Every day we scroll, click and swipe our way through countless social media apps. Because let’s face it: having the world at your fingertips is pretty enticing. You can share meme after meme with friends, mess around with the latest photo filters, and get a glimpse into the world of your best friends, as well as A-list celebrities. Even when you go to bed, chances are your phone is within arms reach.
For many of us, logging into Facebook, Twitter or Instagram has become a part of our daily routine — something as normal as brushing our teeth or our morning cup of coffee. In fact, you’re probably itching to check it right now.
That’s not to shame you. If you feel like you’re glued to your screen daily, you aren’t alone. The Office of Communications (OFCOM) found that UK adults spend around 49 minutes every day on social media sites. Meanwhile, research from Notting Trent University suggests that we pick up our phones a staggering 85 times a day.
But does it bring us real happiness or joy? It’s safe to say that the results are mixed.
The positives effects of social media
The negative effects of social media are well-documented. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Before you go off the grid, it’s worth remembering that social media can also be a force for good too.
After all, as human beings we all crave connection. We want to be understood and seen and heard. And social media can make this a reality. It allows us to break down geographical divides and connect with like-minded people.
Plus, when it comes to mental health, sharing your experiences online might be cathartic. It provides a creative outlet where you can express your emotions . In fact, some people find it much easier to be vulnerable online than in real life.
Reading other people’s stories might validate your feelings and make you feel less alone. You might discover that the uncomfortable or embarrassing symptoms you’re experiencing are completely normal. And that in itself can be pretty liberating.
Of course, this can swing the other way. But if we use social media in a meaningful way it can have positive effects.
Negative effects of social media on mental health
Social media is often portrayed as public enemy number one when it comes to mental health. Here are just a few reasons why:
During lockdown you might have fallen into the trap of comparing yourself to others.
Maybe you saw countless social media posts about people’s new found hobbies and side hustles. It’s understandable if you felt a pang of guilt or envy.
It’s hard not to compare ourselves to others. With fewer distractions, you might have begun to nitpick at every insecurity or ‘flaw’ you have. And this can really tarnish your self-esteem and lead to feelings of inferiority and depression.
But the truth is you shouldn’t measure yourself against someone else’s ruler. Because what we post on social media tends to be the best part of our lives, cropped and edited to perfection.
If you mindlessly scroll through social media in your downtime, odds are you’ll come across countless with thin, fit and idealised people. But have you ever wondered what these photos of other peoples bodies – your friend’s bikini picture or a celebrity’s dinner selfie — could be doing to your body image?
Just over one in five adults (22%) say that images on social media cause them to worry about their body image, according to the Mental Health Foundation. It might be because they’re overexposed to idealised or unrealistic body types or maybe they feel under pressure to look a certain way.
Always plugged in
Alternatively, maybe you found yourself constantly doom-scrolling through the news and social media. By absorbing a constant stream of dystopian news, it can leave us feeling anxious and stressed. Even when there’s a few positive posts, you may find that you always zero in on the gloomy ones — and it makes sense. After all, humans naturally have a “negative bias”. This means that our brains are hardwired to pay attention to information that scares us or that we perceive as a threat. Without self-awareness, this can make us overestimate the significance of negative news, exacerbating our anxiety and low mood.
There’s other things to consider too. In 2020, OFCOM found that social media was cited as the most common source of harmful experiences, amongst both adults and children. From fake news and bullying to harmful or discriminatory content, there are some aspects of social media that can wreak havoc with our emotional and mental wellbeing.
Although the internet can offer a sense of community. For some people, it might exacerbate their feelings of loneliness, as it doesn’t provide quite the same connection as real-life. Because, whilst social media has its merits, it’s important to remember that it can never be an adequate replacement for real-world human connection.
Exacerbates mental health problems
A 2018 study from the University of Pennsylvania found a link between Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use and decreased well-being. In the same study, Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt 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 (Fear of Missing Out).
