What do you do all day long on TikTok?

What do you do all day long on TikTok?

The influence of social media on mental health

11-10-2023 · Interview

(Almost) everyone uses it and almost everyone has an opinion on it: social media. Philippe Verduyn, assistant professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, has been doing research into emotions and the role of Facebook, X, Instagram, et cetera, for years. How do people feel after hanging around on these platforms? Happy, cheerful or actually unsure?

Let’s get straight down to it. The use of social media is by no means very good or very bad for your well-being. “But adding everything together,” the coin flips more towards the negative, says Philippe Verduyn. Hundreds of studies have been carried out on the relationship between mental health and the amount of time people spend scrolling, posting and watching video clips. “The results often contradict each other, but a meta-analysis shows a small negative effect. This is also confirmed by experimental studies.” In these, test subjects may be allowed to spend less time on social media for a whole week, or have to undergo a complete detox. What does that do to their feelings? “We then look at the presence of well-being and the absence of ill-being.” When the loss of social media feels very uncomfortable, there is a kind of addiction, says Verduyn. “This is problematic. You need to control your use.”

Cat videos

Together with Verduyn, we will go through the list of social media: Facebook (one of the oldest, mainly popular with the older generation in the Netherlands), Instagram (a hit among youths), just like TikTok and Snapchat. Then there are, of course, YouTube and X. WhatsApp and Wikipedia are also part of the list.
According to the researcher, social media can be defined in very general terms as platforms upon which content can be created and shared. “There has been a tremendous revolution in the world of digital media the past decade. We did, to be true, have Internet in the nineteen-nineties, but there wasn’t much to do on it; yes, you could read stuff. With the emergence of social network sites, it became more and more interactive. You create a profile that you can then link to those of others; it is really intended to ‘connect’. Where in the beginning you could only send a message to a ‘friend’, now there is the possibility to upload short videos and photographs.”
Another example of what social network sites were originally not used for that often, was buying and selling items. On Facebook, for example, there are all kinds of active ‘bulletin boards’. The role of influencers has also gradually increased, says Verduyn.
The algorithms – the formulas that the tech businesses use to ‘calculate’ what you really want to see – have also changed. “The content is adapted to your personal behaviour.” So, if you like cats, you will most likely be dished up all kinds of cat videos.

Philippe Verduyn


Taking everything together, is it not all that negative? “There is quite a lot of discussion about that in science. Some indeed say: ‘The effect is so minimal, we shouldn’t worry, other behaviour is much more problematic.’ Others say: ‘The result does have significance, because if we spend so much time on social media, that small negative effect will in time become greater.’ To illustrate this, they highlight certain subgroups, such as young women who develop a negative self-image because of all the ‘perfect images’.” The third school – of which Verduyn is a ‘follower’ – gives a more detailed perspective. “I compare it to a landscape of high mountains and deep lakes. If you look at the average height of the landscape, that says nothing about what the landscape looks like, about how deep those lakes are. That is why I want us to look more specifically at our behaviour on social media, what kind of users are we? Active or passive users? Also, what you like, someone else may not like.”


According to Verduyn, ‘active’ means “that you show that you are present,” by liking, posting reactions, or creating your own posts. A passive user, on the other hand, is a ‘scroller’, a consumer. Initially we thought that the first one is generally better for your well-being than the second one, because “an active user has the potential to connect, seeking a connection with someone else.” But there are also comments to make here, he continues. Yes, someone who really likes to post messages and receive reactions, most likely feels happy, but what if that person is pestered and insulted online and also receives hate speech? Another point that the psychologist picks up on is the so-called “reciprocity. Imagine that you post photographs, but get no reaction whatsoever, that is not exactly something to get happy about. So, what counts is positive interaction.”
What is then still true of the idea that passive users would tend to feel worse because they “potentially” do not make a connection with others, but merely consume? This doesn’t seem so black and white either. Constantly looking at perfect pictures can be harmful, but you can become very happy from an influx of ‘heart-warming’ or funny videos, Verduyn agrees.

Mobile phone ban

Let us zoom in on a special group: youths. They have grown up in a digital era with a lot of social media. They have, on average, six accounts, says Verduyn. For them, the division between the online and offline world is “always vague, everything is interwoven with each other”. Does he feel that the mobile phone ban that is to be introduced in secondary schools in the Netherlands, is a good plan? “From my own experience, I know that social media can be a tremendous distraction, but also for example e-mail. If I have to concentrate on my work, I often switch that off and put my mobile phone aside. So yes, I understand that such a ban can lead to more concentration in the classroom,” but, he warns, “we shouldn’t act as if social media doesn’t exist, that there are suddenly two worlds: one without (during school) and one with (after the last lesson). I believe that it is especially important to teach youths how they should handle it, let it be a subject of discussion in the classroom.”


Last week, De Volkskrant dedicated an article to the proposal by a GroenLinks member of the European parliament about the addictive design of apps. It discussed “the tricks used by tech companies,” such as notifications that show how many unread messages there are, algorithms that determine what you get to see, the automatic starting of videos (De Volkskrant spoke of messages that were an “endless roll of toilet paper”). “Europe is trying to tackle this problem through new legislation such as the digital services act, but it is still the question how it will all work out. With this intervention, the user would have more control by switching the algorithm on or off, but who is interested in a stream of messages that really don’t interest you? Of course, addiction is an important issue, but I don’t think that people will switch off the button themselves. So, what is the effect?”


As far as follow-up research is concerned, Verduyn wants to unravel “subtypes within passive and active users” and to look at the most vulnerable groups and certain topics, such as self-image and body positivity. He is also intrigued by values – how you behave on a social medium – because how do they come about? Verduyn: “We, the users, create a certain ‘ecosystem’. When is it the responsibility of the platform, and when is it the individual who creates an anonymous account and speaks out aggressively? I think it is a combination. In the past, if you were angry, you would vent your anger to a friend or a parent. Today, you cast out an angry tweet in the heat of the moment. Half the world can read it.”


Author: Wendy Degens

Illustration: Simone Golob

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: social media, verduyn, emotions, feelings, mobile phones, mental health, wellbeing, instagram

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