Help or Harm? How Social Media Can Impact Musicians' Mental Health
We spoke to psychologists, a music manager and ex-East India Youth's William Doyle about the ups and downs of always being online.
All illustrations by Joel Benjamin
In 2015, William Doyle took a momentary breather during a hectic tour to scroll online. Two critically acclaimed albums and a Mercury nomination performing as East India Youth had sent his career skyrocketing. With that success, though, came an increasing amount of pressure. Specifically: to log on and never be left alone. "I have so many memories of finishing shows and just checking the reaction on the internet straight away," he says to me now. "As my profile started to rise, the number of followers I had on Twitter started to rise, and so the pressure to be attentive rose with it. It was a vicious cycle: Get more followers, tweet more, get more followers for being funny. I just don't see how that's productive. I felt like I was doing more tweets than making music."
For every Joycean work of Twitter art we get from Cher, social media reveals an inverse reality where musicians are subjected to torrents of personal, sometimes hateful commentary – often ramped up if the performer identifies as a woman, trans and is of an ethnic minority where they're based. Obviously this doesn't just affect musicians: recent Pew Centre research shows that roughly four in ten Americans have personally experienced online harassment. But while the rest of us can casually ditch our feeds when shit gets heavy, the professional requirement for many artists to stay on makes 'just leaving it' much harder. Add to that the numbers of followers and the pressure to keep them entertained, and it's not hard to see how mental distress can emerge. As Doyle puts it: "It's a huge amount of pressure to put on yourself, beyond the job of just being an artist. That feeling of needing validation was intoxicating. I had to get off it for a while because of the panic and anxiety I was feeling. There are a lot of things in the industry that can burn you out, and social media was definitely one them for me."
Dr Arthur Cassidy, a psychologist who specialises in celebrity and social media, tells me that near-incessant attention online has the capacity to impact a person's mental health in a profoundly negative way. "There are constant demands from people on social media for celebrities," he says. "Socio-psychological issues arise from trying to please people and it can create an incredible sense of burnout. It becomes hard to take control of your own life or even to be 'normal' off stage when there is total invasion of privacy. It can be very depressing, trying have a normal life when your life really isn't that normal."
When you're working in a field that opens you up to public discussion, or even ridicule, you learn to harden yourself against criticism that comes both from journalists and the sort of people whose only avatars are dogs, cartoons or the gauzy Twitter head-and-shoulders icon (RIP the egg). But it's important to note the line between criticism and vitriol. Artists like Kehlani, Fifth Harmony's Normani Kordei and most recently Arcade Fire's Win Butler have stepped away from Twitter, often citing hateful language as the reason why. Kanye West and Sinead O'Connor have had their struggles with mental illness mocked. None of this counts as productive criticism. It's being a prick, and doing so when your comments can be carried around on a screen in someone's back pocket.
"Social media allows fans to feel an authentic connection to artists, which creates more of a psychological bond and sense of relationship," says Dr Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist based in California. "It feels close. But that closeness also makes negative remarks and harassment seem all the more hurtful." Anyone who's waited for their crush's name to pop up on the list of people who watched their latest shaky Instagram Story will already know how craving validation on social media can lead to dependence. If that validation disappears, it can trigger unfounded feelings of isolation or inadequacy.
As Dr Rutledge sees it: "people who perform are particularly vulnerable to social validation. The love and adulation of the crowd triggers endorphins and oxytocin in the brain's reward centre. Social media allows performers to maintain contact with the audience beyond the performance. Because the tools are relatively new, people have not learned to establish the same types of boundaries that they do offline. No performer would think of letting fans into their living room at all hours, but have not yet made the connection to social media. Everyone needs a chance to be their private self and not be 'on'." It's strange that we haven't taken much time to really examine how social media can impact the people walking around with so much influence on it. The conversation easily gets hijacked by anti-technology hand wringers, who point to the apps as the root of the problem – but this goes deeper.
It goes without saying that for women, non-white and LGBTQ musicians, promoting your work – or simply existing – on social media results in a host of other pressures and gross factors. As Dr Rutledge points out: "How many male performers are verbally attacked with threats of sexual assault? It's a misnomer to say that female musicians are more vulnerable to anxiety if they receive many more threats of physical assault and rude remarks about how they look than male musicians. Show me parity in the harassment and then we can talk about differences in response."
With that in mind, you can't really make sweeping statements when it comes to social media and mental health. No one person – musician or otherwise – is going to have an identical relationship with being online as someone else. When studies about social media show that 62 percent of users claim these sites make them feel inadequate, and when 71 percent of respondents to a survey of musicians in the UK report experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, you'd expect to feel some concern. To be clear, I'm not drawing a causal link between social media and mental health issues in musicians, but we are reaching a saturation point with these apps that could do with a closer look when it comes to artists and their mental health.
Of course, a lot of musicians do just fine, and many of those who take the flack and negativity do so with a laugh and a middle finger – that in itself is a powerful thing. As Juliette Carter, a manager who worked with artists like R&B singer Dawn Richard says and Awful Records' Ethereal, says: "Using that same freedom of expression that attackers use is the best defence – being vocal, standing up for oneself and by extension one's fans is the most powerful tool against it. As a manager I work with my artists to use their platforms as spaces of acceptance and safety for those who, like them, have come under attack. It's an incredibly lonely place to feel under attack in an anonymous and relatively consequence free forum." She points out how "a disconnect can happen where artists are viewed through social media as having luxurious, worry-free lives" – that whole 'your life is great, stop complaining!' argument updated for the digital age. "It's difficult to understand from the outside the vulnerability that comes with exposing yourself and your life so thoroughly to the public."
While the government may still be doing an ambitious amount of fuck-all besides talking about the UK's mental health crisis, the conversation now, at last, seems to be shifting into something more active. It finally feels as if we're moving beyond much-needed awareness and lowering the stigma attached to speaking honestly about one's mental health to tangible initiatives. With amazing new work being done by charities like Help Musicians UK and Michael Angelekos of Passion Pit's Wishart Group, progress toward facilitating a better, safer, healthier environment for musicians is pushing in the right direction.
In the meantime, William Doyle has ditched his East India Youth moniker and is working on a new album. How will he navigate the endless cycle of online promotion and social media attention when the time comes? "I'll just need to not get cocooned by that part of the process. Rather than wasting my time worrying about individuals' reactions I can just use that time more effectively to make more music. Come talk to me at a show – maybe that would be more useful."