016). Sharing Recovery Stories. Digital Journalism. 5. 1-16. Retrieved from

Beaulieu, C. (2018, November 26). Advanced Symbolics Inc & AI : Working together for a better social future [Website]. Retrieved from

Donnelly, L. (2019, February 7). Social media fuels ‘addiction’: Chief Medical Officer backs duty of care. The Telegraph. Retrieved February 8 from (2015, July 13). Unplug (from Technology) and Connect: Keeping Families Strong in a Wired World [Webpage]. Retrieved from

Gratzer, D. (2019, January 29). The future of psychiatry promises to be digital – from apps that track our mood to smartphone therapy [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Mental Health Commission of Canada (no date). e-Mental health [Webpage]. Retrieved from

Mental Health Commission of Canada (2013). Making the case for investing in mental health in Canada. Retrieved from

“Mental health: There’s an app for that”. (2019, January 28). TVO. Retrieved February 8 from

US psychologists claim social media ‘increases loneliness’. [No author]. (2017, March 6). BBC Newsbeat. Retrieved from

Wolpert, S. (2016, May 31). The teenage brain on social media: The findings in a new UCLA study shed light on the influence of peers and much more [Webpage] Retrieved from

8 thoughts on “Social Media and Mental Health

  1. This was a great article to read, particularly after the recent Bell Let’s Talk Day! You really highlighted some of the challenges that come with our mental health as a result of social media use. I love the idea that there might be an AI named Polly who could potentially track and reduce the risks of mental illness by recognizing what is being put on social media. It is a small win and opportunity for technology to benefit rather than hinder our society. I am really interested to see when and how governments implement and enforce laws intended to protect our society from over stimulation as a result of social media use. Particularly as it relates to children who are being taught that having your eyes permanently glued to a screen is normal. Thank you for writing such an important and relevant piece that everyone can take information away from!

    • Hi Brittany. Thanks for your comments. By the way, there really is an AI called Polly and she/it can identify populations at risk of cluster suicides. That said, applying Polly’s technology to this problem is still only two years into the research stage but it certainly is a brave new world out there. There is hope.

  2. This was a great read. As for children and the effects of social media I always found it interesting that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs limited/denied their children use of technical devices. (
    You clearing outlined the pros and cons where metal health is concerned and anything that helps can never be a bad thing, I am wondering if there had been any longitudinal studies done or are being done with correlations between childhood usage and adult mental health. This could be a very interesting field of study.

    • Hi there, By all indications the UK will likely fund longitudinal research. I would hazard such studies have begun in Canada too but it’s early days yet since social media hasn’t been widely used by children and youth for that long. It’s really only been a short while that we’ve been able to keep a powerful computer in our pocket aka the smartphone and take it everywhere we go.

  3. It is the first time I hear about Woebot and it teaches cognitive behavioral therapy. I will really check it out and recommend it for parents whose kids are suffering from depression and anxiety which is on the increase. Indeed, mental illnesses is on the increase, and that’s why I avoid using social media more than an hour a day. I found it very addictive, and statistics says that Americans view their phone around 80 times a day on vacation (

    I am also witnessing some symptoms of addiction within our kids, and they are finding it difficult to cope with social situation which is creating in return anxiety. Having our self esteem connected with the number of likes we receive is really a concern. We need as parents to increase the awareness of our kids of the risks that social media has on mental health on our children.

    Very good posting, and thank you for sharing such information!

    • Hi Maya, I share your concerns when it comes to our children and how the digital age will effect them. It can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it allows my son to stay connected to his grandfather in and the broader music community–he’s a musician as well as a student. On the other hand it makes it can make it harder to deal with normal relationship ups and downs by making it difficult to disconnect and take time you need, undisturbed to process what you’re going through. All I can say is I wish some of the guidelines that exist now–like no devices in the bedroom and bedtime–had been around so I could have set the ground rules around social media from the get-go. It’s so much harder to change bad habits than to build them from the start.

  4. Hi there,

    I really appreciate you taking the time to write such a well thought out post. As someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I often struggle with my thoughts on mental health and social media.

    On one hand, I hear all the stats about social media adding to depression and anxiety but for me, the internet has sometimes been a place to help me know my anxiety is normal.

    All too often people throw around the phrase “I’m so OCD”. If they knew what it actually felt like they would never joke about it. The more someone with actual OCD hears those jokes, the more you start to doubt your sanity. My fears and concerns may be nothing to someone else, but with my mental illness, they are very real. The internet has been a place I can turn to know I’m not alone in my concerns. I can read stories of other people with OCD and know others are going through the same thing I am. It makes me feel the opposite of the loneliness I hear social media should bring on sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I am more than aware that the internet has good and bad to it. I just wish more outlets would speak about how social media can be a tool to help those with mental illness. Also not just on one day a year for Bell Talk day. People need to support people with mental illness everyday and not just the day it’s trendy to do so. I am honestly glad for that day though.

    Before discovering people telling their stories of OCD online, I felt like I was the only one going through this. I hate to think that others are thinking they are alone too.

    How do you think the best way to let people know about these sources of hope? Do you think it needs to be a combination of offline and online information? Or do you think each mental illness is different and needs to be treated as so?

    Thank you again for the interesting blog post,

  5. I’m so glad this post resonated with you. Thank you for sharing and being brave in telling your story. Mental health is a topic dear to my heart and I did want to talk about more than just the downside. Like any tool, its about the way you use it that makes it healthy or unhealthy. It’s really about arming yourself with knowledge. How do we let people know about these sources of hope? The Canadian Mental Health Association, the Canadian Centre for Mental Health in Toronto offer fairly balanced views on the pros and cons of social media and how to use it wisely. CMHA specifically says that it is a place where people can find support and know they are not alone.

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