How Social Media Affects Mental Health and What to Do About It 

Mental Health Awareness Month is here – so it’s time to raise awareness of one of today’s contributors to mental health issues – social media. 

Social media has become a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives. However, its increased use over the years has brought to light its negative impact on mental health, with some sources referring to it as a public health crisis. This claim is understandable given that mental health diagnoses among adolescents have steadily increased since the early 2000s along with social media’s rise in popularity.

Research has shown that excessive use of social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, and may trigger or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Some studies even link social media use among young people with an increased risk of substance misuse.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the dark side of social media and provide practical tips on how to maintain a healthy relationship with it. This is important for marketers that are using these platforms on a regular basis as it can disrupt work life balance. 

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and am not qualified to give mental health advice – I will simply be sharing a few everyday tips that we can all use to approach social media with mindfulness and moderate our use.

The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health

As mentioned, social media has been associated with anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues. It allows individuals to portray an unrealistic, carefully curated picture of their lives, where their network only sees the high points. 

When people follow such accounts and compare their own lives to the supposed success of others, feelings of inadequacy, sadness and loneliness often set in. Certain multi-millionaires have commented that even they feel inferior about their lives after being exposed to social media, and therefore, avoid using it. 

In addition, individuals can feel under pressure to present a perfect image online; yet when they compare themselves to the idealised image that they present, there is a discrepancy between their actual and projected self-image, leading to feelings of inadequacy. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, however – below, we will explore more about how various issues manifest in association with social media.

Depression and Anxiety

Below is an overview of some of the findings discovered about the impact of social media on mental health, based on the following papers: “Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review” and “Social Media Use and Mental Health: A Global Analysis”. 

Some of the individual studies reviewed revealed the following findings:

  • Social media use is significantly associated with increased depression (Lin et al., 2016).  
  • Passive social media use such as reading posts is more strongly associated with depression as compared to active use i.e., making posts (Nereim et al., 2020). 
  • Participants experienced decreased levels of contentment with the self and life after excessive Facebook usage (Park et al., 2013).  
  • A study in Wuhan, China, investigated the prevalence of depression, anxiety, or a combination of the two among individuals that had frequent social media exposure during the COVID-19 outbreak. There was a high prevalence of these mental health issues among the participants who reported frequent social media exposure during this time (Gao et al., 2020).   
  • The four domains of social media – time spent, activity, investment and addiction – all correlated with depression, anxiety, and psychological distress (Keles et al., 2020). 

Body Image

Over the years, several well-known cases have been discussed in the news where individuals with heavy social media use developed eating disorders and died due to the medical consequences or suicide.   

Constant comparison to others is unhealthy but with social media use, this way of thinking is unavoidable – unless of course, the individual uses the platforms for their most basic functions such as messaging, finding events, and so on. 

Research has shown that users of YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are more likely to have body image concerns and abnormal eating behaviours compared to non-users. Another study that focused solely on Instagram showed that consistent use is associated with a negative body image and self-harm. 

In the past, individuals were posting self-harm photos on Instagram under the NSSH (non-suicidal self-harm) hashtag; thankfully, Instagram stated in 2019 that posts featuring self-harm would be blocked in order to protect vulnerable individuals.

Some campaigners have suggested that social media should display a warning in the same way a packet of cigarettes does. In fact, the Royal Society of Mental Health recommended that these platforms display warnings about “heavy usage” if the user has spent a certain amount of time on the platforms.

Social Isolation

On the one hand, social media facilitates connection; on the other, it can reduce the amount of face-to-face social interaction an individual has as virtual interactions become the norm. 

This concept comes under what is known as Displaced Behaviour Theory, which states that when people spend more time engaged in sedentary activities, they are less likely to have face-to-face social interaction. However, face-to-face interaction is proven to protect against mental health disorders.

Do you ever use social media to talk to a friend that lives on the same road or even in the same building? Of course, people are busy these days and sometimes it’s necessary to take these shortcuts, but if we’re not careful, virtual interactions can dominate.

The lack of such connection may therefore partially explain the association between social media and various mental health concerns.

Cyberbullying and Harassment

Cyberbullying and online harassment are also significant concerns when it comes to social media’s impact on mental health and can be particularly harmful to young people. 

