Social media is a powerful tool; it can be either beneficial or detrimental to our mental health. Many people use social media as a distraction, an accessible way of numbing boredom, fatigue, or stress. By contrast, others use social media to forge connections, cultivate relationships, and build community. In addition, sharing stories and videos online has become a way for groups to promote and maintain their culture. For example, many Indigenous Peoples use social media for community development, language revitalization, cultural identity formation and production, and health promotion1-5. Investigating how social media platforms can help support Indigenous mental health is the focus of a research project led by Dr. Jeffrey Ansloos in partnership with Twitter.
Dr. Jeffrey Ansloos is a Registered Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Indigenous Mental Health and Social Policy in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at OISE. He completed a BA in Counselling from Trinity Western University, an MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology, and a postgraduate residency at the University of Manitoba. In addition to Indigenous mental health, his areas of interest include LGBTQ2S+ mental health, everyday practices in wellness and life promotion, and critical studies of suicide. I sat down with Dr. Ansloos to learn more about his Twitter collaboration that aims to understand how social media can be leveraged to improve Indigenous Peoples’ mental health and wellbeing.
Could you tell me how your collaboration with Twitter came about?
The focus of research that I’m invested in is Indigenous health promotion; specifically, in the context of mental health and suicide. One of the more challenging contexts for thinking about mental health and suicide prevention is at the intersection of new media, with social media being one of those contexts. There hasn’t been a lot of research about these spaces—where people interact weekly, daily, or even moment-to-moment—and their impact on mental health.
I started to get interested in that, and around that time, I had a conversation with a friend who worked for Twitter. We started talking about what it would look like to do research looking into the different ways Indigenous people are using social media. I'm a social media user, and I know that there are specific communities online. On Twitter, there are vibrant Indigenous community networks. We thought about how to best support people while they’re in those spaces.
We also started thinking of ways to go beyond the predominant invasive methods, which often sacrifice people’s privacy and surveil user usage. We tried a different approach where we directly engaged with specific users and talked to them about things that they found valuable and things that threatened their wellbeing and mental health. That's now expanded to include Facebook and Instagram. We learned a lot of interesting things about the ways in which people's wellbeing is both bolstered and diminished in these environments.
What is your role in your collaboration with Twitter?
We asked a set of questions, and we said to Twitter that these are questions that we're interested in better understanding. We wanted to have a closer relationship by which we could communicate the things that we’re learning. Based on our conversations with young people who use these platforms, we will make recommendations on how to make these environments safer and more conducive to young people. The partnership is about putting the knowledge that communities are generating through their own use of this technology into a more direct conversation with the policy team at Twitter. This research potentially has greater uptake and impact, because rather than sitting in a silo at the university, it allows us to have a more direct conversation with the organization.
Based on your findings so far, how does social media negatively affect Indigenous mental health?
It’s common to see threats to wellbeing in these spaces. We often see the use of networks to mobilize large groups of users who are interested in harassment, hate speech, or engaging in hateful conduct toward specific groups of people. We’ve seen this for Indigenous people and other groups. When we talk about groups, we’re often speaking about people who are converging in this digital space with other users who they connect to through specific hashtags. We've studied many different examples of hateful conduct; we see racial violence, homophobic violence, various forms of services, and religious xenophobia play through these networks. Part of this work is about better ways of identifying when that’s happening and helping to create solutions for organizations to manage that content.
By contrast, how does social media positively affect Indigenous mental health?
We see that social media spaces, in particular, apps like Facebook and Twitter, and increasingly Instagram, are contexts where Indigenous young people are connecting to one another. Those networks are often focused around things that we might not say on the surface are mental health promotion, but I would say are core building blocks of health and wellbeing for any community. These are often activities that promote Indigenous culture, art, and music.
We also see that these environments are often politically mobilizing, which help young people feel connected to their community and to issues for which they can have an impact. That sense of participation, that experience of having a purpose in supporting issues that matter to them and to their community is part of what goes into helping a person feel connected and that their life has meaning and value.
People also talk about the benefits of connecting to other people and the benefits of connecting to information and educational resources related to health and wellbeing. For mental health in particular, users are often finding communities of people who are dealing with issues that they might feel isolated in, but now they’re able to connect with others.
I agree, having a community of people is so important. I feel like, especially at UofT, that a lot of people don’t have that kind of support.
What I could say to that, is yes, we’re more socially isolated, we’re busier than ever, and we’re super stressed. I think the one step below that is actually more important to me, and we see people talking very openly online, is that people are struggling with affordability of housing and tuition costs. Those aren’t hypothetical things that influence health; those have real consequences on a person’s ability to feel at ease in their day-to-day lives. People are dealing with rising costs, but also, the rising social polarization. We see this a lot with queer young people, Indigenous people, and other young people of colour. It’s not that we’re stressed or that we’re isolated, but that we’re in a society that is incredibly disadvantaging to certain people, and so, depression and anxiety are natural reactions to an environment that’s cutting short on things that help build a good life. Often the conversations around mental health get placed on the responsibility of the individual, but really, that individual is in a society where there's a lot of complex things happening, some of which are out of their control. Now they’re living day-to-day just trying to get through.
In the context of Indigenous young people, I work on the issue of suicide prevention. Everybody knows about the statistics for Indigenous young people and suicides—these rates are quite high. What often gets left out of the conversation is the way in which these young people are some of the most socially, economically, politically, disadvantaged community members in our society. In the midst of that, we are somehow surprised by these high numbers. We have to work on the promotion of mental health, which is about making life make more sense. If we create conditions for which life makes sense to keep living, I think we will see a decrease in suicides. Promotional mental health will always come with the betterment of people’s day-to-day lives.
- Hefler, M., et al. Social media and health information sharing among Australian Indigenous people. Health Promotion International 34, 706-715 (2018).
- Owiny, S.A., et al. The Use of Social Media Technologies to Create, Preserve, and Disseminate Indigenous Knowledge and Skills to Communities in East Africa, (2014).
- Molyneaux, H., et al. Social Media in Remote First Nation Communities. 2014 39(2014).
- Berends, L. & Halliday, R. Capacity building and social marketing promotes healthy lifestyle behaviour in an Australian Aboriginal community. Australian Journal of Rural Health 26, 279-283 (2018).
- Geia, L., et al. Narratives of Twitter as a Platform for Professional Development, Innovation, and Advocacy. Australian Psychologist 52, 280-287 (2017).