Is social media making us more anxious?

Article by Alana Schetzer /
SBS /
December 3, 2018 /
Click here to view original /

Anxiety has long been a highly misunderstood and stigmatised mental illness that has forced many sufferers to keep quiet about a condition that can cause a host of symptoms including feeling powerless, an increased heart rate and breathing, trembling, dizziness and a sense of impending panic.
But in the past few years, the veil that kept anxiety hidden from widespread recognition and understanding has started to be slowly lifted, in part because of the increasing number of celebrities who have discussed their own battles with anxiety, including Demi Lovato, Ryan Reynolds and ‘no sugar’ crusader Sarah Wilson.

Vogue Williams isn’t a big name in Australia, but in the UK and her native Ireland, she’s well known as a model, Instagram influencer, and former reality TV contestant. And she’s the latest celebrity to add her name to the public conversation on anxiety.

As part of her three-part documentary series that also includes a look inside the vexed issues of ‘sugar daddies’ and single women conceiving using donated sperm, Williams opens up about her own encounters with the disorder that affects two million Australians every year.

“It’s a nightmare, when you’re alone in your own head. I’m just upset. I’m so fed up of feeling like this,” she says during the show.

As well as discussing her own struggles, Williams visits people whose anxiety is not just a minor setback, but has overwhelmed their lives, including a woman whose symptoms are so bad she will only leave her house if she has a backpack that’s filled with every conceivable item she might need, including two phone chargers, a slingshot and a resuscitation mask.

And Williams admits to her heavy use of social media, saying that she wakes up at 5am to check her accounts and spends about four hours every day on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. She openly questions whether she’s seeking validation from the constant flow of likes and clicks.

“I am feeling absolutely disgusted with myself,” she says at one point. “Getting up at five in the morning to go on my phone; there is something wrong with me.”

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who is a senior lecturer in social and political sciences at the University of Melbourne, says that fear of missing out and comparing your life to someone else’s online can fuel anxiety, sometimes at a significant cost to your health and wellbeing.

“While I don’t believe social media can create mental illness, I do think it inflames it in some people,” she says.

A group of researchers at the University have found a link between social media and anxiety, but it’s not known if it’s social media use that leads to anxiety or if anxious people simply spend more time on social media. It’s a 21st century chicken or the egg conundrum.

Dr Rosewarne adds that the rise in celebrities openly discussing their own anxieties can make a genuine difference to de-stigmatise and even normalise mental illness.

“When people we admire and consider as role models admit that they too are human and flawed, it reminds everyone else that we’re not alone and that people with lives we envy also sometimes suffer the same ailments as we do,” she says.

However, she cautions that while some of these personal stories may be useful or comforting, sufferers should seek care and support from mental health experts.

“A celebrity’s self-care plan may not be relevant to our own situation.”