Since the advent of social media, in the past decade, information about people’s lives has become increasingly accessible in the public sphere. Especially in the past year, new story features in popular social media platforms have allowed people to broadcast their lives to the world in real time, with updates by the second and renewed in a mere 24 hours. On one hand, these changes have allowed society to be more inter-connected than ever and the world has consumed it on a large scale. On the other hand, the broadcasting of our lives in real-time has also caused a worldwide mental health problem. In the United States, Ashawnty Davis killed herself after a video of her in a schoolyard fight went viral on the app Musical.ly. Davis was just 10 years old. Less than a week later, Rosalie Avila hung herself after receiving abusive online messages. This time, the child was just 13 years old. In Japan, which was ranked with one of the world’ highest suicide rates with 19.7 per 100,000 according to a 2015 report from the World Health Organization, also has experienced several deaths linked to social media. Last October, nine people aged 15-26 were found dead after being targeted over social media. Suspect Takahiro Shiraishi allegedly found his victims after several of them expressed suicidal thoughts on Twitter, with many of the victims using the hashtag #suiciderecruitment. Following the incident, Twitter altered its rules regarding violence and self-harm. Twitter announced “You may not use hateful images or symbols in your profile image or profile header. You also may not use your username, display name, or profile bio to engage in abusive behavior, such as targeted harassment or expressing hate towards a person, group, or protected category.” Twitter initiated the rule mid-December 2017. But will updated rules make a difference? According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide rates among children aged 15-19 hit a 40-year high in 2015. The same rate mimics the advent of social media and information sharing, which the youth demographic has embraced now more than ever before. A study by the American Journal of Epistemology found the link between mental health and social media lies in the lack of in person interactions. More often than not, millennials communicate online rather than in person, through not just messages, but also pictures, videos, comments, and likes, particularly on platforms such as Facebook. Although the study found that depression and social media had no direct relationship, the research concluded that it does “increase the risk of mental health problems and might compromise well-being more generally.” Instagram, which has become one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, was also named the worst for one’s mental health, according to a study by the Royal Society for Public Health. The research cited that image-based platforms are worse for mental health than other platforms. The study found that YouTube was the most positive social media platform. The global debate surrounding social media and mental health also has its pros and cons: social media can be beneficial in spreading awareness as well as negative in messages that support suicide or damage one’s mental health. December 31st, a popular YouTube blogger and social media star Logan Paul posted a video making fun of the body of a man who hung himself in Japan’s Akutagawa forest, also known as Japan’s “suicide forest”. The backlash surrounding the incident highlighted how social media can also be used to mock mental illness and suicide. The video and other media coverage of suicide can weaken suicide prevention efforts, according to the World Health Organization. With social media, the negative coverage of mental illness can often be amplified. In the WHO’s 2017 guide for covering suicide, the organization said that suicide should never be photographed or filmed and that suicides “can spread easily via sensationalist media reporting—an effect that can be accelerated via social media.” In Japan, the suicide rate is 21.7 per 100,000 for males and 15.4 per 100,000 for females, according to a 2015 report from the WHO. The report also found that Europe had the highest suicide rate in 2015, particularly in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. Even given the high global suicide rates, governments worldwide have enacted different policies to address social media’s link to mental health. In Japan, the government implemented help line programs to address the growing social media-linked suicides. The education department in the country has invested ¥10 million in social media apps that connect students to help lines. In addition, the government began a “cyber patrol” program that would monitor internet content and remove potentially hurtful online content. In the U.S., little legislation has been enforced to monitor internet content or address mental health. First Lady Melania Trump announced that she would be tackling negative social media during her husband’s presidency. In a 2016 speech she said “we need to guide them and teach them about social media because I see a lot of negativity on it and we need to help them.” However little legislation or action has reflected her sentiment. When it comes to regulating social media content, countries have different laws determining the information that can be accessed and shared online. In addition, mental health awareness also varies by country’s government and culture. Ultimately, combatting the effects of social media on mental health means internet regulation, which is nearly impossible in the new era of media and information sharing. But with rising cases of social media deaths at younger and younger ages, the problem is eminent.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.