Social Media Affects Our Mental Health
This isn’t news to most people. Most of us have experienced how social media affects our mental health through photos of happy families who never seem to bicker—ever. We’ve likely seen air-brushed, filtered photos of celebrities claiming to look “natural.” And, few of us have avoided cyberbullying, even if it’s only witnessing another person leaving an insulting comment for a stranger.
How exactly, though, does social media affect our mental health? Do we have any idea how these platforms, which have become a part of our daily lives, increase or decrease the quality of our lives? How much social media is too much on a daily basis? Do these virtual communities still hold value as originally intended as a modern means for human connection?
Knowing yourself before you click on social media is profoundly important when it comes to your mental health. Anyone managing a mental disorder or a stressful life situation like a death, divorce or job loss should take care around social media use. This goes, too, for adolescents navigating the treacherous waters of insecurity and self-development.
The Ranch Pennsylvania explores the relationship between social media and mental health by uncovering some surprising truths about our need for human interaction and how social media can be a force of good or a source of isolation.
Too Much Virtual Socializing Increases Loneliness
Did you know heavy users of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat show an increased sense of loneliness and depression? It seems strange how platforms intended to offset loneliness can worsen the problem.
In 2018, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Melissa G. Hunt, set out to examine the relationship between social media and mental health in the first comprehensive experimental study using 143 participants.
Learn more about Hunt’s study by reading, “Social media use increases depression and loneliness: In the first experimental study of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt showed a causal link between time spent on the platforms and decreased well-being,” published on the UPenn website.
Social Media Use and Mental Health
In the first experimental study of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram use, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt showed a causal link between time spent on the platforms and decreased well-being.
With a focus on the three major social media platforms, Hunt and her team measured levels of depression for each participant at the study start. Participants were also asked to provide smartphone screenshots of their daily social media usage. These screenshots became the study’s baseline. Weekly tallies were then recorded for three weeks.
The study randomly assigned some participating UPenn undergraduates to limits of 10 minutes using each social media platform each day, giving them a maximum of 30 minutes on social media. The remainder of the participants were randomly asked to maintain their regular social media usage.
The study showed a clear relationship between increased usage of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and increased loneliness and depression. This was especially the case for individuals showing signs of depression when the study started.
In an online UPenn feature story on the social media experiment, Hunt was quoted as saying, “Here’s the bottom line, using less social media than you normally would lead to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced,” she continued, “for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
According to Hunt’s study, 30 minutes seems to be the magic time limit for social media. For those study participants using the social media platforms no more than 30 minutes per day, loneliness and depression decreased.
Social Media Comparison Traps Keep You Small
Social media comparison traps are instant, unconscious, and have the potential to paralyze you emotionally without some perspective. These comparisons are often the culprit for an increase in loneliness and depression resulting from excessive social media use.
Read more about social media comparison traps in the article “The Comparison Trap,” written by Rebecca Webber and published online in 2017 at PsychologyToday.com.
Social Media Affects Mental Health and Rewires The Brain
Let’s say you see a Facebook photo of your college roommate and her beautiful family posing on a Hawaiian beach. Hawaii is somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.
For the sake of argument, imagine you are recently divorced, struggling to make ends meet, a couple sizes larger than your old roommate, and worried about your children.
In the few seconds that it takes to scan the photo, you compare your own vacation (or lack of vacation), romantic relationships, family situation, happiness, body weight, fashion choices and more. If you were feeling a dash of depression before seeing the photo, well, the photo won’t help your mood.
How is it that we can, faster than a Kentucky Derby finish, sum up our lives and come up so short?
Imagine your brain as a computer. This computer processes countless bits of information daily. From the beginning of your life, your brain absorbs relational values, life experiences, verbal messages, media influences, and more into something of the ideal of what a human being is “supposed” to be.
We are fed most of these images.
By the time we are 18, our brain has clearly defined what we imagine equals a happy and worthy life, including body size, income, relationships, jobs, homes, etc.
Because our brains are designed to make these instant assessments of what we see out in the world, it’s impossible to shut off our comparisons. There was a time when comparisons helped us illustrate what skills we had and what skills we needed to survive. A caveperson may have noticed a neighboring cave family hunting and gathering more food, then adapted to the successful family’s hunting and gathering tactics.
However, today’s constant barrage of information bombarding our brains gums up easily a system designed to help human survival.
