By: Obse Abebe
It’s no secret that social media and mental health have clashed for as long as we can remember. From cyberbullying to unrealistic body expectations, the emotional burden of using social media can sometimes overpower the benefits. This emotional burden has increased for some as the spread of COVID-19 drove society into quarantine. And among the many pastimes people turned to, social media was a popular choice. Global Web Index, a market research company, conducted a global study in May and questioned over 17,000 individuals from 20 countries. They asked these participants if they spent more time on social media due to COVID-19. Out of all the participants, 54% of Gen Z, 44% of Millennials, 35% of Gen X, and 27% of Baby Boomers said yes.
Initially, social media was mainly used for entertainment and communication as everyone adjusted to life in a pandemic. However, this changed in late May during the resurgence of social movements, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. The uses of social media began to focus on activism and storytelling. Certain Twitter threads, Instagram infographics, and Tik Toks were shared on a large scale. These posts spread information about injustices such as police brutality, China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims, and the annexation of Palestine. Many also used social media to share links for petitions, donations, email templates, and phone call scripts. Along with this activism, social media has also seen an increase in storytelling. More people are recording and posting moments where they faced injustice.
From videos of police violating protestors’ rights to leaked videos of Uyghur Muslims facing torture, the truth is coming out digitally. The recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement further expanded the storytelling on social media. Black students and alumni from schools across the country posted their experiences with academic racism. They created Instagram accounts that began with “Black at” and ended with the name of their college or high school. Many of these accounts exist for MCPS such as @blackatbcc, @blackatwootton, and @blackatwhitman. These accounts were followed by others that addressed different demographics in schools such as @metoomoco, @lgbtq_at_rm, @jewsatbcc, and @disabledinmoco. These pages amplify voices that were unheard or even ignored and highlight how change is needed in our schools.
As amazing as this expansion of activism and storytelling was, it began affecting people’s mental health. Some posts inspired viewers to get involved whether that meant protesting or emailing their representatives. Other posts held heartbreaking and gruesome content that exposed the injustice in our world. While these posts spurred people into action, they also pushed some into a downward spiral of negativity. Doomscrolling, the act of obsessively surfing social media for bad news, soared which fueled anxiety, frustration, and terror. This was the case for Anika*, an MCPS student activist and frequent user of social media. She admitted, “It can get overwhelming. Because we live in the age of activism, especially in MoCo, almost everyone is involved in some way. And it’s further heightened in quarantine. From staying involved to reading heartbreaking stories on accounts like @survivorsatbcc to dealing with your own problems, it drains you.”
This sentiment was shared by Sandra*, a fellow MCPS student. She further explained, “Sometimes the activism and storytelling inspires me to step up and get involved. Other times…it sends me to a dark place and I find myself wanting to step back from it.” Anika and Sandra represent many people today who struggle to balance both social media and their mental health. This struggle can become more overwhelming as the school year begins and students experience the trials and tribulations of online classes. What can be done to prevent further distress from social media while remaining socially conscious and active? It’s clear that completely disengaging from current events isn’t an option.
Social media is finally showing the injustices that occur every day in our world and we must listen. It’s necessary to still engage with current events and movements, but don’t over-engage if your mental health is negatively impacted. Limit how much time you spend on social media and try other activities to relax or calm you down. Talk to friends, family, or hotlines if you need help. It’s okay to also use social media for a good laugh or to socialize. And if leaving social media is an absolute must, then do so. However, try to continue learning and being socially conscious outside of social media. Be as educated and active as you can without burning yourself out. Step up or step back as needed.
*all names were changed