In our blog series, “Cultivating Mental Health”, we have explored several elements that affect mental health. In our final installment, we’re going to touch on a hot and controversial topic – SOCIAL MEDIA.
Social media has recently come under fire with the popular Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. The film takes an insightful look into the evolution of social media and the negative effects it has had on our society. However, the intention of this article is not to persuade you that social media is bad, but rather that in the interest of your mental health, it should be used responsibly and in moderation.
Social media is a valuable social networking tool. It can help us to stay in touch with friends and family, near and far, and can even be useful in making new friends with similar interests. It is also a free and convenient form of entertainment, making it an easy way to kill time and boredom. Arguably, it may be this convenience that contributed to social media becoming such an integral part of today’s culture. However, social media’s popularity and influence has raised some significant concerns over its effect on mental health.
Social media was not initially intended to consume so much of our lives and replace in-person interactions. Yet, one would be hard pressed to find a social media user that doesn’t somewhat regularly fall into a rabbit hole and find themselves spending hours alone scrolling through their favorite social site. It’s easy to do. Algorithms built into these sites, are designed to learn your interests and promote relevant content that will keep you online – thus, their purpose is to create personalized rabbit holes just for you! How can you compete with that?! Before you know it, you’re spending more and more time online and less time engaging in real life. Research has shown that people who spend more time on social media and less time in personal interactions with others have an increased risk of feeling anxious and depressed.
Social media sites have an addictive quality. They were actually designed under the same premise as casino slot machines! Because you do not know what content you will see when you open a social app or site, the spontaneous result can create a feeling of “reward”. This sensation is actually caused by a release of dopamine, which is known as the “feel-good” hormone. When you are doing something pleasurable, your brain releases a large amount of dopamine. You feel good and so, of course, you seek more of that feeling.
“FOMO” or “Fear of Missing Out” is a particular concern for our younger generations, growing up with social media. Today’s youth report feelings of anxiety over being disconnected or excluded from their peers if they are not constantly kept in the loop. Yet, the distraction of frequent checking of notifications and scrolling, can lead to procrastination, inhibit retention of information, and increase levels of stress. FOMO can also cause feelings of exclusion, loneliness, or anxiety when viewing posts of others having a good time.
Interpersonal Skill Development
When we engage in face-to-face interaction, we use several senses to accurately interpret communication, such as reading facial expressions and body language, hearing tone of voice and inflection, and observing reaction. Developing these senses through social interaction is what teaches us how to communicate effectively, pick up on social clues and hone social skills. We simply don’t get the opportunity to develop these senses and skills through screen interactions. Poorly developed social skills can cause feelings of awkwardness, anxiety and low self-esteem during and after social interactions.
Unrealistic Perceptions and Expectations
It is important to realize that social media is entertainment and a social networking tool; it is not usually an accurate depiction of real life. It can be particularly difficult for today’s youth to understand that they should not believe everything they see and read online. This naivety can result in unrealistic perceptions and unhealthy expectations.
There is so much misrepresentation and mistruths online - from the things people comment that they would NEVER be bold enough to say in real life (bullying/trolling), to baseless claims people make boasting of accomplishments and identity, to the way people alter and misrepresent their physical appearance. (Sigh.) Honestly, a person could write an entire blog just on this topic! So, let’s just look at one example for now.
It’s a fact that with the use of filters, anyone can look any way they wish online. Impressionable young people, who do not understand this, may hold themselves to impossible standards trying to mimic the look of their online idols, promoting self-esteem and body image issues. The pursuit of these unrealistic standards could potentially have dire consequences to both physical and mental health.
These are just a few of the mental health concerns associated with excessive social media use. What qualifies as “excessive” may vary from person to person. So, how do you know if social media is compromising your mental health? Here are some warning signs.
You find yourself …
If you or someone you know is having trouble distancing from unhealthy social media habits, or experiencing persistent feelings of anxiety or depression, please reach out to a healthcare or mental health professional for help.