Social Media & Mental Health: Taking Back Your Time

Our time is precious. We often do not realize how quickly it goes as we live it. The way we spend our time can influence our health. Enter social media. It might be common behavior to pass “in between” time – a busy doctor’s waiting room or waiting for your order at a restaurant. How can social media affect our health? And how can we ensure that entertainment does not get a greater hold on our time? In this article, Julian Dollente, RN discusses four ways that social media can affect our mental health and offers four strategies to take back time. Christopher M. Cirino, DO MPH Founder Your Health Forum

As social creatures, human beings need the companionship of others to thrive. The strength of our connections plays a vital role in our mental health and happiness.  In today’s world of technological advancements, many people use their smartphones as virtual companions. These devices contain social media applications that allow them to connect with friends, follow their favorite celebrities, and gain updates on global events.  

Two decades ago, the internet introduced the first social media site called “six degrees.” The site started in 1997, and its focus was to establish a profile with a photo of yourself and make new friends in the media. Fast forward to the early 2000s, social media became even more popular. And in 2004, MySpace became the first social media site to reach a million monthly active users. Achieving this milestone prompted more interest in social media to this day. 

With at least 3.5 billion of us are online, and more than two-thirds of all internet users are either on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, or Twitter—social media has become an integral part of people’s daily lives. While each has its benefits, there can be a downside too. 

In this article, you will learn how social media can negatively impact your mental health and how you—or someone you know—can use it more healthily.   

Social media can affect mental health, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety.
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on Pexels.com

How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health?

A 2019 report found that teenagers may spend more than 8 hours each day on the internet—and many of them are worried that they spend so much time on their smartphones. As of 2022, internet users worldwide spend more than 2 hours daily browsing social networks. This amount of screen time raises concerns regarding the mental health of its users. 

According to The Child Mind Institute and The National Center for Health Research, people who frequently use social media feel more depressed and less happy with life than those who engage more in non-screen-related activities. A 2017 Canadian study supports this finding, noting that students who use social media for more than 2 hours daily are considerably more likely to rate their mental health as “poor” or “fair” than occasional users.

But why is social media associated with anxiety, depression, and loneliness?

Researchers in a 2019 study suggest that social media use can delay and disrupt sleep patterns. Evidence shows that sleeping problems—such as insomnia—contribute to adverse mental health effects that lead to depression and psychological stress. Aside from sleeping disorders, social media may also cause mental health issues by exposing users to a world full of negativity, jealousy, and vanity. 

Social Media and the Fear of Missing Out

Another reason scrolling through social networks is so enticing is the fear of missing out (FOMO). When most people—especially your friends, classmates, or co-workers—are using social media, you may worry about missing the conversations, the latest gossip, or any information that connects you to your peers.

A new study investigated the link between social media use and FOMO. Researchers suggest the assumption that FOMO can influence an individual to check social media feeds more often. In the same way, using social media often may lead to the development of FOMO. While there’s no clear evidence to validate this assumption, it is clear that FOMO is a relevant factor for psychologists to consider when dealing with problematic social media use. 

"I miss you" on a foggy window symbolizes the fear of missing out which can occur from social media.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

4 Ways Social Media Negatively Impacts Mental Health

Social media is supposed to be a way to strengthen our social connections. But today, what is commonly seen all over social media are cyberbullying, pretentious lifestyles, and drama. What started as a platform to keep up with friends and have fun has turned into something disturbing. Social media has become a place where people make rude comments and compare everyone with one another. 

Here are some negative implications that show why social media is not very good for mental well-being:

1. It’s Addictive

Have you ever played a slot machine—when you get these intense feelings of pleasure every time you win? Social media apps and websites have the same effect on your brain. The spontaneous results of browsing through various social media networks actually cause a feeling of “reward” because of dopamine—a chemical that is synonymous with pleasure when released. 

Dopamine can often make you feel a sense of euphoria whenever you do something that your brain finds to be good or beneficial, such as eating, exercising, or having sex. Having these feelings will make you want to go scrolling through Facebook or watch YouTube videos over and over again. 

Research shows that as many as 10% of Americans meet the criteria of social media addiction today. Addiction starts when you devote so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas. 

2. It Triggers Disappointment

Do you—or someone you know—like to post “selfies” or pictures of yourself on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media websites? Sure, it can be satisfying to be appreciated and admired by random people on the internet. However, putting too much emphasis on the interactions you receive—or don’t—on things you share online may trigger disappointment.

For instance, posting a selfie in the hopes of receiving likes or comments, but you didn’t get the feedback you desire, may make you feel disappointed or upset. Comparing your posts to other people may also end up in disappointment. All these can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety and depression. 

