The impact of social media on our mental health

In my therapy room, social media is a frequent topic of conversation. Discussions invariably focus on its psychological impact on the client. However, the use of social media can have a significant impact on other people.


Social media can be a force for good; in an increasingly disconnected world, it can bring people together, combat loneliness and bring a sense of community and change. However, using it without being self-aware risks unleashing a chain of events which can snowball. We risk severely affecting not only our own mental health but also that of others.

My client, D, was a frequent user of messaging through social media which he considered to be harmless and quite safe. However, one day he sent a message to a young girl - the result of which nearly ended up with tragic consequences. 

When an individual such as D finds they are unable to stop messaging and such behaviour becomes a compulsion, the situation can quickly get out of control. By acting in the moment without reflection or consideration of the consequences, feelings of anxiety, fearfulness and chronic stress can develop. Unlike face-to-face encounters, we do not know for sure with whom we are communicating and social media, much like our own minds, can tell us all kinds of stories which may not be true or real.

Such risky behaviour online can lead to worrying and unintended outcomes.

Many of the people who access my practice feel stressed and overwhelmed. Messaging on social media can feel like a release, an escape from such pressures. This seemingly innocent act can offer a safe place away from external demands and expectations. However, when messaging becomes inappropriate and addictive this can fuel our stress and anxiety. We can begin to get confused over what is real or imaginary bringing frustration and anger. 

The use of social media not only impacts on our own mental health but also on those around us.

There is now substantial evidence to show that young females are especially vulnerable to the vagaries of social media. So whilst I was working with D (a male) it was also important to explore with him the impact social media may be having on the young woman he was messaging. He acknowledged this was something he would never do in 'real life'.

Therapy has a role to play in educating our clients on the impact their behaviour can have on others as well as on themselves. In my experience it is important to encourage the client to look at the circumstances in which the risky behaviour is taking place,  to step back and ask themselves this simple question: 'Why am I doing this and  how may it be affecting the other person?'

When I suggested this approach to D it was evident that he had not seen it from this perspective. Fortunately, he appears to have sought help before any immediate damage was done. However, it was only when his partner discovered what and who he was messaging he recognised he needed help in changing his thinking and his behaviour if he was to feel more in control of his actions. Words have consequences.

When D contacted me, he sounded very fearful and was worried he was on the verge of losing everything - his job, his family and above all his mental health. Constant messaging may have worked in the past but not any more. He had come to believe his messaging was a habit he had overcome. As it turned out, therapy had shown him this was not the case.

We took a look at the change in his recent circumstances. Having spent some time being present with his family, and not distracted by social media, he had recently returned to a job in which the use of social media was an intrinsic part of the work. He soon found himself blurring the boundaries of his personal and professional lives, the result of which led him to return to a habit which placed both himself and the person he was messaging, at risk.

He has acknowledged the things he was messaging online he probably would not say face to face; it was all happening so quickly; he was not taking time to think and was not taking responsibility for his actions. He described the thrill and excitement he felt. By his own admission messaging helped him feel in control and he could manipulate the situation.   

Upon further exploration, it turned out D was feeling isolated, suffering from social anxiety, susceptible to depression and experiencing difficulty in making and sustaining relationships in the real world. When we talked about his early life he recognised 'the boy code' - boys don't cry and they don't talk about their feelings. If he did, he felt ridiculed for being 'too sensitive'.

However, as is so often the case, when the real world and the online world collide, disaster strikes. D lost his business, put his family life in jeopardy and ended up alone and vulnerable. He felt shame and humiliation which heightened his anxiety and risked further isolation and depression.

Good therapy can help people like D by providing emotional support at a time of crisis. At times like these, we often feel lost, bereft, fearful and helpless. D took time to work with me instead of messaging on social media.

Therapy has shown D he could enter a therapeutic relationship in which he felt confident to examine his own behaviour in a safe and non-judgmental space. By doing so he could become more self-aware about the consequences his behaviour can have on other people - including those online. By taking the time to do this, he was not only learning how to relate to other people, but he could also get in touch with his authentic self. 

Contrary to childhood experiences, the client could be vulnerable, and find strength in being so.

Just one message had a snowball effect which could have led to a potentially disastrous outcome. Fortunately, that appears to have been avoided. It is my enduring belief that good therapy can indeed be life-saving and life-changing - both for the client and the people they are messaging.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Walsall, Staffordshire, WS6
Written by Lyn Reed, MA,MBACP,Pro.Adv.Dip.PC, Pgd.Cert. in Supervision
Walsall, Staffordshire, WS6

I offer a jargon free therapeutic service to those who wish to find their way to a better life. As a client centred therapist I have a special interest in neuroscience, narrative therapy, working with men and couple counselling. I also work with older adults helping them navigate their challenges and changes . I work face-to-face and online.

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