The Mental Health Impacts of LinkedIn

By Tanvir Kaura 

Status is an integral, yet often overlooked, part of the human condition. As Will Storr writes in his novel, “The Status Game”, humans are hard-wired to crave status – a desire that has evolved over time. Prehistorically, status was achieved by being stronger, smarter, more skilled, or more respected than others, which made individuals more attractive as potential mates, allies, and leaders. 

Today, our status-seeking behavior manifests in various facets of life that we value. For high school students, getting into a prestigious university is often the ultimate status game. For college students, particularly those at Stern, it might be the name of an employer, or the number of hours one’s investment bank made them work per week over the summer. For Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, it became who could be the first billionaire to go to space. Even in the gym, how quickly we are gaining muscle or losing fat relative to others can become a status game.

Humans have evolved to play these status games in one’s immediate community or social circle: few of us lose sleep over not getting an invite to the Oscars, or for not being called up to an NBA all-star game. However, the advent of social media has fundamentally altered the status games we play by drastically widening the social circle we compare ourselves to, skewing our perceptions of average status, and creating new metrics of success through which we judge status.

Take Instagram, for example, which has become a platform ideal for engaging in the status games of beauty, popularity, and social standing. In the days before Instagram, images curated to project one’s beauty was the domain of a select few models working with magazines, far from our social circle and domain of comparison. Today however, Instagram shows us the curated, and often filtered, beauty of all those close to us in age and proximity. It shows these very same people traveling in exotic locations with huge friend groups. 

The app’s algorithm also feeds us these extreme cases that are likely to capture the most attention, skewing our perceptions of what the norm is for people we can roughly compare ourselves to. And to add to that, it shows us the number of followers, likes, and comments we all get, which serve as intensely visible status symbols of social standing, a far cry of the more subtle and unspoken cues from the past.

For those who value these status games the most, the perverse impact is clear to see. Jonathan Haidt, NYU Professor and social psychologist has found that among Gen Z, particularly young teenage girls, rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed since 2012, around the time when widespread access to smartphones and social media began. Between 2012 to 2018, depression rates among Gen Z increased 92%. During the same period, hospitalizations for non-fatal self-harm for girls between ages 10-14 increased 189%. Both of these metrics were relatively flat for the two decades preceding the spikes. 

Feelings of inadequacy and low status can have crippling effects on us. So much so that relative status doesn’t just impact our mental health, but even our physical health. Michael Marmot’s Whitehall study, which investigated the relationship between status and health outcomes among British civil servants, provides striking evidence of this. Marmot found that the higher a civil servant climbed in the office hierarchy, the better their health outcomes and lower their mortality rates. At ages 40 to 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had four times the risk of death of administrators at the top. This effect, known as the “status syndrome”, held true at every rank and was independent of lifestyle differences. 

The status syndrome even extends to monkeys. When Marmot fed monkey’s high cholesterol diets that developed dangerous levels of atherosclerotic plaque, he found that higher status monkeys had lower illness risk than their lower status peers. When Marmot conspired to alter the status hierarchy, each monkey’s illness risk changed in lockstep with their change in status.

As a student at Stern, these ideas regarding status have resonated with me. In particular, I have noticed our status games revolving around professional and career related accomplishments. In freshman and sophomore year, these status games can heavily revolve around what clubs you are a part of. Getting into,  can be significantly rewarding, improving not just recruiting prospects, but leading to increased recognition and respect. In Jjunior and Ssenior year, the major sources of status become your job: did you land investment banking? Is it a bank that actually has exit opportunities? Did you manage to skip the whole banking thing and get a job straight in private equity?

This game is extremely stressful, and understandably so – the next few years of our career trajectory depends on it heavily. But in my experience and many of those whom I have spoken to, LinkedIn furthers this stress and angst – almost the college student/early professional equivalent of Instagram’s impact on teenagers. 

Similar to Instagram, LinkedIn increases visibility, scope, and skews our understanding of what the average outcomes are. Rather than information of people’s career progress around us being the subject of subtle talk, and shared knowledge only within close circles, we can instead access an infinite database of what path everyone we can reasonably compare ourselves to is taking. This is a double-edged sword: those doing well can fall into deep feelings of dissatisfaction, while those exceeding the average are likely to feel better. But even so, human tendency is firmly rooted in looking and comparing upwards.

On such a large database, it’s likely never going to be difficult to find someone from a similar background who is in a position you would take over your own. Add to that a feed with posts that read something like “after humbling interview processes and acceptances from Goldman Sachs, Google, and McKinsey…” Very little about this is humbling, maybe only for the person who thought they had done well to get an interview from either of these places to begin with. And though an obvious exaggeration, it is true that those who perform best are the ones most likely to flaunt their success, which skews our perception of what the average person in a position similar to us is achieving. There is yet to be any concrete data on this, but I suspect that as a whole, job and career satisfaction rates are likely trending downwards as LinkedIn use has increased.

By no means is this intended to demonize our desire for status. Admitting our desire for it goes against the heroic tale we like to tell of ourselves, but status is very important. It drives us to work harder and to do things that are meaningful to us. It can motivate teachers, who believe they are shaping the minds of the young. It can motivate people to give back and do charity. A lot of good can come out of it and push us to be the best versions of ourselves – it should therefore be of little surprise how much our mental and physical health is impacted by it.

But given the powerful effects that it does have, it is important to be aware of the different ways in which we can prevent feeling down regarding the status games that are important to us. Cultivating self-awareness regarding this concept and our motivations can be helpful. We should spend time to reflect on what kinds of status games align with our values and goals, and focus our energy on what matters to us most. 

Focusing on the process and not just the outcome is helpful too. The skills and relationships we build along the way of the outcomes we desire are often more rewarding than the outcome itself, and those who lose sight of this are the ones most likely to be constantly stuck chasing upward status and be the most miserable people. 

And finally, and most important in my view, is practicing gratitude. Focusing on what we are lucky enough to have, rather than being fixated on what we do not, is one of the best ways to improve happiness and feel content with our current status. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that regardless of what… 

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