So it looks like Instagram could be really, really bad for your mental health

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Moya Crockett
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Instagram is the worst social media platform when it comes to negatively affecting young people’s mental health, new research suggests.

Almost 1,500 people aged 14-24 took part in a snapshot survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

The poll asked participants to rate five of the UK’s most popular social networking apps – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat – on 14 health and wellbeing issues, including anxiety, depression and body image.

Snapchat and Instagram were found to have the worst impact on mental health based on these scores, the BBC reports – although Instagram was also shown to have a positive effect on self-expression and self-identity.

At the other end of the scale, YouTube was found to have the most positive impact on mental health, followed by Twitter and then Facebook.

“It is interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing,” says Shirley Cramer, the RSPH’s chief executive. “Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

Cramer believes that there is an increasing need for society to focus on the potentially damaging impact of social media.

“As the evidence grows that there may be potential harms from heavy use of social media, and as we upgrade the status of mental health within society, it is important that we have checks and balances in place to make social media less of a ‘wild West’ when it comes to young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” she says.

Public health experts are now calling for social media platforms such as Instagram to implement such ‘checks’. Popular suggested strategies include introducing pop-ups which warn users when they have used social media for a long time – an idea supported by 70% of young people surveyed.

Another popular suggestion was the introduction of a voluntary code, whereby brands, celebrities, influencers and other advertising organisations promise to display a small icon on any photos that have been digitally manipulated beyond the filters the app is known for.

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In response to the survey results, Instagram said that maintaining a safe and supportive space for young people was one of the company’s top priorities, and that information was already available on the platform to help users cope with cyberbullying.

Instagram also provides warnings before showing certain content, and in October last year rolled out a new feature allowing users to anonymously flag if they are concerned about another user’s mental health.

Like most studies on the topic, the RSPH’s survey focuses on younger millennials and ‘Generation Z’ (those born in the late Nineties and early 21st century). This prevalence of research into young adults’ experiences of social media can, in part, be attributed to the fact that younger people have grown up with digital communication – and so are arguably more likely to feel its effects.

However, evidence suggests that adults in their 20s and 30s can also feel that their mental health is significantly affected by the overuse of social media.

One 2015 study by psychologists at Pace University in New York found that Instagram can have negative associations with depressive symptoms for adults aged 18-29 (although this correlation was reduced in users who followed people they knew in real life, rather than lots of strangers).

Another study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, showed a correlation between time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms.

Celebrities such as Fearne Cotton, Anne Hathaway and Emma Watson have also spoken out about how they have experienced the relationship between social media and mental health.

“Social media is a tricky one because I love it and I dislike a lot of it as well,” said Cotton in February.

“I like the fact that it gives me a control as to what I would like people to see of me, it’s less hearsay, less second-hand news. But the bit that is dangerous, especially for younger women, is looking at other people’s lives and doing that awful ‘compare and despair’ sort of thing.

“You put your own life against others and [sometimes you start] believing in the fantasy that you see.”

Images: iStock, Rex Features