The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health
“Distracted from distraction by distraction”, what T.S. Eliot said so many decades ago can be the apt metaphor for our social media existence.
Humans are social creatures and need communities. Humans need companionship, love and attention to thrive in life and have perfect mental health. The strength and vibrance of our human connections have a huge impact on our attitude and happiness. When people are socially connected to others it leads to reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression, boosts self-worth, provides comfort, brings joy, reduces loneliness, and thus is meant to believe to prolong a happy and healthy life. When people lack strong social connections, it can pose a serious risk to their mental and emotional health.
Year 2020 was marked with lockdowns and mandatory social distancing due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. In this new normal when physical distances were imposed and mandatory, social media became an invaluable tool for people of all ages for keeping in touch with friends and family and the wider world. According to the World Happiness Report released recently, “One major element in COVID-19 policy has been physical distancing or self-isolation, posing a significant challenge for people’s social connections, vital for their happiness. People whose feeling of connectedness fell had decreased happiness, as did people whose sense of loneliness increased and whose social support was reduced.”
In fact, many rely much more than ever now on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram and messaging apps like WhatsApp to find and maintain connect with each other. All of these platforms did prove useful especially when almost our entire life shifted online. Though, it is crucial to remember that social media can never replace real-world human connection.
There have been numerous studies of the effects of social media on mental health and the results have been diverse.
How does Social Media affect your Behavior?
Social media has a huge bearing on our mental health as it has replaced the village squares, town bars and city cafes where people met to a large extent.
Various kind of social media have one thing in common, they all are reinforcing in nature. When one uses them, it activates the brain’s reward center and dopamine is released. This is a “feel-good chemical” which is linked with activities connected with pleasure- sex, food, and social interaction. Social Media platforms are designed to be addictive in nature and hence have the risk of any other kind of addiction- anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments.
The Mental Health pitfalls of Social Media
Social media is said to involve many negative experiences for many people especially those already vulnerable in the social system- women, teenagers and other marginalized people. It is a double-edged sword, people who have access to social media often come face to face with its pitfalls and those on the other side of the digital gap who don’t have easy access to social media feel the oppression of missing the bus.
Social media seems to be the new marker of disparity among people. People feel an inadequacy about their life or appearance when they see others’ life there. Even when people are aware that the images being viewed are manipulated, they can still lead to insecurity about how one appears and one’s life situations. Similarly, it is a commonly known fact that people tend to share just the highlights of their lives on social media, rarely the failures or low points are shown, yet there is a tendency to compare your own mundane life with the fabulous moments on display. People experience envy and dissatisfaction while scrolling through a friend’s airbrushed photos of a holiday or a new acquisition.
FOMO/ Fear of missing out is what sites such as Facebook and Instagram seem to exacerbate. People feel that others are living better lives than them and if they don’t be part of a trend or a challenge they will miss out on life. This idea of missing out can impact self-esteem, be a trigger for anxiety, and lead to more and more social media use. It is because of FOMO people constantly check updates, can’t resist responding to push notifications—even if it means risking their lives while driving or losing sleep at night. This sometimes also leads to them prioritizing social media over real-world relationships leading to the next pitfall-isolation.
High usage of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram increases feelings of loneliness as was found out by a study in the University of Pennsylvania. The study also found that reducing social media usage can actually make people feel less lonely and isolated and improve their overall wellbeing.
A large part of human interaction is body language and now that all social media platforms allow video interactions, these still remain short of face-to-face contact much needed for being mentally healthy. Eye-to-Eye contact reduces stress and boosts mood faster and effectively when it happens in real life not across a screen.
However, people nowadays often prioritize social media interaction over people in real, this increases the risk for mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Then there is the other dark face of social media- trolling and offensive comments and other kinds of cybercrime. Social media platforms such as Twitter are often used for spreading rumors, lies, and abuse causing long lasting emotional scars. Often teenagers, women and people with disabilities are more vulnerable in such online spaces. Due to lack of awareness about risks people also get influenced easily by chain posts, challenges and share too much about their personal lives on social media. This further enhances the risk for narcissism and too much self-obsession and also makes the personal data an easy prey for hackers and trouble-makers.
Sometimes cybercrimes get so serious that the victims are even pushed to self-harm and suicide. Now the Indian government has started an independent portal for reporting the same called National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal.
Are there any mental health benefits of Social Media?
It is hard to believe that Social media does also benefit people. However, it does enable them in improving their communication skills and social connections. Social media sites allow people to make new connections, exchange ideas and develop new interests. It allows new forms of self-expression that were not known to many marginalized people, what is still risky to say can be said anonymously or under an assumed identity.
This kind of sense of community and finding others like oneself promotes a sense of belonging. The latest research at Michigan State University in the US concluded that social media platforms and communication tools make it easier to maintain relationships and access health information online too. A Michigan State University study published in the Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication supports the theory that social media use might actually be beneficial to our mental health. In the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 13,000 relationships from adult participants. The data suggested that social media users were 63% less likely to experience mental health crises, including anxiety and depression.
During the isolation and distancing imposed during the pandemic Social media sites proved to be hugely useful in addressing psychological distress and also assisting in all kinds of relief work.
How to use Social Media Ideally
What can be a rule for a good life is the basic rule for social media too- be mindful of how it makes you feel.
If social media increases stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, one must limit their engagement. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and FOMO.
Many apps now help to track the total time spent on social media each day and can be used effectively to have a more meaningful engagement with it. Disabling social media push notifications can free you from the constant buzzing and beeping of the phone and regain control of time and focus.
One thing most have attempted or at least aspired for is a social media sabbatical, because at some point of time or the other the constant urge to check statuses becomes a little too much.
The duration and purpose of a social media sabbatical have to be clear to make it a success. Doing it with a partner is easier and more motivating. Start weeding out unnecessary connections on all your media, especially groups and pages that no longer mean anything to you.
It is always good to announce the sabbatical at all the platforms beforehand. Those who also engage on social media for professional reasons can announce a fixed time break and keep an alternative channel of communication open like email or texts.
The recently released World Happiness Report states clearly that digital connection is vital, and many people have been helped by digital programs promoting mental health, often social media platforms prove to be the first point of contact for many worthy causes and valuable help.
Be careful of how, when and why you use social media.
“You are what you share.”
― Charles Leadbeater, We Think: The Power of Mass Creativity