In 30 seconds…
Human beings are social creatures. We need the companionship of others to thrive in life, and the strength of our connections has a huge impact on our mental health and happiness. Being socially connected to others can ease stress, anxiety, and depression, boost self-worth, provide comfort and joy, prevent loneliness, and even add years to your life. On the flip side, lacking strong social connections can pose a serious risk to your mental and emotional health.
Ironically for a technology that’s designed to bring people closer together, spending too much time engaging with social media can actually make you feel more lonely and isolated—and exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
If you’re spending an excessive amount of time on social media and feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, frustration, or loneliness are impacting your life, it may be time to re-examine your online habits and find a healthier balance.
What’s driving your social media use?
Anxiety, loneliness and fear of missing out.
These days, most of us access social media via our smartphones or tablets. While this makes it very convenient to keep in touch, it also means that social media is always accessible. This round-the-clock, hyper connectivity can trigger impulse control problems, the constant alerts and notifications affecting your concentration and focus, disturbing your sleep, and making you a slave to your phone.
Social media platforms are designed to snare your attention, keep you online, and have you repeatedly checking your screen for updates. It’s how the companies make money. But, much like a gambling compulsion or an addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs, social media use can create psychological cravings. When you receive a like, a share, or a favorable reaction to a post, it can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, the same “reward” chemical that follows winning on a slot machine, taking a bite of chocolate, or lighting up a cigarette, for example. The more you’re rewarded, the more time you want to spend on social media, even if it becomes detrimental to other aspects of your life.
The positive aspects of social media
While virtual interaction on social media doesn’t have the same psychological benefits as face-to-face contact, there are still many positive ways in which it can help you stay connected and support your wellbeing.
Social media enables you to:
- Communicate and stay up to date with family and friends around the world.
- Find new friends and communities; network with other people who share similar interests or ambitions.
- Join or promote worthwhile causes; raise awareness on important issues.
- Seek or offer emotional support during tough times.
- Find vital social connection if you live in a remote area, for example, or have limited independence, social anxiety, or are part of a marginalized group.
- Find an outlet for your creativity and self-expression.
- Discover (with care) sources of valuable information and learning.
The negative aspects of social media
Since it’s a relatively new technology, there’s little research to establish the long-term consequences, good or bad, of social media use. However, multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.
Social media may promote negative experiences such as:
Inadequacy about your life or appearance. Even if you know that images you’re viewing on social media are manipulated, they can still make you feel insecure about how you look or what’s going on in your own life. Similarly, we’re all aware that other people tend to share just the highlights of their lives, rarely the low points that everyone experiences. But that doesn’t lessen those feelings of envy and dissatisfaction when you’re scrolling through a friend’s airbrushed photos of their tropical beach holiday or reading about their exciting new promotion at work.
Fear of missing out (FOMO). While FOMO has been around far longer than social media, sites such as Facebook and Instagram seem to exacerbate feelings that others are having more fun or living better lives than you are. The idea that you’re missing out on certain things can impact your self-esteem, trigger anxiety, and fuel even greater social media use. FOMO can compel you to pick up your phone every few minutes to check for updates, or compulsively respond to each and every alert—even if that means taking risks while you’re driving, missing out on sleep at night, or prioritizing social media interaction over real world relationships.
Isolation. A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that high usage of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram increases rather decreases feelings of loneliness. Conversely, the study found that reducing social media usage can actually make you feel less lonely and isolated and improve your overall wellbeing.
Depression and anxiety. Human beings need face-to-face contact to be mentally healthy. Nothing reduces stress and boosts your mood faster or more effectively than eye-to-eye contact with someone who cares about you. The more you prioritize social media interaction over in-person relationships, the more you’re at risk for developing or exacerbating mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Cyberbullying. About 10 percent of teens report being bullied on social media and many other users are subjected to offensive comments. Social media platforms such as Twitter can be hotspots for spreading hurtful rumors, lies, and abuse that can leave lasting emotional scars. Self-absorption. Sharing endless selfies and all your innermost thoughts on social media can create an unhealthy self-centeredness and distance you from real-life connections.
Signs that social media is impacting your mental health
Everyone is different and there is no specific amount of time spent on social media, or the frequency you check for updates, or the number of posts you make that indicates your use is becoming unhealthy. Rather, it has to do with the impact time spent on social media has on your mood and other aspects of your life, along with your motivations for using it.
For example, your social media use may be problematic if it causes you to neglect face-to-face relationships, distracts you from work or school, or leaves you feeling envious, angry, or depressed. Similarly, if you’re motivated to use social media just because you’re bored or lonely, or want to post something to make others jealous or upset, it may be time to reassess your social media habits.
Indicators that social media may be adversely affecting your mental health include:
Spending more time on social media than with real world friends. Using social media has become a substitute for a lot of your offline social interaction. Even if you’re out with friends, you still feel the need to constantly check social media, often driven by feelings that others may be having more fun than you.
Comparing yourself unfavorably with others on social media. You have low self-esteem or negative body image. You may even have patterns of disordered eating.
Experiencing cyberbullying. Or you worry that you have no control over the things people post about you.
Being distracted at school or work. You feel pressure to post regular content about yourself, get comments or likes on your posts, or respond quickly and enthusiastically to friends’ posts.
Having no time for self-reflection. Every spare moment is filled by engaging with social media, leaving you little or no time for reflecting on who you are, what you think, or why you act the way that you do—the things that allow you to grow as a person.
Engaging in risky behavior in order to gain likes, shares, or positive reactions on social media. You play dangerous pranks, post embarrassing material, cyberbully others, or access your phone while driving or in other unsafe situations.
Suffering from sleep problems. Do you check social media last thing at night, first thing in the morning, or even when you wake up in the night? The light from phones and other devices can disrupt your sleep, which in turn can have a serious impact on your mental health.
Worsening symptoms of anxiety or depression. Rather than helping to alleviate negative feelings and boost your mood, you feel more anxious, depressed, or lonely after using social media.
The vicious cycle of unhealthy social media use
Excessive social media use can create a negative, self-perpetuating cycle:
- When you feel lonely, depressed, anxious, or stressed, you use social media more often—as a way to relieve boredom or feel connected to others.
- Using social media more often, though, increases FOMO and feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, and isolation.
- In turn, these feelings negatively affect your mood and worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
- These worsening symptoms cause you to use social media even more, and so the downward spiral continues.
Modifying social media use to improve mental health step
- Reduce time online
reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and FOMO.While 30 minutes a day may not be a realistic target for many of us, we can still benefit from reducing the amount of time we spend on social media.
- Change your focus
Many of us access social media purely out of habit or to mindlessly kill moments of downtime. But by focusing on your motivation for logging on, you can not only reduce the time you spend on social media, you can also improve your experience and avoid many of the negative aspects.
If you’re accessing social media to find specific information, check on a friend who’s been ill, or share new photos of your kids with family, for example, your experience is likely to be very different than if you’re logging on simply because you’re bored, you want to see how many likes you got from a previous post, or to check if you’re missing out on something.
Next time you go to access social media, pause for a moment and clarify your motivation for doing so.
- Spend more time with offline friends
We all need the face-to-face company of others to be happy and healthy. At its best, social media is a great tool for facilitating real-life connections. But if you’ve allowed virtual connections to replace real-life friendships in your life, there are plenty of ways to build meaningful connections without relying on social media.
- Express gratitude
Feeling and expressing gratitude about the important things in your life can be a welcome relief to the resentment, animosity, and discontent sometimes generated by social media.