When Selena Gomez recently disclosed that she hadn’t used the internet for over four years, I think it’s safe to assume that her revelation caught most people by surprise. No internet for four years?? In today’s digital-domineering world, most people probably couldn’t go four hours without the internet, let alone four years…myself included. As somebody who owns two laptops, two phones and an iPad, I certainly put myself in the device-dependent category.
Among the major social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok), Ms. Gomez has roughly 500 million followers (likely overlapping, non-unique followers), making the global superstar one of the most followed celebrities worldwide. While she helps her team curate her content, she doesn’t post herself.
As a physician who deals with patients’ brain health by treating addiction and mental illness, I can relate to the former Disney star’s motivation: improved mental health. In an interview with Good Morning America, the entrepreneur revealed, “I haven’t been on the internet for four and a half years…and it has changed my life completely: I am happier, I am more present, I connect more with people. It makes me feel normal.” Mental wellbeing for all is a labor of love for Gomez who has teamed up with her mother, Mandy Teefey, and Newsette founder, Daniella Pierson, to launch Wondermind, a new mental health platform.
The Harms of Social Media
The Rare Beauty founder’s experience is backed by science. According to Harvard’s McLean Hospital, social media stimulates the brain’s reward pathway by releasing the ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is associated with feel-good activities like eating food, drinking alcohol and sex. Social media is reinforcing by nature: because they’re designed to be addictive, these platforms are linked to depression, anxiety and physical symptoms.
“We are hard-wired for attachment and connection,” explains Steven Delisi, MD, medical director of Enterprise Solutions and assistant professor, HBF Graduate School of Addiction Studies at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Dr. Delisi added: “Social media platforms target the brain regions responsible for human attachment, and we need to understand how ‘tech-attachment’ differs from or is similar to in-person attachment.”
Social media’s destructive impact on girls is particularly alarming. And it’s not a new phenomenon.
“The assault on girls and their body images has been part of all media, long before social media,” describes Candida Fink, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Westchester, NY. “In my generation, we gorged on magazines with pictures of unattainable bodies – and felt constantly inferior.”
People with underlying mental health disorders should be extra cautious. “For Selena Gomez and many others, there may well be good reasons to stay away from digital platforms,” explains Dr. Fink. “For a girl living with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or eating disorders have specific risk factors for feeling much worse or having worsened symptoms with more exposure to social media, especially image-based platforms like Instagram.”
According to the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, cyberbullying appeared to be the most damaging to girls, followed by lack of sleep and lack of exercise.
Dr. Delisi agrees: “Cyberbullying is a very real risk, and the higher the ‘dose’ of social media youth are exposed to, the higher the risk of cyberbullying or exposure to predatory influences.”
Internet vs. Social Media
While Gomez’ public disclosure stated “internet” avoidance, most of us associated it with social media. I think it’s important to distinguish the two entities. Many of us rely on online tools for work and school, from academic research to a simple Google search. Using web browsers for professional, educational or recreational purposes isn’t inherently harmful. At least not in the same way that social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are designed to be addictive. Of course, as with all things in life, excessive internet use can also be detrimental to health.
Why Young People are At Risk
The difference between youth and adult mental health boils down to brain development. According to Dr. Delisi, adolescence is a HUGE period of development and growth of crucial neural networks that fundamentally affect the trajectory of brain functioning into adulthood. Of greatest importance is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive decision-making, but isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. In other words, the rational part of a young person’s brain isn’t fully developed. Teens process information with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain.
Social Media Isn’t All Bad
For all its faults, social media has many benefits. Digital platforms have enabled people from all walks of life to ‘come together.’ They’ve also propelled various social justice movements such as #MeToo, #EndFGM and #ThisIsOurLane. Fundraising efforts like #StandUpForUkraine and #JustGiving galvanized virtual communities that would have otherwise never known one another.
Dr. Fink supports this premise: “We now have so many online communities that connect people and reject the lies and bigotry found in much of the media such as body and disabilities acceptance, and racial and gender stories that push back against racism and misogyny. These are all happening because of social media, and that’s pretty powerful.” The psychiatrist and author believes that Lizzo’s show, Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, would not exist without social media: “It so satisfying to see these young women be celebrated, supported while also being held to highly rigorous standards for their craft.”
How YOU Can Connect By Disconnecting
Unlike Gomez, you do NOT need an entire social media and public relations team to manage your computer time in order to improve your mental and physical health. We can all take small and effective steps to feel connected in a healthier way. If you’re a parent, monitor and limit screen time for young children and teens whose developing brains are susceptible to environmental harms. Key messages for young people: get enough sleep; maintain connections with your friends in real life; and physical activity benefits mental AND physical wellbeing.
Selena Gomez’ Voice MATTERS: My Perspective as a Physician
Ms. Gomez, simply put, is a global sensation; a multiple ‘threat’: singer, actor, producer, businesswoman. She is highly influential, particularly among young people. When she speaks, people listen. When celebrities like Selena openly share their struggles and triumphs with addiction and mental illness, it makes a HUGE impact in destigmatizing both conditions. Last week, a patient tearfully confided, “I started using heroin again, doc. I’m too ashamed to tell my family. I can’t stop. They won’t understand.” People like Selena understand, or at least, empathize. By sharing her story and creating free, accessible mental health tools like Wondermind, Gomez is making a difference. “If I’m known for anything, I hope it’s simply how I care about people.” Let’s take care of ourselves and those around us.