For example, we need to unpack whether people self-harm regardless of what they see online, or if some individuals self-harm because they saw it online – i.e. these posts escalated their emotional distress into something physically harmful. Evidence from small interview studies, in which researchers ask people who self-harm about the role of social media in their behaviour, indicate the latter might be the case. But it’s difficult to assess with larger-scale studies, because it’s unethical to experimentally expose people to these images and then monitor whether they harm themselves.
Similarly, researchers need to examine whether the nature of cyberbullying – such as its 24/7 pervasiveness, wide audience and potential anonymity – makes it meaningfully worse than ‘only’ being bullied face-to-face. Intuitively, this makes sense. But decades of evidence tell us that real-world bullying alone can have devastating long-term effects on mental health. We therefore need to understand the extent to which social media brings additional risks to these already vulnerable people – without forgetting about the aforementioned factors beyond phones that have always increased the risk of serious psychological harm.
I’d also suggest we need more balance on this topic. Yes of course, we need to continue to understand the potential risks of social media, but not by ignoring its benefits. Dare I say it: for at least some people, social media is fun; it can actually be good for mental health.
There was a rather sheepish recognition of this once the pandemic hit. Commentators who had once been so quick to blame social media for mental health problems suddenly realised that, actually, it’s a pretty good way of communicating and connecting with others, and this is vital for mental health.