Cyberbullying can take the form of hateful comments, threats, or even sharing personal information without consent. This type of conduct can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and social isolation; and in some extreme cases, has led to suicide. 

It’s important that victims of cyberbullying or online harassment report the abuse to the platform in-question and reach out to friends, family, or a mental health professional for support. It may be easy to feel isolated when facing this type of abuse as it’s only happening online, meaning the victim has no witnesses (unless the abuse is more public). However, victims are not alone and there are resources available to help.

Social Media Addiction

Social media addiction is a real phenomenon. The constant barrage of information and notifications can be overwhelming and lead to addiction-like behavior. In fact, social media platforms are designed to be addictive – with professionals in the field of Behaviour Design advising on how to design the user interfaces and overall experience so that individuals stay on the platform for as long as possible and keep coming back for more. Some simple examples of this are the use of variable rewards and infinite scroll. 

Excessive and addictive social media usage also disrupts sleep patterns, further affecting mental health as well as physical health. 

In a BBC article on the addictiveness of social media, engineer Aza Raskin is quoted saying: “In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up”…”So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you’re going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked.”

Another factor that may contribute to addictive use of social media is FOMO – the fear of missing out.  Social media creates an environment where individuals feel the need to be constantly connected, always up to date with the latest news and trends. This constant connectivity can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress, as individuals feel the need to be “in the know” at all times.

If companies are not going to be more responsible in the design of their products, it’s down to individuals to make sure their use of social media doesn’t get out of control.  

How to Use Social Media in a Healthy Way

While social media can easily become a path to mental health issues, it can also be a source of connection, support, inspiration, entertainment, and humour. It helps us to stay in touch with loved ones and find like-minded communities – as well as find ways to connect with people offline. It is also a channel to raise awareness about mental health itself. 

To use social media in a healthy way, it is essential to limit your use, just like you would with caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine when protecting your physical health.    

Tips for a Healthier Relationship with Social Media

Set Boundaries and Take Breaks

Setting boundaries around your social media usage can help you maintain a healthy relationship with it. Here are a few ways to do that:  

  • Switch off notifications. 
  • Set a timer when you start using an app and stop when the alarm goes off. Set the timer so that you only spend 10 minutes on the platform at a time.  
  • Delete the apps from your phone and only use them on a browser. If you want to continue using a platform such as Facebook for messaging purposes, delete the Facebook app from your phone but keep the Messenger app installed.  
  • Make an agreement with yourself to only use social media for a pre-defined amount of time each day.  
  • Make an agreement with yourself to avoid using social media while doing certain activities, such as eating meals, socialising with people in-person, for two hours before you go to bed, and for two hours after you wake up.   
  • Choose one or two days each week on which you will not use social media at all.  
  • Restrict the number of social media platforms you use – and avoid visual platforms if they may trigger body image issues.

Find Other Things to Do

If you find that you spend too much time on social media, find alternative activities to fill the time such as reading, taking an online course, exercising, other hobbies, or spending time with friends and family. You will remember how rewarding life can be when you get away from the screen.  

Take a Digital Detox

If you feel overwhelmed with social media and perhaps the internet or technology in general, it’s time for a digital detox. A digital detox could be one day, a weekend, a week, or even longer without any social media and with limited technology use. Plan a weekend away or longer holiday where you can enjoy a simpler way of living – perhaps in a place of natural beauty. You will then experience the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO). It’s a much better feeling than FOMO.  

Remind Yourself that Social Media is Not the Real World

To combat comparison and self-esteem issues, apply some mindfulness and remember that social media is not real life. People typically only post the best parts of their lives on social media, which can create a distorted view of reality. 

It is also important to focus on your own journey and accomplishments rather than comparing yourself to others.  

Seek Professional Help

If you are struggling with mental health issues that you suspect may be related to social media, it is essential to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide support, guidance, and resources to help you manage your symptoms and improve your overall well-being. 

Wrapping Up

In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month 2023, let’s be mindful of our social media use and make sure it’s not dominating our day to day lives. Take a digital detox, set boundaries, and discover the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO). 

For marketers, taking these steps is important for establishing work life balance. In fact, my team and I can assist with your marketing campaigns so you can spend less time on social platforms – contact us today for more information.

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