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Science

Social Media and Mental Health

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Is social media a force for good, improving connectivity between people, allowing us to find new friends, promote worthwhile causes, and seek support during tough times? Or is something more insidious going on in the background? Is social media addictive, altering our perception of reality, causing political polarization, driving the spread of misinformation, and harming our mental health? This week on Mind Tap, I speak to clinical psycho-pharmacologist Dr. Ryan Manwaring, and Kellee Kirkpatrick, Professor of Public Policy at ISU.

This week on Mind Tap, I am investigating the impact that social media may be having on our mental health during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Is social media a force for good, improving connectivity between people, allowing us to find new friends, promote worthwhile causes, and seek support during tough times? Or is something more insidious going on in the background? Is social media addictive, altering our perception of reality, causing political polarization, driving the spread of misinformation, and harming our mental health?

To seek to an answer to this question, I first turned to the scientific literature. One study of 4800 Chinese citizens, investigated if social media exposure was correlated with reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. This study had two key findings; First, that mental health problems are now more prevalent during the pandemic than compared to before the pandemic and secondly, that social media exposure, which is simplistically how much social media we use daily, is correlated with mental health. In the study, the more social media a person used, the worse their mental health. However, this study only paints part of the full picture. It shows us that social media may be impacting our mental health, but it doesn’t investigate why. So this week on Mind Tap, to help me dive into this topic, I speak to clinical psycho-pharmacologist Dr. Ryan Manwaring, and Kellee Kirkpatrick, Professor of Public Policy at ISU, who’s research often considers the influence of social media.

One factor that gets bounded around in this conversation is dopamine. I asked Dr. Marwaring is Dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, actually important to consider here.

“Dopamine is there to reward you every time you do something that is good for you”.

Dr. Manwaring is worried that if we highjack the dopamine system, particularly by overstimulating it with exposure to social media, our bodies may become desensitized. The problem with desensitization is that we feel we can only get a necessary dopamine hit when we use social media, with typical day-to-day activities and interactions no longer fitting the bill. This can have impacts on our relationships, hobbies and over important aspects of our lives. However, Dr. Manwaring is more worried about how social media may be impacting our sleep.

In the Mental Health Clinic in Meridian, Idaho where Dr. Manwaring works, he often talks to his patients about two key issues, sleep and screen time. The two issues are connected, the more time we spend on our screens, particularly in the evening, the poorer quality and quantity of sleep that we get.

Dr. Manwaring’s clinical perspective was very insightful. But I also want to explore something a little less established – the link between social media, politics, disinformation and mental health. To do this, I started by asking Kelle Kirkpatrick, Professor of Public Policy at ISU, when social media started to become important in politics.

“It was in the 2008 election. Candidates started to have more extensive websites, YouTube channels, Facebook pages etc. Social media started to become a place that people went to get their information. People now are using social media for all types of political interaction, particularly young people. However, the problem is we don’t know how accurate that information is, and often it is interspersed with very polarized opinions, not just straight facts and reporting.”

Dr. Kirkpatrick is worried that the transition to using social media for political news and interaction is driving political polarization, where people become very zoomed in on one set of polarized opinions, and miss the moderate truth that is out there.

But why does this matter. Why does political polarization and disinformation impact our mental health? And why has COVID-19 exacerbated this issue.

Dr. Kirkpatrick believes that the pandemic has made the issue of social media and political polarization much worse because we are now all very isolated. As a result, we are not only consuming less social media, but it is now our only connection to the real world. We are also on information overload, and much of this information on COVID-19 can be very scary and sometimes false.

I think this gets to the heart of the issue. When we are isolated at home, and we turn to social media, we are hit by polarized and embellished news. This works to push divisions into parts of society, compound feelings of isolation, and break down community identity.

Dr. Kirkpatrick is an advocate for checking your media. She explained that it is important to check your online sources. For instance, if you come across a piece of news that seem bizarre or overly political, it is worthwhile checking it against known reputable sources. This is particularly important if you are sharing information online, you don’t want to become part of the problem. Finally, Dr. Kirkpatrick explained the importance of practicing grace online. We need to recognize that this is a difficult period for everyone and that we are all working together for shared ambitions, such as overcoming the virus and keeping our loved ones safe.

Thanks to both Dr. Manwaring and Professor KirkPatrick this week. Next Friday is actually Christmas Day, so Mind Tap will be re-airing one of our more funky episodes, which focuses on the Dutch Ice Man Wim Hof. I will be back with a new episode, on the Friday after Christmas, which is New Year’s Day, where I speak to Dr. Rick Pongratz, head of Counseling and Testing at ISU.

Join me, Scott Greeves, for Mind Tap, every Friday at 7.35am,