By Caroline Coykendall & Diana Sierra
We spoke with Professor Elise Anguizola Assaf, who has a background in communications and disability studies. She takes a special interest in mental illness and how it can be portrayed in the media. She provided us with some insight into how social media can both help and harm its users. Social media is one of the most popular forms of online activities. With over 3.6 billion people using it within the last year alone, that number is expected to increase. Since social media has become popular, it is known to cause mental strain on those who actively use it. Apps like Facebook and Instagram are known for the mental damage they can cause to young adults who constantly compare themselves to what they see online. Recently, with the rise in mental health awareness, some of these social media users have even gone as far as using social media as a way to diagnose themselves. They look to apps like TikTok and their “therapy influencers” as a gateway to discover what is wrong with them, expecting a thirty-second video to explain it all.
Elise Anguizola Assaf is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. As a professor there, she mainly teaches public relations courses in the undergraduate communications program. Professor Assaf holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Communications, with an emphasis in public relations, from Cal State Fullerton. She is now pursuing her Ph.D. in Education at Chapman University. Professor Assaf takes particular interest in looking at representations of mental health in the media.
Her interest in mental health representation in the media can be seen in her most recent work, Hidden Power: Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels. When asked about her research, Professor Assaf explains that her research revolves around how news reports describe mental illness. She explains that through these descriptions in the media, there are certain “gatekeepers” who decide how certain mental illnesses are perceived. Most of these individuals are authority figures who are not qualified to give their thoughts and opinions on such news reports, which makes it problematic. The voices of the individuals that are qualified are not often seen as “authority figures.” When asked why she chose newspapers as her primary source of research, she explained that although physical newspapers are no longer popular, online news articles have a strong influence on the public, which is what encouraged her to research them.
Low Context, High Assumption
In Professor Assaf’s research, there is an emphasis on the importance of context and tone in audience understanding. These aspects play a significant role in how young adults perceive others and themselves through the lens of social media. We asked Professor Assaf to break down how the lack of indication or context in social media posts can lead to mental health effects such as distorted or negative self-perceptions. She applies her knowledge of news consumption and describes the similarities between it and social media. She explains that with newspapers, people tend to read the headlines and not the story but assume that they know the whole story based on the small amount of information they are given. For social media, people see one picture or caption and quickly decide that the posting reflects the person’s life. She says people are “limiting a situation to a title or a caption” by doing this. Professor Assaf states that online news publications and content creators post “things that will make people interested in clicking on it,” meaning that people online post to get others’ attention, which may lead to specific emotional reactions from the audience. Although social media can be positive in some ways by allowing people to stay connected despite physical distances, subtly harmful posts are a pitfall to its greatness. Professor Assaf claims that these negative posts “either affect them or they go and share it with other people, and it can kind of spread like wildfire without knowing if that is the correct emotion to have because all of the context is gone”.
Utilizing Qualitative Content Analysis
Professor Assaf’s qualitative research focuses on content analysis while utilizing critical discourse analysis for newspaper texts. She states that “words come in and out and can mean different things to different people,” so using these methods was a “good way to analyze the language and discourse.” To understand why people view topics such as mental health a certain way, she had to look at how it was being portrayed in the media and how it translates to its audiences. Professor Assaf acknowledges that although content analysis is typically a quantitative research method, she believes that by altering it to be qualitative, she could better understand her study. She explains, “one of the reasons that I prefer qualitative research as opposed to quantitative is because qualitative gives you that context…people will say numbers don’t lie but the reality is that you can pick and choose what numbers you are sharing in order to emphasize or deemphasize certain things”. In order to fully understand the context of the biases that were occurring from news publications, she had to collect the amount of times ‘buzz words’ such as “crazy” were mentioned and how it’s portrayal could affect the people reading the information.
Mental Health Awareness on Social Media
When it comes to mental illness, it takes more than just a couple of searches online to be able to diagnose. Nowadays, there are therapists online from personal, couples, and even sex therapists who make videos and posts on social media apps to help the public. Take, for example, the many creators on apps like TikTok and Instagram with millions of followers. Creators like them promote mental health awareness, even posting content relating to “signs” that may suggest you have a specific mental health disorder. Although mental health awareness and the normalization of mental health are important, the harm comes once their audience begins to apply every symptom listed to themselves.
While interviewing with Professor Assaf, we asked her what her thoughts were on such influencers and the impact they carry. She claims that such popularity for these content creators is like a “double edged sword.” She goes on to explain that although it does encourage people to seek help, it also enables them to diagnose themselves, which is dangerous. Professor Assaf states, “You have these short snippets of these influencers sharing their experiences without knowing of the other things that go into that diagnosis…with mental health, the brain is a very complicated system”. She goes on to explain how different types of mental illnesses can have symptoms that overlap, making it more complicated to truly self-diagnose. Most videos put out by these “influencers” are general and broad, so making such videos can be problematic. Especially to someone who can’t afford to be professionally diagnosed and bases their mental health on 30-second videos.
Assaf, E. A. (2020). Hidden Power: Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels (PhD Dissertation). Chapman University of Orange, California.
Elise Anguizola Assaf: Department of Communications: Cal State Fullerton – Department of Communications: CSUF. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2021, from http://communications.fullerton.edu/comm/faculty/anguizola-assaf_elise/anguizola-assaf_elise.php
Google. (n.d.). [Man with his hands over his head surrounded by social media logos]. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from https://www.riseservices.org/the-impact-of-social-media-on-mental-health/
Herman, B. (n.d). Overload [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.st-artmagazine.com/artsandculture/2017/3/29/art-and-mental-health
Statista Research Department. (2021, September 10). Number of Social Network Users Worldwide from 2017 to 2025. Retrieved November 03, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/
Professor Assaf Interview Questions: Meghan Kington, Caroline Coykendall, & Diana Sierra
Interview with Professor Assaf: Elise Anguizola Assaf, Caroline Coykendall, & Diana Sierra