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Social Media and Mental Health Explained

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Joanna Yuen

Marketing & Content Specialist - 18 Jun, 2024

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Few things have transformed our world in the way that social media has. Social media has fundamentally changed our relationships with others and with ourselves.

15 or even 10 years ago, we didn’t know how social media would ultimately play out and impact our lives. However, now there is a wealth of data out there about the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media. Is all of that knowledge changing our collective behavior? And why - or why not?

In this article, we’re digging deep into the relationship between social media and mental health, and sharing some tips on how to use social media in a way that leaves you happy and healthy. Here’s how to use that powerfully addictive device in your pocket for good instead of evil.

The Link Between Social Media and Mental Health

It’s not exactly groundbreaking that many people are overusing technology. By this point, many of us recognize the impacts that daily use of digital platforms can have on us. Still, many people are not fully appreciative of the effects of too much technology, and social media in particular. And even with being fully aware, it doesn’t prevent us from constantly checking social media, day in and day out. It’s truly become a part of most peoples’ daily lives and the way that they interact with others - and sometimes to their detriment.

In fact, some experts say that 20 years from now we'll look back on social media as we do now with nicotine addiction. The downsides of smoking are currently so clear and so well-known, that it’s common for someone to wonder why a person would take it up in the first place. As more and more information emerges about the dangers of social media, it's possible that in the future people will wonder how it got so prevalent in the first place. Unfortunately, addiction is not too strong of a word to describe the average person’s relationship with social media. In fact, a UK study (along with several other research sources) show that 2 out of 3 school-aged individuals “would not mind if social media had never been invented”. Essentially, many people wish social media options had never been brought into their lives or our world at all - but since they are here, they are ingrained in their daily habits and they won’t (or can’t) stop using them.

No matter your personal feelings about social media, the fact is that it can be responsible for anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. While social media has reshaped the way that humans interact - for a lot of positive benefits - it also contributes to higher instances of mental illness than we’ve ever seen before. We know this now; there is irrefutable data that proves it. So why does social media play such a crucial role in so many lives?

The truth is that popular social media as well as online dating platforms are designed to encourage addiction. Features like TikTok’s self-shuffling “for you” page or the thrill that comes with going viral for the first time are all created to mimic the unpredictable reward cycles that our brains crave. These short-term dopamine hits are what keep people coming back for more - in the same way that a chronic gambler keeps hitting the slot machine. When you maintain a Snapchat streak or get a ton of likes on your vacation pictures on Instagram, you are rewarded with a bunch of little hearts on your screen or a little flame emoji that is essentially a tiny reward. Through this ongoing cycle, humans are conditioned to do it again and again.

Furthermore, when an outcome is unpredictable, the behavior is more likely to repeat. Consider a slot machine: if the players knew they would never get money by playing the game, they would never do it. The “fun” is in the fact that the reward is occasional, which is what drives the repeat action. The idea of a potential reward helps to keep these platforms, just like a slot machine, in use. You never know who, or how many people, might “like” your picture, but the possibility of your ideal outcome is enough to keep trying.

Related Post: Digital Hoarding Impairs Your Productivity - These Apps Can Help

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It Isn’t All About Age

The younger we are when we jump into the world of social media, the more it can impact our mental health. Countless studies have shown that social media usage can pose “significant risk” to children and teenagers, encouraging them to dislike their own bodies and provoke other mental health concerns. A recent study shared that nearly half of the children and young people (from age 12 to 21) who participated said they had become more withdrawn, started exercising excessively, stopped socializing, or even self-harmed. Many had been bullied or trolled regularly online about their physical appearance. 4 out of 10 participants said they were in “mental health distress” and were engaging in disordered eating or other difficulties, and of these in need of support, only 1 in 10 were receiving treatment.

Those results are not limited to young people alone. While they are certainly more susceptible to issues as their brains develop, people of all ages tend to engage in comparison, and social media is the perfect platform for that. Adults, just like teenagers, eventually start to feel bad about their own home when faced with post after post of beautiful renovation projects. We have all likely heard the phrase “comparison is the thief of joy” - and yet, we spend hour after hour scrolling and comparing, whether consciously or unconsciously. We may not mean to, but we are flooding our brains with tons of comparisons, big and small, every time we engage with social media.

