While social media might not always be great for your mental health, new research has shown that one social platform in particular might actually be a helpful medium for those who are struggling with mental illness.
According to a new study, Instagram specifically has become a supportive place for those experiencing depression. The study, conducted by researchers at Drexel University, looked at a sample of 800 Instagram posts, pulled from over 95,000 posts hashtagged with #depression over the course of a month.
Researchers examined whether users were just expressing emotion to get their feelings off their chest or if they were doing so to seek social support and interaction. The authors also looked at specific topics that were being discussed, such as body image, relationship problems, illness, or eating disorders.
On the whole, 41% of these posts sparked positive, supportive comments from other users — and posters who wrote captions that seemed to seek out social support received more positive comments than those who didn't.
What did those captions entail?
For starters, those who wrote captions that told stories or gave details about their struggles — rather than simply alluding to their problems — received more empathetic comments, such as "I know how that feels," "I have been there," or "You are strong and beautiful." And posts that mentioned a specific illness received twice as many comments as those that didn't. (Guess the comments section isn't always as a pit of despair, after all.)
When users posted about behaviors such as self-harm, or struggling with eating disorders, they were more likely to receive positive comments discouraging unhealthy behaviors than they were to receive comments that stigmatized them. This finding surprised researchers, since these posts often make users targets for bullying or insensitive commentary.
"Physical or mental health and body image concerns are stigmatized, rarely disclosed and frequently elicit negative responses when shared with others," the authors wrote. "We found that these disclosures, in addition to deep and detailed stories of one’s difficult experiences, attract positive social support on Instagram."
So why Instagram in particular?
Researchers think that its relative anonymity (at least when compared to a site like Facebook) allows users to feel more free to share their struggles. They also found that users on Reddit were more likely to open up about sensitive topics, and since both Reddit and Instagram allow anonymous profiles or pseudonyms, it makes sense that people on those platforms are more comfortable discussing topics such as depression and mental health.
Despite previous studies that have linked social media to heightened loneliness and other problems, it's good to see that we can still make the internet work for us. And given that Instagram rolled out a feature last year geared towards suicide prevention, it sounds like the tech giant is trying to use its power for good.