Mental health and social media

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It is evident that we can no longer talk about mental health without mentioning how our addiction to technology, our smartphones, and the various online platforms that we visit daily, can negatively impact our mental well-being.

Increasingly, studies are showing the negative effects social media can have on our mental health.According to a report by Homewood Health, the more time a person spends on social media, the more likely they are to suffer from a host of mental health issues. What was more alerting was that such link between social media use and mental health issues was more pronounced for children and teens.A study by psychologist Jean Twenge has also found that an increase in teen depression corresponding with technology use, which some are referring to as “Facebook depression.”

How does social media affect our mental well-being? 

“The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” 

— Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook executive

The proliferation of the internet, and technology in general, has been regarded as “a massive, uncontrolled experiment on the human psyche with the advent of social media and digital advertising.”Many studies have linked social networking sites to a variety of negative feelings and psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety to name a few. A study done in the U.S. found that people now spend about five hours per day on their smartphones, replacing television’s record for most time spent on a media device.3

But, how exactly does spending time on social media sites, a simple act of scrolling through your Instagram news feed, negatively impact your mental health?

Social media platforms are not inherently bad, and if used in conscious and deliberative ways, they can improve our lives. Online platform can be useful when it comes to interacting with families and friends, meeting new people, sharing our talents and hobbies with a wider audience, and joining communities with shared interests and values. However, addiction to social media is on the rise, and studies are increasingly warning us of its potential to be classified as a mental health problem for its users.2

According to this report, people who use social media in excess were reported to meet characteristics related to addiction criteria, such as neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood modifying experiences, and even withdrawal symptoms.Another study found that people who spend all night checking their social media feeds were much more likely to suffer from mood problems such as neuroticism and bipolar disorder. Additionally, such behavior was linked to people self-reporting to be less happy and more lonely.Social media use also has been linked to feelings of envy and jealousy.

As Time Well Spent eloquently sums it up:

  • Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.
  • Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self-worth.
  • Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.

Social media addiction is not simply an unintended side effect of social media use, as much as it is a by-design default of social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In a previous post, The attention economy and the ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’, I discussed how profitable it has become for companies to keep us glued to our screen. In order to achieve this, social media companies manipulate human psychology to keep us inseparable from our smartphones.3

What can we do about it?

The solutions for the impact of social media on our mental well-being might be more complex than the problem itself. While I am a huge advocate of quitting social media altogether, compulsive internet use is still an issue I consistently deal with in my day to day life. As I’ve mentioned in my previous post How I Keep Myself Mentally Healthy, I do not have any social media account, except for LinkedIn for professional use, but I still find myself spending countless hours on the internet mindlessly browsing.

However, there are some proactive and useful ways we can manage unhealthy social media use that can negatively impact our mental wellness.

Experts recommend turning off our devices a couple hours before bed to reduce the toll screen time can take on the quality of sleep we get.Some people also opt to delete the apps on their phones so it is not as convenient and accessible to constantly check their social media feeds, while others opt for designated time blocks, such as the weekend or the evening, to turn off their devices. Some people also quit social media for a short period of time to assess their addiction to their social media accounts and the impact that has on their lives.

There are also movements and communities spurting all across the globe to reduce our obsession with social media.

Time Well Spent is a movement dedicated to reversing the digital attention crisis that is hijacking our minds. Instead of simply blaming the user, the movement seeks to hold these social media giants accountable for the way that they have deliberately designed their platforms to be addictive. It is time that we “demand that both corporations and governments take the public good into account when designing and regulating new products and services.”

The subreddit, /r/nosurf, is a great community compromised of individuals seeking to stop mindlessly browsing the internet, generate awareness of the harmful cognitive effects of excessive internet use, and provide both theoretical and practical knowledge to help members take control of their internet use. They also provide reading lists, forums to meet other like-minded individuals, and resources to get professional support. You can also check out their website at nosurf.org.

VIDEO: The Problem With Our Phones from The School of Life
DISCUSSION: Jim Balsillie and Norman Doidge discuss how we’ve become dependent on our digital devices.
Quick Recap: Social media sites, such as Facebook, have been linked to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health problems. Most social media sites are by design meant to be addictive in today’s attention based economy. The downside is that such addictive design not only makes us shop more, but it is directly impacting our psychological well-being. Some ways we can combat these negative consequences is to find proactive measures to spend less time online, such as take a break from social media for a period of time, as well as join like minded individuals who are actively seeking to reduce their internet consumption.

References

  1. Fact Check: Are social media and mobile phones bad for your mental health?
  2. Kuss, Daria J., and Mark D. Griffiths. 2011. “Online social networking and addiction—a review of the psychological literature.” International journal of environmental research and public health 8(9): 3528-3552.
  3. Technology Designed for Addiction: What are the dangers of digital feedback loops?
  4. O’Keeffe, Gwenn Schurgin, and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson. 2011. “The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families.” Pediatrics 127(4): 800-804.

 

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