3. It Causes Negative Body Image

Posting pictures (or videos)  is almost routine on all social media platforms. And it’s no secret that many photos go through editing and thorough selection before being posted. Most people love to use filters—a fun tool that can hide your imperfections and make you look different online—and create a false illusion. 

There’s nothing wrong with using filters and other photo effects; it may even help boost your confidence. However, the problem begins when you rely too much on filters that you no longer believe you can still be beautiful without it. 

A 2019 study suggests that engaging with photo-based social media platforms often can lead to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Another troubling concern about beauty filters is they can set unrealistic and unobtainable beauty standards for both users and followers. 

Looking at photos from social media can give a sensation of body dissatisfaction.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

4. It Can Lead to Envy

Social media websites, particularly Facebook and Instagram, are full of envy-inducing content. 

Constantly seeing other people’s picture-perfect highlight reels, extravagant vacations, luxurious lifestyles, or seemingly perfect relationships (even if some are fake) can lead to jealousy.

Here’s an example. How would you feel if you just had a pimple breakout and saw flawless selfies of random people as you scroll through your feeds? Or here you are stuck in your house for weeks because of the rain and saw a post of your friend enjoying a tropical vacation? And wouldn’t you feel jealous seeing people posting branded and expensive items they bought when you couldn’t even afford to buy a new pair of underwear? 

Sometimes one just can’t help but compare themselves to others and spending too much time on social media will encourage that. Being envious all the time lowers self-esteem and puts stress on mental health.

How to Modify Unhealthy Social Media Behaviors

You don’t need to quit social media entirely. After all, there are still a lot of positives to gain. All you need is some changes in how you approach social media. To continue socializing online without compromising your mental health, here are some steps to follow:

How to Take Back Your Time
1. Reduce Total Time Online
2. Change Focus
3. Spend More Time Offline with Real-Life Friends
4. Express Gratitude

Step 1: Reduce time online

A University of Pennsylvania study suggests that reducing daily social media use to 30 minutes or less can decrease levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and sleep problems. While it’s probably unlikely for many of us to drastically cut back on social media, we can still benefit—no matter how little—from reducing our time spent online. If our time spent online today is lesser than yesterday, it’s already a breakthrough. 

Step 2: Change your focus

Many of us use social media purely out of habit or because of FOMO. What you do on your own time is entirely up to you, but focusing on your motivation will help you improve your social media experience and avoid the many negative aspects that come with it. 

For instance, your experience will likely be very different if you’re using social media to:

  • communicate with friends;
  • organize fundraising;
  • promote a product you’re selling online; or
  • Share a photo of your kids and family.

Compared to when you’re logging on simply because:

  •  you’re bored;
  •  you want to check how many likes you got from a photo you posted; or
  •  you want to compare yourself with other people’s lives.

Your motivation plays a vital role in how you respond to social media. You’re less likely to be disappointed or depressed if you’re using them as a means to communicate or find specific information. So the next time you log on to Facebook or Instagram, pause for a moment and evaluate your reasons for doing so. 

Step 3: Spend More Time Offline with Real-life Friends and Family

According to a 2016 study,  having more friends on social media doesn’t necessarily translate to a better social life. Relying on your virtual friends for emotional support doesn’t have the same therapeutic effect as time with real friends. The same 2016 study suggests that there seems to be a limit on the number of friends our brain can handle—and it takes face-to-face social interaction (not virtual) to keep up with these friendships.   

We all need actual social interactions to be happy and healthy. At its best, social media can be a tool that can make these interactions possible. As long as there’s an internet connection—no matter where you are—you can have the whole digital world at your fingertips. However, you shouldn’t allow virtual connections to replace real-life friendships in your life. 

Step 4: Express Gratitude

Being more grateful for the things you have in life is a welcome relief from all the negativity—such as discontent, resentment, and hostility—generated by social media. Happiness is indeed a choice, and it is not dependent on one’s current circumstances. Being rich doesn’t guarantee satisfaction as much as being poor doesn’t guarantee misery. 

If you can learn to appreciate the things you have rather than be upset about those that you do not have, you will be a lot happier.   

Final Thoughts

Accessing social media can help us make friends with random people, keep us connected despite great distances, or help us reconnect to people with whom we lost touch years ago. But as with all things, too much social media can be detrimental to your mental health. Spending long hours online can expose you to the cruelty of the digital world. Some people can be rude, and some can be ingenuine. If you’re looking for an emotional lift, social media is not the best place for it. 

All this is not to say you should quit social media, but at least try to reduce the time you spend scrolling through your feeds or your desire for likes and comments. Keeping your social media use to 30 minutes a day can help you avoid feelings of isolation and depression. And if you’re confident enough, try taking a little break from online activities and see how it goes. Remember, chatting with a thousand Facebook friends does not compare to a face-to-face get-together with friends in the real world. 

The Trouble is, You Think You Have Time.

Buddha

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