The Internet, Social Media, Covid, and Mental Illness

It’s one of the subjects that we don’t talk about enough, even though almost half of all people will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lifetime.  I’ve previously written about how you can use your smartphone in a more healthy way, but while it’s common to think of social media as something that most people are hooked on, while at the same time it’s very likely unhealthy for them to be using it, we don’t often consider the wider implications of Internet usage and how events such as the covid pandemic have affected huge swathes of society.

I want to deal with the elephant in the room first though, and this is to ask why it is we don’t discuss mental illness.  To be honest there are a variety of reasons but, with my untrained hat on, I believe there are three fundamental reasons why people don’t like discussing mental illness.

  • They simply don’t understand it, or can’t relate to how the other person feels enough to know what to discuss or what to say
  • They’re afraid of offending the other person, perhaps making their mental illness worse
  • They fear appearing weak and unable to cope, and of others thinking less of them as a result

There are, of course, social barriers to discussing mental health problems.  It has traditionally been seen in some societies and communities as taboo, perhaps because it is only in fairly recent times it’s been accepted as a “medical condition” in its own right.

We’re living in times however where an unprecedented number of people are suffering from depression, anxiety, and in some cases post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The effects of this can vary greatly from person to person.  Some people lost those closest to them during the pandemic, or were unable to see them before they died, or were unable to attend their funeral and feel they were robbed of the chance to say a final goodbye.

For others, the isolation of repeated lockdowns and working from home is enough to trigger depression.  Chatting to colleagues, friends, and family via a Zoom call is no substitute for chatting over the water cooler, or giving another person a hug.  When we see people being happy in calls, we often don’t think of how their expression might change moments after they press the end call button.

Then there’s stress caused to people bottled up in their homes with children.  It’s children of course who have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic as interacting with their friends and peers is how they learn about the world around them, and how they learn about their place and their behaviours in society.  Add into this the disruption to their school education and we’ve been storing up a problem that we perhaps haven’t seen the full consequences of yet.

So we get to the end of the pandemic and as people begin coming out into the world again we’re hit by more problems such as rising inflation and huge hikes in energy and food prices.  It all doesn’t seem to end.

But what of the Internet and social media, and how does this all play into the mental health problems that so many people have been suffering.  If you’ve never heard about the “infinite scroll” it was designed by Facebook to keep people hooked to its platform.  It’s just one of several techniques the company uses to keep us sharing and consuming content.  Perhaps the biggest worry however came from a whistle blower who said that Facebook’s algorithms prioritise hatful and bad content over good and happy content.

This happens because hateful and bad news content gets more engagement than good news and happy content, as people feel more strongly about it.  Facebook wants people to be engaged and thus will prioritise the most engaging content in the feed they see.  As you can probably imagine, being fed a constant stream of bad news and hate will negatively affect a person’s mood, especially if that person already feels isolated, anxious, or depressed.

There is, sadly, no easy solution to this, other than to perhaps not take people at face value when they seem happy and to speak to each other more openly and honestly about our feelings.  I for one have suffered anxiety now for more than twenty five years and I completely understand how frightening it can sometimes be.

So take care of those around you, tell them you support them, tell them you’re grateful for having them in your life, and don’t neglect your own feelings and needs either.  We are, let’s face it, all in this together, so together we should stand.