Social media has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.
Chances are, at the time you’re reading this, you’ve already looked at several forms of social media today… and will see even more by the end of the day.
That’s neither an innately “good” nor an innately “bad” thing—just a new facet of our social lives to be aware of, particularly as it relates to mental health. (And, as we talk about often, mental health significantly impacts overall physical health!)
The health benefits & costs of social media
There are certainly many benefits social media provides us: it helps us stay in touch with friends and family—and social connectivity does contribute to positive health outcomes! Social media also puts news creation and distribution in the hands of “the people” and, in doing that, has contributed to significant social movements by providing voice to topics and populations not typically well-represented in traditional media.
But social media also has its downsides—cyberbullying, which has become a real concern for children (as well as their parents and teachers, who struggle to “mediate” it in the vastness of cyberspace); as well as the unregulated spread of misinformation, which is currently an issue in the U.S. political climate and election process.
These are all significant issues to be collectively aware of.
But, in addition to the societal consequences of social media, it also has deeper, more personal consequences those of us active on social media should be personally aware of—and take measures to manage in a healthy manner.
The mental health effects of social media
Even for those of us not being actively cyber-bullied (which is a mental health concern in and of itself), there are some significant negative mental health effects associated with spending time on social media.
Research suggests that social media usage may be addictive—which means our brains become wired to use it and continue using it to feel “normal.” Addictive behaviors (those our rational brain is not intentionally driving) are, of course, not healthy to enter into.
Other research has found that increased time on social media is correlated with increased feelings of sadness, loneliness and jealousy. Again, not feelings we’re looking to cultivate for happy, healthy lives.
It’s increasingly well-documented that the more time we spend on social media, the more we decrease our overall well-being—both mentally and physically. 😥
Now, that doesn’t mean that “healthy living” requires complete abstinence from all social platforms. There are some ways we can continue to receive the benefits of social media—while limiting its negative side effects.
Here are some tips for staying mentally healthy while continuing to enjoy the benefits of social media:
Know your purpose
Knowing why you’re using social media helps you to stay in tune with that purpose—as well as recognize when your usage is no longer serving that purpose.
For example, if you’re using a certain social platform to stay connected with friends and family who don’t live near you, then use and enjoy it for that—but if you find yourself scrolling your feed, getting lost in hours of cat videos or Facebook-stalking your high school classmates, then knowing your purpose helps to give yourself a gentle reminder: this is not why I’m here.
Being aware of your purpose (and when you’ve strayed from it) allows you to re-focus on what you actually want to get out of time on social platforms.
Curate your social media feeds
When you know your purpose, you can also better choose how you’d like to curate your social media feeds to fulfill that purpose.
For example, if you’re using Facebook simply to stay in touch with far-away friends and family, then you don’t really need a feed with 1,000 acquaintances. Likewise, if you came to Instagram to be inspired by artistic content, you’re not obligated to re-follow anyone and everyone who follows you—just pick the accounts that publish inspiring content you’d like to see.
Knowing your purpose on each platform and curating your feeds accordingly can help to fulfill your purpose of being there—and avoid the potentially toxic “noise” you don’t want or need, and didn’t sign up for.
Which brings us to the next tip:
Do you find yourself scrolling your feed, becoming constantly enraged by the ill-informed political posts of your uncle, or the deeply personal ramblings of an acquaintance you haven’t spoken to in 15 years? Unfollow.
In some cases, totally un-friending a person you don’t desire to remain in contact with makes sense. (Don’t worry, down-sizing your social network is not mean, and they’ll likely never know!)
But, if you’d like to remain “friends” (whatever that means to you in the social media context), simply unfollowing someone who posts offensive or triggering content can help reduce the negative experience of engaging with it regularly.
Now, this isn’t a suggestion to rashly unfollow anyone and everyone who disagrees with you on something. Diversity of thought is healthy! It’s important to be exposed to a range of views and backgrounds, and do our best to learn from them.
The recommendation to unfollow is for extreme cases—people who routinely spread hate and negativity, share misinformation, or just make you feel icky in their online presence.
(We’ll leave it to you to determine if your desire to unfollow stems from your own challenge being exposed to different views, or if you’re truly dealing with someone who has some unhealthy social media practices you’d be best off distancing yourself from.)
Comparison is the thief of joy
One of the ways social media is most known to contribute to reduced mental health is the comparison game.
Social media is a highlight reel. People use it to share their “best” times—happy moments, fun memories, a great hair day, etc. Even if we’re vaguely aware of this (and don’t post our own bad hair day photos), it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking someone else has it all, their life is magnificent compared to ours, we are lacking.
This one is tough to manage, but awareness is power.
When you notice yourself playing the comparison game, pause. Remind yourself that whomever’s post is stirring up feelings of jealousy or insecurity is also human, just like you. They have their own challenges and insecurities. They may have taken 40 photos trying to get the angle they liked for the photo you’re seeing. In the case of Instagram influencers, they might have thousands of dollars of professional hair and make-up and cosmetic surgery behind the scenes of this photo. (That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it’s a reality many people don’t take into consideration when viewing a photo and wondering why they’re the only person who doesn’t have a glowing tan and sun-kissed hair in the middle of winter.)
Comparison is the thief of joy, and comparing our lives to the highlight reels we see on social media does us no favors in finding joy in our own happy moments.
Monitor your screen time
One of the biggest ways to make a difference in how social media impacts your mental health is to monitor your screen time—and set limits if needed!
If you’re prone to whiling away the day scrolling your social feeds, or it’s just second nature to pop open your Facebook app when you have a moment of downtime, this is especially important.
Another common trick is to delete social apps from your phone, so in order to access your social media accounts you’ll need to log in each time. This slight delay in accessing your account is incredibly effective in giving your brain the pause needed to assess if you actually want to be doing that, or if you’re just popping on out of habit.
Take a social media break
Sometimes, a social media break is needed. That doesn’t have to mean completely deleting your account and never using social media again. But taking a break (or, as some say, a “social media detox”) can help to re-set your mind so you can pick up again with healthier, more intentional habits.