When Selena Gomez recently revealed 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 digitally dominant world, most people probably couldn’t get through four hours without the Internet, let alone four years…myself included. As someone who owns two laptops, two phones, and an iPad, I certainly place myself in the category of device dependent.
Across major social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok), Ms. Gomez has approximately 500 million followers (likely overlapping, non-unique followers), making the global superstar one of the most followed celebrities all over the world. While she helps her team curate her content, she does not post herself.
As a doctor who cares for the brain health of patients by treating addiction and mental illness, I can relate to the former Disney star’s motivation: to improve mental health. In an interview with Good morning america, revealed the entrepreneur, “I haven’t connected to the internet for four and a half years… and it has completely changed my life: I’m happier, I’m more present, I connect more with people. It makes me feel normal.” Mental wellness for all is a labor of love for Gomez, who has partnered with her mother, Mandy Teefey, and Bulletin founder, Daniella Pierson, to launch wonderfull minda new mental health platform.
The damage of social networks
the Rare beauty the founder’s expertise is backed by science. According to Harvard McLean HospitalSocial media stimulates the brain’s reward pathway by releasing the “pleasure” neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with feel-good activities like eating, drinking alcohol and having sex. Social networks are reinforcing in nature: Because they are designed to be addictive, these platforms are linked to depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms.
“We are wired for attachment and connection,” explains Steven Delisi, MD, medical director of Enterprise Solutions and assistant professor, HBF Graduate School of Addiction Studies at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Dr Delisi added: “Social media platforms target brain regions responsible for human attachment, and we need to understand how ‘technological attachment’ differs from or is similar to in-person attachment.”
The destructive impact of social media on girls is particularly alarming. And it is not a new phenomenon.
“The assault on girls and their body images has been a part of all media, long before social media,” describes Candida Fink, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Westchester, New York. “In my generation, we stuffed ourselves with magazines with images of unattainable bodies and constantly felt inferior.”
People with underlying mental health disorders need to be very careful. “For Selena Gomez and many others, there may 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 worsening symptoms with increased exposure to social media, especially image-based platforms like Instagram.”
According to the Lancet Child and Adolescent Healthcyberbullying appeared to be the most detrimental for 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 youth on social media, the greater the risk of cyberbullying or exposure to predatory influences.”
Internet vs Social Networks
While Gomez’s public disclosure indicated that he avoided using the “internet,” most of us associate it with social media. I think it is 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. The use of web browsers for professional, educational or recreational purposes is not inherently harmful. At least not in the same way that social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are designed to be addictive. Of course, like everything in life, excessive use of the Internet can also be detrimental to health.
Why are young people at risk?
The difference between the mental health of young people and adults comes down to brain development. According to Dr. Delisi, adolescence is a HUGE period of development and growth of critical neural networks that fundamentally affect the trajectory of brain function into adulthood. Of greater importance is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive decision-making, but is not fully developed until the mid-20s. In other words, the rational part of a young person’s brain is not fully developed. Teenagers process information with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain.
Social networks are not all bad
Despite all its flaws, social media has many benefits. Digital platforms have allowed people from all walks of life to ‘come together’. They have also fueled various social justice movements such as #MeToo, #EndFGM, and #ThisIsOurLane. Fundraising efforts like #StandUpForUkraine and #JustGiving fueled virtual communities that might otherwise never have met.
Dr. Fink supports this premise: “We now have so many online communities connecting people and rejecting the lies and bigotry found in much of the media, like body acceptance and disabilities, and racial stories and gender that reject racism and misogyny. This is all happening because of social media, and that’s pretty powerful.” The psychiatrist and author believes that Lizzo’s program, Watch out for the big Grrrls, wouldn’t exist without social media: “It’s very satisfying to see these young women being celebrated, supported, and at the same time held to very rigorous standards for their craft.”
How YOU can connect when disconnecting
Unlike Gomez, you do NOT need a full social media and PR team to manage your computer time to improve your mental and physical health. We can all take small, 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 damage. Key messages for young people: get enough sleep; maintain connections with your friends in real life; and physical activity benefits physical and mental well-being.
Selena Gomez’s voice MATTER: My perspective as a doctor
Ms. Gomez, simply put, is a global sensation; a multiple ‘threat’: singer, actor, producer, businesswoman. She is very influential, particularly among the young. When she speaks, people listen. When celebrities like Selena openly share their struggles and triumphs with addiction and mental illness, it has a HUGE impact on destigmatizing both conditions. Last week, a patient tearfully confided, “I’ve started using heroin again, doc. I am embarrassed 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 and accessible mental health tools like Wondermind, Gomez is making a difference. “If I’m known for anything, I hope it’s simply because I care about people.” Let’s take care of ourselves and those around us.