According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults and 81% of teens in the U.S. use social media, which unfortunately means that a large amount of the population is at an increased risk of feeling anxious, depressed, or ill over their social media use. At the same time, social media has been key for bringing awareness to mental health issues in new ways. More people than ever feel less alone in mental health struggles, and society as a whole is more aware of things that can be done to improve mood, reduce procrastination, increase focus, and generally reduce anxiety - which is an important benefit. Does better understanding of mental health erase social media’s contribution to the issues? Only time will tell.

The Social Dilemma

As we just covered, while there are obviously upsides to social media (otherwise we never would have started using it in the first place), in the wrong hands or during the wrong times, these platforms can really impact our mental health. So why don’t we just step away?

Beyond the app design that is made to be addictive, many people can’t seem to detach themselves from unhealthy cycles with social media. There are a myriad of complex reasons that are probably linked to a lack of access to in-person social interaction outside of planned get togethers with family or friends. There aren’t that many “third spaces” or places for unscheduled connections and conversations. Even in bustling college campus areas, for example, you’ll see a lot of people with earbuds in, signaling that they are unapproachable.

Even though, at a biological level, humans are made to interact with each other and live in tribes, we’ve gotten so used to solitude that it can feel uncomfortable to connect in real ways. Obviously, many people feel this was reinforced by Covid, and that social anxiety increased following pandemic lockdowns.  In short, our brains crave those connections, but we have trouble making them - and online feels like the safest and easiest way to do that, without taking off those proverbial earbuds.

Consider Gen Z in particular. Most of their human interactions - everything from dating to client meetings - happen at least partially online. Obviously this is a bit of a generalization and won’t prove true for everyone, but in general, the newest generation to hit the workforce is used to more digital activity than any one before it. While many young people do enjoy thriving social lives with plenty of in-person interaction, many others feel powerless to resist the pull of the phone in their pocket.

That’s because if everyone else is online - being offline is the same as being alone.

Or, to take things a step further, “If I don’t exist on social media, do I exist at all?” And so, we see the crux of the dilemma facing social media-users. In an unscientific but very interesting poll that a Washington Post op-ed writer shared, these were the results:

To the question “Would you ever consider quitting social media for good?” - 34% chose the response “I have, but I can’t bring myself to do it.”

The follow up question: “If all of your friends quit social media, at once, tomorrow - then would you quit?” with a whopping 42% responding “Yes, definitely” and a 30% choosing “Not sure”.  This is consistent with other studies that show that people - especially younger people - feel compelled to be on these apps constantly even if they don’t make them feel good. This is why they say they wish social media had never been invented, but they have no plans to log off.

Time to Power Down?

There is no world in which social media goes away - and we wouldn’t want that anyway. Social media is incredibly powerful and does a lot of good. It’s essentially changed the ecommerce landscape and has been an amazing tool for connection for a lot of people. That being said, individuals should decide for themselves if they are using social media in a way that’s healthy for them. No one is saying people should drop off social media altogether - but maybe taking a digital detox for a week is a good start. Or, opting out of a particular platform temporarily that makes one feel worse.

Many young people have already recognized the potential effects of social media and are taking action to step away. Consider the young founder of Clearspace, an app that helps people to limit their “doom scrolling” as well as overall screen time. This company is also known for “no phone socials” where employees exchange phones for notepads at the entrance. They also include disposable cameras for capturing memories minus the phone. There are also several movements happening which are designed to encourage teens and college students to delete or take breaks from social media accounts, and even apps being created to support emotional wellness in social media.

Tech-based problems can only be partially solved by tech-based solutions. In general, the mindset around social media needs to shift if we want to see long-term behavior changes. The key is not feeling like you’re missing out if you’re not on social media. To enable this, focus on more in-person opportunities for connection, more “no phone” events where we can give everyone’s brains a break from devices, and try harder to be truly present. In short, we need to focus on enjoying special moments, rather than capturing them for the gram.

