Social media can often be one of the first places people with anxiety turn to for information and coping strategies. But is what they found correct or even helpful?
While there are several studies trying to understand the link between social media and anxiety — and whether spending more time on social media has an impact on mental health — not much has been explored about whether social media sources contribute to a better understanding of Anxiety can cause or how to deal with it.
Jeremy Pettit, professor at the FIU Center for Children and Families (CCF), and Ph.D. Student Rebecca Wolenski wanted to find out. They published the results of their study in Psychology of Popular Media. Here they break down their findings and suggest where to find good sources of information.
First, does an anxiety diagnosis make someone more likely to search for information about anxiety or coping strategies?
Our data shows that people with high levels of anxiety are more likely to seek information about anxiety and coping strategies. This includes searching for information on social media and other sources such as websites, books, and friends and family. This makes sense: When people perceive they have anxiety issues, they seek information to better understand their experiences and learn strategies to deal with them.
In general, this type of information search can be seen as positive, since it is a “problem-oriented” way of coping. However, it is important to remember that its effectiveness depends on the quality of the information. If accurate and providing evidence-based coping strategies, the information should be useful. However, when the information isn’t accurate, the opposite can happen — and even make the anxiety worse.
Therefore, we wanted to find out where young adults turn to for information about fear and coping strategies, and whether the sources of information they use are linked to accurate knowledge about fear and coping strategies.
Do younger adults use the internet or social media to find information about anxiety?
Previous studies have shown that people often use different types of media, such as television, to cope with stressful situations or other mental crises. Young adults rely heavily on digital platforms such as social media, rather than more traditional sources such as books, to learn about and cope with mental health issues, including anxiety.
Many people and influencers share information about fear on social media. Some of this information is accurate and based on scientific evidence. Unfortunately, some of these are based on unsubstantiated claims or even completely contradict the science.
Did the study find that social media is a good place to get information?
We asked 250 young adults, ages 18 to 28, about where they seek information about anxiety, their knowledge of anxiety, and the strategies they use to cope. We also asked about their current and past experiences with anxiety.
Social media as a source of information was associated with lower knowledge about anxiety. That is, the more people searched social media for information about anxiety, the less they knew about anxiety. We hypothesize that people access inaccurate information about anxiety on social media, resulting in a low level of knowledge.
Social media contains vast amounts of information. Figuring out which information is correct and which is inaccurate is a challenge. Our data suggests that young adults may not differentiate between strategies proposed by reputable companies [e.g., mental health professional] and not serious [e.g., celebrity] Sources. Only 18% of participants said most of the fear information accounts they followed on social media were run by healthcare professionals.
This suggests that young adults often seek and receive information about anxiety from uninformed sources, which could lead to misinformation about how to manage anxiety.
There is an urgent need for greater visibility of mental health professionals on social media. There is a need for information. This demand is largely met by people who lack sufficient expertise.
What about coping strategies?
We found that people who used social media as a source of information were more likely to use both adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies.
Adaptation strategies such as seeking support or positively reformulating, such as recognizing how a challenging situation offers opportunities for personal growth, can reduce anxiety. Maladaptive strategies, including avoidance or flight from an anxious thought, feeling, or emotion, can prolong or even increase anxiety.
According to our findings, people seem to try multiple strategies to manage their anxiety based on what they find on social media. Some of these strategies are helpful. Others are not. Again, this suggests that social media users may not be able to differentiate between good and bad anxiety management strategies.
So should people be more careful about the information they come across on social media?
All digital platforms offer almost unlimited amounts of information. Because this information is largely unregulated, consumers need to be careful about where they look for mental health information.
Our results suggest that people are more likely to find accurate information on the internet than on social media, but even on the internet there are huge disparities in the quality of information.
It is clear that there is a strong interest in mental health among young adults. But to really help those suffering from anxiety, health workers could improve the dissemination of accurate information by creating and promoting social media accounts with evidence-based information.
People with questions about mental health problems such as anxiety are better advised to consult websites with information compiled by experts from professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
Jeremy Pettit researches depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior in childhood and adolescence. He is also director of the CCF’s Child Anxiety and Phobia Program (CAPP), which provides comprehensive diagnostic assessments and state-of-the-art treatments for children and adolescents suffering from excessive anxiety and anxiety-related problems.
Rebecca Wolenski is a PhD student in the Clinical Science program with an interest in adolescent anxiety disorders and factors that predict psychosocial treatment outcomes.