How social media is literally making teens mentally ill

October 2, 2022

Suzie* was a typical 22-year-old recent college grad from the Midwest who was admitted into my mental health clinic in Austin with a variety of increasingly common psychiatric disorders: depression, self-harm (cutting her arms) and a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) diagnosis. BPD is a serious personality disorder that has 50 times the suicide rate of the general population and is typified by black and white thinking, self-harm behavior, emotional volatility, impulsive behavior, shifting self-image and feelings of “emptiness.”

While Susie did initially present with some of the classic BPD symptoms (feeling empty and suicidal), something didn’t add up. Unlike most BPD clients, she didn’t have any of the early red flags; she had good grades and many friends in high school with stable relationships and a stable home environment — and no history of mental illness in her family.

During Suzie’s treatment, we discovered the real culprit: she’d been spending 12-15 hours a day on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube after becoming depressed when her friends went away to university while she stayed home and attended community college. Initially trying to better understand her depression, she started to follow BPD influencers and joined online BPD groups, where she said that she felt a sense of belonging. Slowly and unwittingly, she started emulating what she was learning about BPD online — like cutting her arms after watching videos of influencers declare that cutting helped them feel in control — or at least “feel something.”

Suzie admitted that she never liked cutting herself but did it because she thought that it might eventually offer her relief. And starved for a true identity, she also stated that the cutting and irrational behaviors that the influencers engaged in “made them interesting and authentic,” which she found appealing. By the time she was ready to admit into treatment, she had lost all her friends and spent her days and nights alone and online being shaped by her newly found BPD community.

But something quite amazing happened while she was in treatment; she got better very quickly once all her devices and social media were removed. Within two weeks, she was calmer and less reactive; she made friends in the program; she no longer cut her arms and all thoughts of suicide evaporated. But if she really had BPD, she shouldn’t have been “cured” that quickly; clients with real BPD typically require many months or even years of treatment before seeing improvement. So what was really happening?   

We’re living in the Age of Digital Social Contagions. It’s a time where certain illnesses aren’t spread by biological transmission, but by a digital infection that attacks the psychological immune system. Using algorithms that find and exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, we get sicker as Big Tech gets stronger.

And make no mistake: we are getting sicker as a society, with record rates of depression, suicide, loneliness, overdoses, anxiety, addiction, emptiness, gender dysphoria and mass shootings that are disproportionately impacting teens and young adults, all made worse by the isolation and fear during COVID. 

Beyond just the depression of living sedentary, isolated lives, we have the congressional testimony of Frances Haugen, The Facebook Whistleblower, who shared internal emails that showed Instagram’s own research indicated that their product increased suicidality in teenage girls and worsened their eating disorders. It seems that being exposed to a constant torrent of toxic content and comparing ourselves to the curated faux-glamor of vapid and shallow influencers isn’t good for the psyche — but it’s even worse than this much-researched and toxic “social comparison effect.”

Followers and views are the coin of the realm in the social-media hierarchy, and extreme content is what attracts that priceless human commodity: our attention. That’s why it’s the most over-the-top content and influencers that attract followers like moths to a lethal digital flame. And it’s also why we’re seeing dramatic spikes in once-rare disorders like Tourette Syndrome, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  These disorders are now being injected into our collective consciousness via popular TikTok and Instagram “influencers” who’ve racked up hundreds of millions of views — and have left a wake of young followers like Suzie who, consciously or unconsciously, are indeed “influenced” as they emulate the psychiatric symptoms of their mentally unwell social media darlings. 

This social-contagion group effect shouldn’t come as a shock; for thousands of years we’ve seen it shape human behavior; from donning tribal war paint, to smoking cigarettes, to following your favorite sports team or joining a political movement. We’re social animals hard-wired to mimic and emulate one another. The only difference now that social media has swallowed up our world is that the impact of toxic and digitally spread behaviors are greatly magnified as they go viral.

Full article here:

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