It’s now a truism that it’s psychologically unhealthy to spend too much time on social media. The American writer Caitlin Flanagan recently likened her relationship with Twitter to drug addiction: “The simplest definition of an addiction is a habit that you can’t quit, even though it poses obvious danger. … It’s madness.” Is it, clinically? Very intense social-media use can be associated with mental illness, although cause and effect here aren’t straightforward. Simply spending time online doesn’t indicate anything troubling, and can even be beneficial. Yet often, the more outrageous or extremist a post is on social media, the more engagement it gets—and the more attention social-media algorithms bring to it. So, what’s the relationship between social-media use and mental illness?

Tom Chivers is the London-based science editor for UnHerd and the co-author of How to Read Numbers, on the use of statistics in news coverage. According to Chivers, there’s little evidence that social-media use itself is harming mental health. Rather, online dynamics tend to reward extreme, angry, and hyper-emotional behavior, in a way that offline life discourages. This pattern, associated especially with political or activist Twitter, shows up even in online forums on topics like knitting or popular literature. Not infrequently, Chivers finds, the people on social media driving “purity spirals”—a dynamic in which they level extreme accusations of bigotry at anyone they disagree with—openly suffer from conditions as acute as Borderline Personality Disorder. The point, he says, is not that everyone behaving badly online is mentally ill, or that everyone suffering from mental illness uses the internet in a harmful way. It’s that social efforts to raise awareness of mental-health issues have ignored “less-sympathetic” kinds of mental illness. And this has real-life consequences, for both the troubled and those they post about.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: How does the use of social media affect mental health?

Tom Chivers: There’s a lot of worry about whether social media causes mental-health issues, and the evidence on that is weak. The question is whether there are personality types that, in public life and real human interactions, would be quite difficult to be around but on Twitter are often incentivized and rewarded. Behaving hyper-aggressively in daily life is not okay. Shouting at people and calling them racist or transphobic is not okay. On Twitter, that behavior is often encouraged.

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