How social media affects teenagers
Teenagers get a bad reputation for their social media use. We’ve all heard the stereotypes of teenagers being glued to their screens. But, just like adults, social media has become an important part of many teens’ lives.
For instance, in a 2018 survey of 13-17 year olds, Pew Research Centre found that 97% use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. But the verdict is still out on whether social media use is damaging to teens.
The truth is, like a lot of things in life, there are pros and cons. On the one hand, social media gives teenagers a space for self-expression and identity. It allows them to communicate with others and build meaningful connections. For that reason, social media can offer valuable support, particularly to those who feel excluded or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.
However, on the flipside, it can distract them from work, disrupt their sleep and expose them to bullying, rumours and unrealistic views of themselves and others. For instance a report by the Office of National Statistics found that around one in five children aged 10-15 years old experienced online bullying in the year ending March 2020, equivalent to around 764,000 children.
How to use social media
It would be naïve to say you should stop using social media entirely. For many of us, it’s an integral part of our lives and it’s hard to imagine life without it. The truth is, whether it’s a positive or negative influence is determined by how you use it.
Striking a balance and developing healthy social media habits is the best way to ensure it’s a positive presence in your life.
Here are just a few ways you can use social media in a meaningful way.
Schedule social media time
Nowadays, social media is often the last thing many of us look at before we go to bed and the first thing we check when we wake up. However several studies point out that excessive social media use is often associated with feelings of depression. That’s why it’s helpful to schedule time to use social media and, perhaps more importantly, time away from your screens.
As with lots of things in life, balance is key. So for instance, you could turn off your notifications so you’re not so tempted to constantly check your phone. Or you could use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake you up in the morning so you don’t mindlessly scroll through social media just before bed.
If you’re easily tempted, there are many apps such as Moment and Offtime that track, block or limit your use of social media. Using an app to reduce your time spent on apps may seem ironic, but it could do you the world of good.
We’ve all been there. We’ve had a few minutes of downtime so we’ve whipped out our phone and mindlessly swiped and scrolled through social media simply as a way to fill the day.
Passively engaging in social media like this doesn’t provide any meaningful sense of connection. Logging in simply because you’re bored or to see how many ‘likes’ you got is a completely different experience to using social media to reconnect with a friend or to share photos with your family.
Next time you pick up your device, pause and ask yourself what your motivation is? Are you using social media instead of real-life connection? If you’re lonely or depressed, social media can seem like a quick fix. But it might actually exacerbate your feelings of loneliness or sadness. Instead make a point to be a more active participant on social media and use it as a way to engage with others.
Don’t replace face-to-face connection with digital connection
Social media can break down time zones and geographical barriers. But despite this, it’s never a great replacement for face-to-face connection with people or your hobbies.
Why not spend an hour a week on a screen-free hobby you enjoy? Join a yoga class, learn the guitar or simply go for a walk outdoors. Anything that’ll give you a break from your device.
Most importantly, make time for real-life connections with friends and family too.
Clean your feeds
Are there certain social media accounts or platforms that make you feel worse when you engage with them? If so, try to mix things up. Take a few moments to go through your social media feed to work out what’s making you feel good and what’s not.
Maybe there’s certain accounts that make you feel serious FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) because it always feels like they’re going on extraordinary trips or parties. Or maybe there are some accounts that chip away at your self esteem and body image.
It might be helpful to unfollow these and curate your social media feed so that it’s full of accounts that lift you up and feel good.
Look after your mental health
Social media can be a real force for good. But it can just as easily become an additional stressor and leave you in a negative tailspin. If you find that social media is exacerbating symptoms of anxiety or depression, it might be worth deleting social media apps from your phone or disabling push notifications. A short break could be really helpful.
If you find a social media detox isn’t doing the trick. Take time to check in with your mind. It might even be worth speaking to a therapist if you think you’re struggling with issues like low self esteem or anxiety.
In your session, your therapist will help you identify where these feelings stem from and teach you new coping techniques. So you can stop mindlessly scrolling and swiping and start living a life that’s in line with your values.