Social media has brought the world to our fingertips, but what does it ask for in return? Although free to use, social networking tools can cost us more than we can imagine. On the one hand, social media sites allow us to stay in touch with family and friends, reconnect, and have easy access to news and various communities. On the other hand, they expose us to the dangers of isolation, constant comparison with others, and the fear that we are not enough. Is social media usage affecting our mental health? Can we integrate it into our life without the risk of developing an obsession with likes, comments, and validation from strangers?
Why do people use social media platforms?
Social media is a tool that allows people to come together. In fact, during the current pandemic, social networking sites have proven to be an indispensable part of daily life for people to communicate and check on each other. Moreover, they helped them fight the feeling of loneliness triggered by the quarantines and lockdowns.
Furthermore, social media can make people feel good about themselves and boost self-esteem. Social media platforms follow the same principle that applies to slot machines. Players are not addicted to the game itself but to the unpredictability of the outcome. The idea of a potential future reward is the one that keeps them hooked. The same applies to your social media activity. You post a photo eager to see how many likes or comments it will get without knowing when people will interact with it.
The unknown outcome is the hook that keeps you addicted to your social media account. As soon as you receive a like, a share, or a comment, the brain’s reward center is activated and releases dopamine, also associated with the feeling of smoking a cigarette, winning the jackpot, or eating chocolate. The more likes you get, the more you’re rewarded, and the more you want to keep coming back and repeat the experience that makes you feel so good.
How can social media affect our mental health?
Social media is relatively new, and there aren’t any long-term studies on the relation between social media and mental health disorders. However, numerous small studies have brought to light the negative aspects associated with spending many hours per day checking our social media accounts on various mobile devices.
The University of Pittsburgh conducted a study that highlighted a correlation between the time spent on social media apps and negative body image feedback. Moreover, a different study out of the Pittsburgh School of Medicine found a connection between the time young adults spend on social media platforms and the presence of symptoms of depression.
Several studies have found a correlation between social media usage and depression and symptoms of anxiety. One of them was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology and linked social media with negative effects on well-being, particularly depressive symptoms, anxiety, and the feeling of loneliness. Paradoxically, the more time you’re spending on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media platforms, the lonelier you tend to feel.
Additionally, a large-scale study concluded that occasional social media users are three times less likely to experience symptoms of depression compared to heavy users. Humans are social beings who need face-to-face interaction to be mentally healthy. Social interaction skills like empathy and compassion are difficult to build in the absence of real human connection.
Many social media users have also reported accentuated feelings of inadequacy about their life or appearance following usage of social media platforms. Even though they know the images are edited, people still tend to compare themselves and feel insecure about the way they look or how they live.
One of the many other mental health issues associated with heavy usage of social media platforms, FOMO or the “fear of missing out” has been taking social media users by storm. Constantly checking social media platforms to see what other people are doing can exacerbate the fear they are being left behind. This phenomenon can create feelings of anxiety and lead to even greater social media usage to keep up and respond to every alert and status update.
How can we combat the effects social media has on our mental health?
There is no specific amount of time recommended for social media usage. You need to focus on how much time you spend on social media and the impact it has on your well-being. You should keep an eye on possible signs that may indicate an addiction to social media:
- you spend more time on social media than with your offline social circles
- you constantly compare yourself with others on social media
- you feel distracted from work, school, relationships
- you feel envious and angry with yourself for not “measuring” up
- you feel anxious or depressed
- you use social media to avoid dealing with negative emotions
- you experience cyberbullying
- you suffer from poor sleep
- you have no time for self-reflection and self-care activities
As soon as you notice one or more of these signs, it’s important to reevaluate your social media habits and take action before it impacts your mental health. The first step to take is to reduce the time you spend on social media platforms. Sounds easy, but it often proves to be rather challenging!
A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that mental health issues associated with increased social media interaction can be reduced to a minimum if the usage is limited to 30 minutes a day. While in most cases such a “radical” measure is not necessary, a mindful approach will have a positive impact. Use an app to track how much time you spend on social media sites and set a realistic goal. Avoid bringing your mobile devices to bed and disable notifications. Check your phone less, maybe every hour or so. These are all efficient and easy methods to help you reduce the time you spend online.
You can also try to get to the bottom of why you are addicted to your social media apps. If you’re using it as a refuge from real-life issues like loneliness or depression, take the necessary steps to improve them with real-life tools. If you’re feeling lonely, interact with a friend. If you feel bored, go to the gym or take up a hobby. If you feel depressed, talk to a therapist.
Whenever you feel like social media is making you feel disappointed about your life, make a list of the positive aspects of your life. Learn to be grateful for what you already have. You already know that perfect lives don’t exist, so don’t try to keep up with an edited version. Be mindful and switch your focus from everything that you wish and hope you’ll one day achieve to the present. Allow yourself to be happy with who you are today and what you have now, and social media will no longer have a negative impact on your mental health.