How to Social Media Successfully
If we accept the fact our brains will compare, there are some actions we can take to protect ourselves from the increase in loneliness and depression the social media research is showing.
For starters, individuals experiencing depression must be vigilant about the amount of time spent on social media. Set your sights on that 30-minute social media limit per day. If this limit seems impossible, consider seeking support from a friend or mental health professional.
There’s no shortage of people compulsively using social media. Find a social media accountability partner. Ask a friend to stay accountable daily around your usage. If 30 minutes seems insanely short, cut your usage by 20 minutes per week. Each day, send your accountability partner a screenshot of your social media time. In this way, you can support each other.
If you find yourself experiencing depression along with your social media overuse, reach out to a mental health professional for more in-depth support.
Pay attention to the thoughts you have while on social media. As an experiment, use a sheet of paper and jot down the thoughts that pop up when you look at images on social media.
Then, ask yourself a set of questions:
Is this a commercial posting? Is this the posting from someone earning a livelihood from their feed?
If so, remember how these images are designed to encourage the purchase of a product, movie ticket, bathing suit, nutritional supplement, cosmetic, music download and more. A lot of expert marketing goes into making those images inspiring.
Have you ever taken a photo and looked happy even if you weren’t?
Think about a vacation or event when you smiled for the camera, but things weren’t as peachy as they looked behind the scenes. Weddings are a great example. Even if your wedding was the best day of your life, chances are good there was a lot of stress involved. Did you show this stress in your photos? Probably not.
What do you really value?
Make a list of what you value most. Keep it handy for times when social media brings you down. Maybe Hawaii isn’t in the cards this month. However, what things are bringing you joy today? Are you doing your best today? Are you making time for yourself and your loved ones?
Take what you need and leave the rest. Go back to the happy family Hawaii photo. What about this photo inspires real envy? Are you upset because someone is doing something you really want to try? If so, what actions can you take to make this a reality? Even putting $5 in an envelope marked “Hawaii” can take some of the stings away.
Is this post giving me upset feelings in my body?
Often, our body is a good measure when something isn’t healthy for us. If a particular vitriol post with angry comments is causing you tension, step away. Listen to your body’s response.
Is it possible to live a life free of conflict, sadness, and disappointment?
No. Every life has a mixture of the good and the bad. Social media usually shows a highlight reel. What moments in your own life have you kept from social media? Did you show the last argument with your spouse? That time you were fired? How about when the principal called about your son?
Can a person have tons of followers but still be unhappy in their real life?
Yes. Common sense and experience tell us the number of connections, followers and positive comments doesn’t necessarily translate into real-life happiness. Think about celebrities and politicians with social media audiences in the millions. When stressful and public life events occur, rarely do these social media audiences decline. You can have millions of followers and still be miserable in your life.
Social Media: The Good and the Bad
Despite the negatives mentioned, social media also holds value for many people. Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, for instance, are gaining meaningful lessons in socialization through the community portion of video games like Minecraft. Read, “Can Social Communication Skills for Children Diagnosed With Autism Spectrum Disorder Rehearsed Inside the Video Game Environment of Minecraft Generalize to the Real World?” published in 2020 in the gaming journal titled JMIR Serious Games.
Countless individuals have been reunited thanks to Facebook. And, many social causes attain attention and financial support otherwise missing thanks to social media.
So, how do we keep the good but leave the bad?
For starters, we take responsibility for our social media use. If you feel depressed, insecure, stressed out, make sure to limit your time on social media. And, anyone with a history of eating disorders and body dysmorphia should use extra caution around social media. At the very least, only follow people who post both the good and the bad. Limit or unfollow anyone who appears to have no cellulite, no acne, minimal life stress and appears in a perpetual good mood.
Parents must also use vigilance with children. Adolescents are much more vulnerable to comparison traps than adults. Educate your children about the realities of social media and limit use.
Many smartphone apps exist to restrict screen time for adults and children. Read “Mo Devices Mo Problems: ADDitude’s Top 10 Parental Control Apps,” published online in March 2021 at ADDitude Magazine.
If you are feeling down and worry about how social media affects your mental health, reach out for support. Someone at The Ranch Pennsylvania is always available to discuss ways to create a healthier lifestyle. No one is the image of perfection shown on social media, and no one is without hope for a better life. Call 717.969.9126 today.