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Let’s make healthy and happy online communities

Brands must have a strategy in relation to social media and youth mental wellbeing.

It is increasingly clear brands wishing to succeed in social media need to navigate these channels with care, especially in relation to young audiences whose social media use can present emotionally complex terrain.

While social gives communicators access to an emotionally vibrant space where brands can entertain, engage and inspire audiences in ways that transcend the ‘us and them’ boundaries of traditional advertising media, a darker potential exists to become part of a growing problem.

Two recent studies add to a growing body of evidence that social media exerts a powerful effect on our emotional health.

The first, a study by Morar Consulting for Olapic polled more than 1,000 UK respondents aged 16 to 60+ about their motivations for posting social media content. They found the primary motivation is ‘emotional validation’.

"Engagement is a key motivation," Goldsmith’s University Professor of Psychology Jonathan Freeman said, reviewing the research. "[B]ut more often than not, sharing is strongly influenced by the positive feelings you get when someone responds to your posts: happy, engaged, loved and accepted".

The research found 54% share status updates at least weekly and that people are most likely to describe their motivations for posting as ‘letting people know how they feel or what they have been doing’ (44%). A smaller percentage acknowledge their motivation as either ‘posting what others would find interesting’ (37%) or ‘supporting friends or connections by posting things they care about’ (32%).

The results also show an obvious correlation between social feedback - interactions from others liking and commenting on content - and increased social media activity. Interaction triggered an increase in online sharing with 28% of all respondents saying they tend to post more frequently when others like or comment on their posts.

The findings indicate the strong emotional investment in social media that is attendant on these sharing behaviours. In this way, it relates to recent research by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) whose ‘#StatusOfMind’ report warns that social media poses significant risks to youth mental wellbeing.

The report draws attention to respondents’ commentary on the experience of FoMO (‘Fear of Missing Out’), claiming this phenomenon has been robustly linked to higher levels of social media dependency. They say young people report that FoMO causes them anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

For example, one respondent says: “During my fourth year exams (when I was 16) I was put under pressure due to the fact I was under the impression I’d be missing out if I switched off from social media. Therefore, I could not fight my urge and focus properly on studying due to my worry.”

Media commentary on the RSPH report has focussed on its finding that Instagram is the social network most identified as having a negative effect on youth mental wellbeing. Using 14 health and wellbeing questions (on topics like “loneliness”, “body image” and “FoMO”) the survey asked 1,479 respondents to rank how a range of platforms made them feel in relation to the stated emotion. The results show the peculiar power of the still image to create frozen moments of meaning which, stripped of context, trigger powerful emotional responses:



The Olapic research points to the trend that image-based social media content is dominating sharing, with millennials particularly driven to share their own photos (51% do so at least weekly) and only slightly fewer in the 30 – 44 age doing the same (46%). Interestingly, 33% of UK users report sharing photo and video content from brands and influencers weekly; 10% of millennials are found to share this type of content daily.

Our view is that brands must take a nuanced approach to social media and seek to promote the positive potential of these channels to - as the RSPH report points out - promote the role social media plays in connecting people to provide emotional support, positive self-expression and relationship building.

Within this growing body of research are the kind of cultural and audience insights that planners live for.  The kind that drive the best creative thinking – those in which there is friction and social tension.

These present springboards to exciting brand activations that challenge the norms of visual representation or question the underlying cultural assumptions of the social media environment.

The best creative work has long come from these sorts of deeply relevant cultural insights; so brands should use their opportunity to mine this emotionally complex landscape for opportunities to disrupt or provoke as a force for positivity and better work.

As Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the RSPH observes in her introduction to their report, social media “isn’t going away soon, nor should it”, so it is vital this industry and others working in the space understand the issues and work to inspire healthy and happy online communities.

You can find the RSPH report here.

You can find more on the Olapic research here.