Related Post: How to Find a Hobby And Boost Your Mood

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Tips for Healthier Social Media Habits

1. Don’t go on auto-pilot (be intentional)

How often do you start scrolling social media as a habit, just because you don’t have something else to do? Too many of us whip out our device to check Instagram while waiting at the doctor’s office or when stuck in traffic? Experts suggest being mindful about not only getting onto social media, but also what you’re seeing, thinking, and feeling while on social media. Are you looking for something in particular? If not, maybe skip social media and play a game instead. If you feel yourself becoming jealous or frustrated when scrolling, it’s time to log off. In general, be more aware of how social media affects you and what might trigger you.

2. Focus more on real-life connections

According to Psychology Today, people spend more time than ever with screens - and that can have negative impacts on their other relationships. In 2018, a Brigham Young University study, found that: “the more time an individual spent on social media, the more likely they were to experience a negative impact on their overall emotional well-being and a decreased quality in their relationships.” Social media cannot serve as your replacement for authentic connection. Try reaching out to someone for a personal connection every day, whether calling your mom to say hi or walking over to your colleagues' cubicle. You may even set a goal for a number of interpersonal connections each week; for example, 2 lunches with friends and one evening phone call with your sister.

3. Set a daily time limit

Time flies when we are having fun (or just on social media). However, a lot of research shows that people who spend 30 minutes or less on social media each day report more feelings of happiness. Try using the “do not disturb” function on your phone to better manage screen time. If the notifications keep grabbing your attention, use a browser like Shift to aggregate and present notifications all in one place, at the time you choose. This way, you can set aside the time, go into Shift and view all of the notifications from your various social platforms, and limit the distractions that happen throughout the day.

4. Seek out joy

Only follow people or pages that bring you happiness. “Doom scroll” is a term for a reason. It’s because so much of social media is designed to bring clicks and engagement - and that engagement can be good or bad. Various platforms know how to serve up content that will make you fire off a sharp retort, or click onto a website to see more. The more you engage, the more you’ll see. That’s why it’s crucial to make a proactive effort to engage with only positivity. If you like social media for keeping up with friends, do that and that alone. Don’t follow other pages or accounts that cover things like news.

5. Skip social media before bed

By now we are probably all familiar with the concept of “blue light” and how looking at screens before bed is not helpful for sleep. However, many of us still use our devices as a way to wind down before bed. That is a great habit to break, or at least reduce as much as you can. Not only is the blue light prohibitive for high-quality sleep, but too often people see something that can affect their mood right as they drift off to sleep. You don’t want the last thing you see before sleep to be your uncle’s aggressive political posts, or pictures of trips that you couldn’t attend due to work. What we see on social media can and does affect your emotions - so regulating them before bed is a good way to get better sleep.

6. Live in the moment (not on your phone)

Have you ever been to a concert where the person in front of you records everything on their phone? That can really take some of the joy out of the experience. When you’re out and about somewhere, resist the urge to document everything. Don’t worry about capturing the perfect picture for social media or a silly moment for TikTok. Instead, try putting your phone away altogether and being fully present in the moment/

7. Try a digital detox

Has it all become too much? If you start to feel like social media is contributing to any feelings of sadness, anxiety, or envy, it’s time to log off. The tricky part is we don’t always realize that social media is a contributor to negative feelings we might have. For example, if you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, and are feeling generally disappointed and inadequate, then seeing pictures of your friend’s new boat are certainly not going to help anything. Maybe it’s not the boat photo itself, but combined with the other things going on it can exacerbate the feelings you are already experiencing. If you find that you are not as happy or fulfilled as you once were, try taking a social media break.

Related Post: Tips for Minimizing Distractions in Your Browser

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Use Shift to Help

The ability to compartmentalize is key. As mentioned, if you use Shift as your browser, you can aggregate your notifications. This means less interruptions and distractions, which in itself is a great thing for a lot of people.

Additionally, you can use Shift to create custom Workspaces - which may or may not include various social media platforms. Since Workspaces can be set up with all of the tabs, bookmarks, and websites you want to use at a given time, you can access only what you want or need to. If you know that you get distracted easily by social media, you can create a Workspace primarily for better focus, with only what you need for work. Or, you can create a custom Workspace that has only Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest - just for fun. Then set aside a certain time or create a limit for spending time on that particular Workspace. The more that you can control your overall browser experience, the better that you manage your own relationship with social media.

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