For many of us social media plays a big part in our daily lives – it allows us to stay connected with friends and family globally, network, discover information that enables rapid learning and brings awareness to important issues like never before. It can help us find new friendships, become involved in communities of shared interest, and seek or receive emotional support when times get tough.
Most recently during the pandemic, we learned how helpful social media was to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness when it became harder for us to connect with each other. Many individuals were able to increase social connection and it can certainly help those who struggle with social anxiety, have limited independence or live in a remote area.
While we can appreciate the benefits of social media, we must also be aware that it can negatively impact our mental health. As research continues to study the long term effects of social media and mental health, the literature does indicate it can promote negative experiences.
Feeling like you don’t measure up with your appearance and in life:
We might be aware that the images on social media are filtered or adjusted, it can still make us feel insecure about our physical appearance and what’s going on in our daily lives. For instance, it is common for people to share the positives about their lives or experiences on social media, while leaving out the not so positive aspects. This can lead to feelings of envy and overall discontent as we scroll through a friend’s account reading about their move abroad, exciting job opportunity or viewing filtered photos of their travels down south.
Through the constant comparisons, photoshops, filters, and fitspo and thinspo (terms coined to describe accounts that influence users to be fit and thin), social media can perpetuate a negative body image and impact our self esteem which can lead to unhealthy behaviours, like disordered eating.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO):
The idea of FOMO has been around for years before social media, however platforms such as Facebook appear to heighten the feeling that others are participating in more fun or exciting activities without us or living a lifestyle that is better than ours. The fear of missing out can negatively impact confidence and increase anxiety.
Social media can be addictive:
FOMO can fuel even more social media use, we may feel the need to check for updates throughout the day, or react to every alert received. You might be worried about missing an invitation, or will be left out of a conversation at work/school because you missed news or the latest update on social media. Perhaps you feel the need to like or respond to other peoples posts due to fearing your relationships will suffer.
Research has shown a chemical known as Dopamine is released in our brain when we engage in rewarding experiences – the brain is designed this way to feel pleasure when such experiences occur and one of those includes social connection (whether it is in person or online). Dopamine plays an important role in developing addictive and compulsive habits. Studies have indicated, social media apps and platforms release large amounts of dopamine into the brain’s reward centre at once which are similar to addictive substances such as alcohol. Consequently, when we are no longer on social media and sign off, we enter into a dopamine deficit state and our body attempts to adjust to an unnatural high level of dopamine that was just released. This may explain why we feel better on social media and not so great once offline, which in turn influences more social media use.
Anxiety and Depression:
As humans we are built to need and benefit from in person connection which positively impacts our mental health. There is no denying meeting with a friend or loved one, face to face, can help to improve mood and reduce stress. Prioritising social media instead of face to face interaction has been shown to increase symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Social media can open the door to cyberbullying for which youth are particularly vulnerable. Cyberbullying has been linked to depression and can even lead to symptoms of post traumatic stress in teenagers.
Social media can act as a band aid solution for underlying issues:
Some people spend time on social media when feeling low, bored or lonely, as a means to distract themselves from unsettling feelings or to even self regulate their mood. Without feeling or connecting to our emotions it can be harder to develop healthier ways to cope and manage our mood.
Can impact how we interact in person:
Excessive social media use with limited face to face interaction can affect our social skills in person. This is particularly true for those who struggle with social anxiety. Without exposure in person we may miss out on opportunities to face our fears.
We outlined a few signs that may indicate social media is affecting you:
- Constantly comparing yourself to others on social media.
- You feel worse after social media use.
- Spending most of your time on social media rather than with friends or loved ones in person.
- Unable to concentrate at work, school or be present in your relationships due to excessive social media use.
- Experiencing sleep issues, particularly if you use social media right before bedtime.
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression worsen.
- Low self esteem or confidence.
- Relying on social media to cope with your problems.
- You are a victim of cyberbullying or you are anxious about what others may say about you online.
9 ways to manage social media use for better mental health:
- Be curious about your behaviour. Begin to explore why you are turning to social media ( i.e., is it for distraction or entertainment?). Ask yourself what role does it serve in your life.
- Being aware of your triggers. Notice what type of posts, pages or content impact your mood and limit your exposure.
- Find a community online that is supportive and can help change your mindset.
- Try to follow posts that uplift or inspire you, rather than those that put you down.
- Moderate social media use and limit time spent online. A few helpful strategies:
- Use an app to track your time online.
- Turn off your phone at certain times of the day ( i.e., while having dinner with someone else).
- Avoid bringing devices to bed.
- Disable social media notifications or set your device to “do not disturb.”
- Mindfully limit how many times you check your phone during the day.
- Remove social media apps from your devices.
- Find a good balance between social media use and life. Set aside time each week to connect with others face to face, find a hobby, creative outlet or join a gym or club. Get involved in the community.
- Practice mindfulness by acknowledging what you see online is not necessarily reality. Acknowledge when you are experiencing thoughts of comparison and practice gratitude for the things that exist in your life (it may help to write them down).
- Help youth manage their social media use:
- Teach them that social media is not necessarily based in reality.
- Monitor and limit their use (social media breaks).
- Encourage teens to speak about underlying issues.
- Promote offline activities, in particular physical movement and exercise.
- Seek help and support. If you are struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety or poor self esteem, and can’t seem to manage your social media use, it might be helpful to seek out individual support from a therapist.