Originally published October 9th, 2017
Social media: the majority of the population use it, some of us to the point of addiction. But what kind of effect is it having on our mental health?
I don’t even know why I posed this post as a question, because the answer is pretty flipping obvious: YES. Social media is having a hugely negative effect on our mental health. Everyone is glued to it these days, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, or some other platform. I’m as guilty as anyone with this: whenever I have a spare minute on the bus, or need something to pass the time in the break room at work, I habitually turn to my phone and start scanning a bunch of posts that I don’t REALLY need to be reading. A lot of the time, I regret it afterwards, because I’ll see something that triggers my anxiety or leaves me feeling a bit down. I’m sure I’m not the only one; in fact, as recently as last month the BBC reported that social media exacerbates mental health issues in young people.
But how exactly does social media harm us? More importantly, is there anything we can do about the negative effect it’s having on our minds? Let’s have a chat about it…
How is social media harming our mental health?
First and foremost, it provides unrealistic expectations of what life should be like. All that we see on Facebook, Instagram and the like is a carefully curated snapshot of a person’s life: the perfect selfie taken in optimum lighting, the gleeful statuses about fun days out, the group shots of the tons of friends that everyone seems to have but you. When scrolling through people’s timelines, it’s easy to think that they have perfect lives filled with constant happiness – negativity just doesn’t feature. That of course leads to the inevitable unfavourable comparisons between your life and theirs, and feelings of inferiority. Even when you’re feeling generally okay, this can be upsetting. When you’re feeling low or anxious, it can be devastating, and lead to a further decline in mood.
Secondly, social media can cause a lot of issues regarding body image. This isn’t an area I’m particularly knowledgable about, and I don’t want to write a load of waffle that’s inaccurate, so here’s a link to a BBC article about the link between social media and body image, and a piece from Time magazine. One thing I do know is that a lot of the time, photos posted on social media are either edited or taken to showcase a person’s ‘best angle’ (I’m guilty of this too; it’s always the right side of my face that’s prominent in my selfies). These photos are often carefully crafted in order to fit societal beauty norms, and consequently can be poor indicators of what people’s bodies are ACTUALLY like. Yet we still compare ourselves to these selective snapshot of other people- often negatively.
The culture of getting ‘likes’ is also one that can be very harmful to mental health. Not getting what the individual perceives to be enough ‘likes’ on a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram can lead to feelings of insecurity, inferiority, or even worthlessness. These are all common features of depression, and can lead to serious self-esteem issues if they’re endured frequently enough. Of course, deciding how many likes is ‘enough’ is often thought of in relation to other people’s posts: so-and-so from work got 100 likes on their new profile picture, so why didn’t you? Again, this kind of thinking is only going to lead to negative self-perceptions.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which social media can negatively impact your mental health. However, to prevent me from ranting on forever about this topic (which, trust me, I could), I’m going to move on to something a bit more positive: what we can do to minimise the damage that social media does to ourselves and to others.
What can we do about it?
The most straight-forward solution to social media’s problematic impact on mental health would be to stop using it altogether. However, that’s not always possible in the modern world. When I was at university, a lot of information about events and the like was disseminated via Facebook group: if I’d have deactivated my account, I would have missed out on potentially important news. Likewise, the messaging features of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become pretty common ways to communicate with friends and family, making deleting these apps more difficult to get rid of.
More achievable is cutting down the amount of time per day we spend on social media. Until recently, I was entirely guilty of spending any free moment i had scrolling my Twitter timeline or Facebook News Feed. It was completely a force of habit: I’d been doing it for so many years that it had become a ‘normal’ part of my routine. However, I’d recently started noticing that the frequency with which I was feeling upset or anxious thanks to what I saw was increasing vastly. I’d be constantly panicking that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t have enough friends, or that my life was so much ‘worse’ than other people’s. All of this is totally untrue, but my anxious brain was taking the littlest things and turning them into full-blown character flaws.
I decided to try and cut down how much I mindlessly scroll through all of these anxiety-triggering posts. I started this by downloading games and puzzle apps to go to instead of social media when I had a spare minute. I now spend my bus journeys doing Japanese crosswords instead of comparing myself to people I haven’t actually spoken to in months, and it’s definitely made a difference to my mood. I mean, granted, I do get pretty pissed off when I can’t work out the answer to a particularly difficult puzzle, but it’s definitely less harmful than feeling inferior because some random girl I went to school with got more likes on her profile picture than I did. Next, I turned off notifications on any app that wasn’t crucial to communicating with people. That includes Facebook and Instagram, although I’ve left Twitter on simply because I use it for business a fair bit. It’s genuinely helped to reduce the craving to check the apps, because I’m no longer being notified when a friend posts for the first time in a while or likes something that an algorithm has (usually incorrectly) decided I might enjoy too.
If for whatever reason you don’t want to cut down your social media time, I would strongly recommend using it a bit more mindfully by reminding yourself that it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. For example, when you’re looking at everyone’s posts about how wonderful their life is and how totally happy they are, try to remember that this is most likely only part of the truth. Everyone has their bad days, and everyone has issues in their life: they just choose not to broadcast them on social media, because they want the rest of the world to believe that their life is perfect. If you compare yourself to other people based on their social media profiles, you’re trying to match up against a version of them that doesn’t really exist.
I hope this post has been informative for all of you social media addicts out there: I’ve been there, and it genuinely did have a negative effect on my frame of mind. If anyone has any thoughts about this topic that they want to share, feel free to leave a comment below.