The British actor, best known for his portrayal of Spider-Man in a series of A-list blockbusters, has been a sporadic social media user of late. Until this week, his last update on Instagram was on 1 July, and on Twitter, he had not posted anything since February.
There was no apparent reason for the absence, but when he logged into Instagram recently to upload a short video, it became clear that his hiatus was no accident.
“I’ve taken a break from social media for my mental health because I find Instagram and Twitter to be overstimulating, to be overwhelming,” he explained. “I get caught up and I spiral when I read things about me online and ultimately, it’s very detrimental to my mental state. So I decided to take a step back and delete the app.”
He also encouraged other young people experiencing similar problems to seek out help, and praised the work of stem4, a UK charity that promotes positive mental health in teenagers and those who support them, including their families and carers, and education professionals.
Describing the charity’s digital resources as “fantastic” and “really helpful”, Holland added: “There is an awful stigma against mental health and I know that asking for help and seeking help isn’t something that we should be ashamed of but it is something that is much easier said than done.”
Beyond the blithe observations that even a certified superhero can experience mental health problems, Holland’s candour will be a source of inspiration to many.
At the age of just 26, he has attracted a considerable fanbase, made up largely of children and teenagers, who have grown up watching him don the famous Marvel webslinger’s suit.
It is this very demographic who are also growing up in an age in which social media culture is, well, synonymous with our culture at large. They will not be privy to every pressure being felt by an internationally recognisable celebrity such as Holland, but his decision to speak out about his troubles will encourage them to assess their use of social media.
Given the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, railing against their influence may seem futile, but there are ample reasons to be concerned about the health effects of social media on young people – and young girls in particular.
As an adult male in the foothills of middle age, I am privileged to be free from the kind of societal pressures other demographics face, and have settled on an imperfect love/hate relationship with social media.
On a professional level, it is an invaluable research tool which can lead to information, contacts, and ideas. On a personal level, however, I have little appetite to wade through the daily swamp of vitriolic abuse and disinformation. It is a rare thing to put down my phone or tablet without feeling exasperated, and frankly, who needs that kind of torrent of negative emotions in their day to day life?
But the experience is altogether more toxic if you happen to be, say, a teenage girl, where social media platforms are ostensibly galleries in which to undergo public judgement. This is not the idle hypothesis of someone who is increasingly jaded with social media; it is backed up by research carried out by the platforms themselves.
Only last year, for example, there was a leak of internal research conducted by Facebook, the owners of Instagram, which found that the popular app was having a ruinous impact on teenage girls’ mental well-being.
One slide from an internal presentation stated: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Another said: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Among the most alarming findings was that of those users who reported having suicidal thoughts, some 13 per cent in the UK and six per cent in the US traced them back to Instagram.
Naturally, all this directly contradicts the repeated public claims by Mark Zuckerberg that social media is more likely to have positive mental health effects.
This is not to say that there are no such boons. Social platforms, if used in moderation, can help alleviate isolation, and they can open up constructive dialogues.
Ironically, many of these interactions focus around mental health issues, allowing people who feel alone or helpless to become part of communities that provide a source of emotional support.
Weighing up the positives and negatives is not easy, and one of the frustrations has been the lack of any comprehensive study of the mental health impacts with a specific focus on the use of social media.
Much has been made of a 2019 study by the University of Oxford, based on data from more than 17,000 teenagers, which found little evidence of a relationship between screen time and well-being in adolescents.
Crucially, however, that study focused on a variety of screen uses, from watching television to playing video games on consoles or PCs. Its terms of reference are too sweeping to provide a precise understanding of how social media affects psychological well-being.
It will take time for a body of evidence to be built up so as to better understand how we deal with the issue, but to my mind, there are several reasonable precautionary steps that can be taken in the meantime.
For example, the Royal Society for Public Health recommends the use of pop-up warnings that indicate heavy social media usage, and disclosures indicating when photographs have been digitally manipulated.
There are no quick or easy solutions otherwise, and as Holland will no doubt attest, not even a superhero can solve such a complex problem.