UIC lecture focuses on social media and mental health
December 6, 2019

The panel featured Alexis Lauricella of the Erikson Institute and Adrian Massanari and Zizi Papacharissi of UIC’s Department of Communications.

By David Warren

Will you finish reading this article before checking your phone to read the newest notification? Who but the most disciplined person can resist the distraction? While most of us know we are in an anxious new world of social media, few know how good or bad this world really is for our mental health.

This topic was the latest in a University of Illinois at Chicago Campus Conversations lecture titled “What’s Going On and Why? Social Media and Mental Health,” held on the UIC campus in October. Sponsored by the provost’s office, the event featured presentations from a panel of three professors followed by questions from the audience.

According to Susan Poser, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, Campus Conversations are designed “to have faculty, students, and staff engage with each other about some of the big issues of our time going on now and affecting all of us.”

The panel of speakers included assistant professor Alexis Lauricella of the Erikson Institute, associate professor of communication Adrienne Massanari of UIC, and professor and head of UIC’s department of communication Zizi Papacharissi, who moderated the discussion, which focused on human nature as much as on digital technology.

Are people or media social?

Social media are new and rapidly evolving, but humans always have been social creatures. The term “social media” is a misnomer, according to Papacharissi, because wherever humans are, they act in social ways. People “tend to use the internet for connection, expression, but also to do mundane, boring things like looking up a recipe,” she said, noting the implication that we will always look outside ourselves and to a community to fulfill all types of needs, regardless of whether we have the internet.

When we enter an online space, we take the good and bad of ourselves with us, Papacharissi said, adding that cyberbullying and other hostile online activities may seem new and different, but we should not be surprised to see them wherever groups of people form communities. Still, these harmful behaviors should alarm us, even if they do not surprise us, she stated, saying we also see social media used to raise money quickly for charities, foster political and social movements, and help individuals and communities otherwise unknown.

All three panelists called social media a tool in the hand of the user, and not inherently moral or immoral. 

Lauricella pointed out how narrow conversations on this topic can be. Often articles and TV programs look to a particular tool or brand as the cause of mental health issues, to the exclusion of all the other factors in a person’s life affecting his or her mental health, she said, adding, “All the parts of our lives influence how we feel, how we respond, how we engage. No one person or one thing is really influenced by just one other aspect.”

Social media is just one part, so to understand more clearly how it affects mental health, we have to look at the individual user, the content, and the context, Lauricella said. When a 13-year-old girl looks at Instagram photos of her friends while alone in her room, her mental state differs from that of a 68-year-old grandfather looking at photos of his grandchildren, she said.

Moreover, even the same content can strike people differently. Massanari said she has blocked certain users from her Facebook news feed not because they post harmful content, but simply because their photos can spark negative feelings she wants to avoid.

What is different about social media?

The internet offers another space for us to interact, much like we do in person, but the online landscape is different and can be difficult to navigate. Papacharissi explained how social media can overwhelm us.

“Our natural tendency is to compare ourselves,” Papacharissi said. “The difference online is that we are comparing to millions of people, and that can be damaging. We have to realize what we are looking at is aspirational, idealized. The platforms create the illusion that we are looking at someone’s whole life.”

Much like a building, a website’s architecture influences how people behave in that space. A comment box draws discussion, and a “like” icon promotes interaction, for example. These cues to take action are called “affordances,” according to Massanari, and they set the expectations for behavior (and consequences when actions do not meet expectations, such as a user who feels hurt because no one “likes” her post).

Social media’s interactive nature—how users express themselves through actions including likes, pins, and retweets and how those actions get measured—means users can measure themselves easily by the quantity and quality of others’ responses to them, she added.

Besides promoting interaction, online platforms influence behavior by amplifying and displaying material. According Massanari, “our words and photos and memes often move far beyond the audience that we anticipated,” and as consumers we are “overwhelmed by material that’s hitting us all the time all day.”

Social media, designed to make everything more visible, “collapses the distance between individuals and communities,” she said. This aspect makes it an indispensable tool for activists who want to get their message across to a larger audience. At the same time, it serves as an indispensable tool for those waging hateful and violent campaigns, according to Massanari.

Online space differs in a definitive way from physical space, she explained, as context becomes elusive. People can report words meant for one context in a different context, sometimes to make an opposing statement. Their actions can sow confusion quickly and even unintentionally.

How do we interact with social media?

Each speaker remains optimistic about users’ ability to socialize online in a healthy way, despite the dangers. Papacharissi suggested users play and have fun on social media, while cautioning them to build some silence into their days. To her, social media is “like chocolate” and should be enjoyed temperately.

Lauricella encouraged users to be aware of themselves and the content they consume online. She mentioned she allows her teenage daughter to use social media only in the living room to prevent isolation. “Social media is about social connection,” so we should hesitate to judge younger generations who spend time with their friends through online platforms, she added.

Because of their unlimited access to these platforms, however, “Adolescents [of this generation] don’t have to be away from their friends, so it’s harder to be detached,” Lauricella said. She credits her husband as someone who integrates social media into his life well, knowing where to limit use.

Massanari urged older and less technologically savvy users to engage in the conversation about social media and mental health because it “does a disservice both to students, young people,” to avoid offering wise counsel simply because the older users do not entirely understand new media. “The jury is still out,” she said, on whether social media is good or bad for mental health, but more conversations like this are needed, in many different contexts, if “we intend to grow in our understanding” of how to use it well.

Lauricella recommended two helpful online resources. Common Sense Media, www.commonsensemedia.org/mental-health#csm-topics-related-articles, posts articles for adults and children that address topics such as how media can affect self-esteem. She cited “11 Social Media Red Flags Parents Should Know About” as
a particularly important article, www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/11-social-media-red-flags-parents-should-know-about. The Child Mind Institute, https://childmind.org/about-us/, offers
resources for parents, like an article addressing social media and self-
doubt: https://childmind.org /article-social-media-and-self-doubt/. 

For Lauricella, email alauricella@erikson.edu. Email Massanari at amass@uic.edu. For Papacharissi, email zizi@uic.edu. Email Poser at sposer@uic.edu.