Social Media and Mental Health: A conversation with Dr. Assaf

By: Kasra Nosrati, Camila Garcia, Estefania Navarro, Kyle Hankins

The rise in the usage of social media has been imperative within the lifestyle of society. It has allowed us to connect with friends and family in ways that weren’t possible before, and it allows us to interact and engage with current events. As good as social media can be for us, there has been a troubling pattern between it and the mental health of citizens; social media has notoriously become known for its tendency to have its users cyberbully others online, and also its need to have users buy in to an image that social media tries to depict to other online users. 

To get more information about the relationship that social media and mental health has, we sat down with California State University, Fullerton Dr. Elise Assaf. Dr. Elise Assaf’s research focuses on social media and its impact on mental health. Within this interview, we asked Dr. Assaf about how the relationship has developed into the status that it is today, ways to promote mental health within social media, and the future of this relationship

Have you seen a trend between social media and mental health with the research that you’ve done?

  • Dr. Assaf mentions that the impact it has is significant. There has been a shift with people becoming more comfortable talking about their own experiences. This revolution parallels scientists researching it more and being more open about diving into the impact of social media and mental health. These research topics would be investigated as separated and combined research topics.
  • Dr. Assaf also mentioned that there are fewer academic research topics. It’s gone within television shows, plot lines, and story lines. It has become a topic of conservation of areas in life. People are more comfortable discussing it.

In my family generationally, my grandad probably wouldn’t talk about it very much. My mom is more comfortable talking about it. I’m most comfortable talking about it.”

How would you conduct research within the social media world?

  • While talking about how to conduct research within the social media world, Dr. Assaf said content analysis is a good way to do so. She mentioned a research project she did where she used content analysis. A good way to start conducting the research is by choosing different platforms, set a date parameter, and then collect all the posts that were published during that date parameter. 
  • Once the posts are collected, look at the comments section to see how people reacted to them because it allows the person that is doing the research to get a good sense of how the information is being received by the consumers. Content analysis can be done on visual components and on text, since some platforms are text based.

Why do you think social media has an effect? Do you believe there is a way to “tame” this effect?

  • Dr. Assaf believes that social media is so dominant in our culture that “it is bound to have an effect.” People spend so much time both producing and receiving content that it makes it hard for social media to not have an effect. Nowadays people in social media tend to be more uplifting and supportive of one another that, “there’s this natural progression in it being better now.” Dr. Assaf believes the problem is in people who do not know how to use and how to act on social media. 
  • Most of the people who do not know how to use social media are younger kids, who are still trying to figure out the impact of words and how it can impact people. Dr. Assaf believes that besides setting parameters to only allow access from a certain age or just blocking people on social media, that there is not much that can be done to “tame” this effect that social media has in our current culture.
Source: Statista, Broadband Search

How do you believe the future of social media and mental health will work out? 

  • When asked about the future relationship between social media and mental health, Dr. Assaf emphasized the growth that has already occurred between the two. She believes that social media has grown in its understanding of mental health by using the example of body shaming and the direct ties it has with mental health. 
  • While social media used to be a place where body shaming was constantly being used if a post didn’t fit the ideal body standard, today it’s a place where all bodies are, for the most part, embraced and there is a safer space for people to be themselves. Dr. Assaf states, “there has been a call from society for these platforms to be better.” While there is much that has improved due to the call society has placed, there is much more that can be done.
  • The future of social media should be open to embracing mental health, according to Dr. Assaf and her research works to highlight what more can be done to further these improvements. Dr. Assaf ended by saying, “you need audience members, creators, and platforms to be open to the fact that things could be improved and then have these discussions about how to improve them over time.” Her research will continue to view these relationships while highlighting the important role that social media plays on people’s mental health.
Source: Vox

What is the future for social media and mental health? 

  • When asked about the future of social media and mental health Dr. Assaf stated that she believes that it is something that can be talked more about from the users of the platform. Essentially, it would be from people that feel comfortable about sharing their experiences. Obviously influencers and celebrities have the largest following and so having them being open to discussing it.
  • Dr. Assaf also doesn’t expect anyone to forcibly share their story, “I mean it’s their story. So it should be up to them on how much they tell. I know there is a lot of influencers who get questions about and want their followers to share more than what they are willing to share and I don’t think that is fair just because they are sharing one part of their life doesn’t mean that they have to share everything but obviously the more people that do share their experience the more that we understand that it is not a singular experience that a lot of people go through mental health experiences.”
  • According to Dr.Assaf, she thinks that some people would put others into a box if they acknowledge that they have anxiety or depression and not understand that, that is something that can fluctuate and change over time and so that label can be something that prevents people from sharing their stories. So maybe changing that discourse would be beneficial. Being able to learn from others mental health experience will go a long way to mental health throughout social media.

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