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Social media and your mental health

Social media is a big part of most people’s lives. It’s how we talk to each other, find out about stuff or even just kill some time. It can help us to feel connected, plugged into the world and gives us the freedom to express ourselves.


However, some of us worry that we spend too much time on social media and that it might be harming our mental health.


Illustration of a young man looking at his phone


Our ability to access social media 24/7 is a big part of the problem. With our phones always close by, it's easy to use it constantly, especially at night when our phones are right by our side.


Whether it’s Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, or even TalkCampus, it can feel that we are always switched on. But what impact is this having on our mental health and what can we do about it?


Is social media bad for mental health?


We often hear news reports telling us that spending too much time on social media is bad for us. That it can make us depressed, anxious, affect our sleep and leave us feeling more alone than ever before. But here’s the thing: it’s not a clear-cut case.


There’s no solid proof that social media directly causes mental health problems. Other factors, such as pre-existing mental health conditions, offline social support, and individual vulnerability, also contribute to the development of mental health problems.


The impact of social media on your mental wellbeing can also vary from person to person. Some people can spend a ton of time on social media without any issues, whereas others might feel the negative effects even with just a little bit of usage. It’s a mixed bag.


Does the amount of time we spend on social media really matter?


That’s a difficult question to answer. Nobody seems to know how much time is too much to spend online.


Perhaps a better way to think about it is whether you feel stressed or upset when you’re using social media and if it’s starting to interfere with how you live your life. Or in other words, it’s not just about the time spent on social media but how it affects you personally.


As well as how much time you spend on social media, it might be helpful to think about how you’re using it. Are you actively chatting with friends, posting updates, and commenting on posts or are you passively scrolling through feeds?


Some researchers think that using social media to connect with other people can be beneficial to our mental health, whereas passively scrolling can have a negative impact on our mental health. Have you noticed a difference?


Is social media addiction real?


People tend to refer to a “social media addiction” to describe those who can’t stay away from their phones.


This would mean that someone might experience the same sort of symptoms as someone with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, such as compulsive behaviors, a preoccupation with social media use, and major life problems as a consequence.


However, the notion of social media addiction has sparked controversy within the academic community. Some researchers think that it’s trying to medicalize ordinary behaviors and exaggerate the addictive nature of social media.


On the other hand, there are those, including some experts, who argue that a minority of people can become genuinely addicted. What do you think?


How exactly might social media harm our mental health?


Cyberbullying and triggering content are clear culprits when it comes to the negative impact of social media, but there are some other, less obvious ways in which it can harm our mental health.


Social media can influence the way we think. Spending time on social platforms can trigger negative psychological processes that can cause distress and negatively impact our overall wellbeing.


Let’s take a look at some of the psychological processes that can be triggered or intensified by social media use.


Comparing and despairing


It’s completely natural to compare ourselves with other people, everyone does it and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can even have some benefits if it motivates us to do something to improve ourselves. However, making constant negative comparisons with other people can make us feel really bad about ourselves and this can be particularly problematic on social media.


Social media contains vast amounts of information about the lives of other people that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. This allows us to ‘watch’ people in a way that we just wouldn’t do in real life. The posts we see also tend to be curated so that we are only seeing a ‘highlights reel’ of someone else’s life.


This makes the bar for comparing ourselves artificially high and gives us endless opportunities to compare and despair about almost every aspect of our lives. This can intensify any feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt or anxiety, especially for those already dealing with mental health issues.

Body image and self-esteem

Using other people’s appearance, especially influencers’, as a beauty standard can be particularly harmful on social media.


Social platforms are full of seemingly perfect images of other people, which are often filtered, edited or enhanced in some way. No one really looks like that! However, these types of images provide us with a fertile environment for making appearance comparisons.


Comparing our appearance with these distorted images can make us feel inadequate about ourselves and even lead to problems with our body image and self-esteem. This can be especially damaging to people who have an eating disorder.


FOMO


We’ve all seen social media posts where people appear to be having the time of their lives. Perhaps it’s someone we know on a night out or a celebrity at a party, surrounded by other cool, good looking or interesting people. But has it ever made you feel anxious or bad about yourself? Perhaps it’s made you feel that you’re not accepted in some way or just that you’re not living your best life?


If so, it might be that you’ve experienced FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’. Feeling like we’re missing out or perhaps even being left out can exacerbate any feelings of isolation, loneliness, or unhappiness we feel about our own lives.


This is especially true if someone is already struggling with their mental health. There’s even some research that shows FOMO can lead to us spending even more time on social media, checking out what others are doing and feeling anxious or bad about ourselves.


Improving our relationship with social media


If you find that social media is having a negative impact on your mental health, it’s worth thinking about making some changes. Here are some tips to help you improve your relationship to social media.


Pros & cons


Weighing up the pros and cons of your social media use can help if you’re feeling unsure about making any changes. For example, you might want to think about how important it is to start feeling better vs feeling included in friendship groups online.


Then you can decide whether social media needs to take more of a back seat or if any negative consequences are something you’re prepared to live with.


Set healthy boundaries


If spending time on social media is causing you upset or it’s starting to take over your life, then setting limits on your usage can help. You could decide to have evenings off, to log out during study or meal times or to change your settings so that you no longer receive alerts.


Most social media sites also have settings where you can track the time you spend on them and set limits or even take complete breaks.


On TalkCampus, you can choose to “take a break” for 8 hours if you feel like you need to stay away from notifications and online interactions for a bit. It’s important to take time away from your phone sometimes!


Recognize the impact


Try to recognize and acknowledge the impact social media has on your wellbeing. Be aware of your emotional reactions when scrolling through feeds.


If you notice negative emotions or triggers, take a moment to breathe and refocus your attention. Consider alternative offline activities that bring you joy, such as reading a book or taking a walk.

Cultivate real-life connections


We sometimes replace real-life interactions with social media. Make an effort to connect with friends and family offline.


Engaging in meaningful face-to-face conversations and activities can strengthen your relationships and provide a more balanced social experience.


Challenge negative thoughts


Recognize that social media often presents a filtered and unrealistic view of reality. When you find yourself comparing your life to others, or feel inadequate, challenge those negative thoughts.


Remind yourself that people generally only showcase the best parts of their lives, and everyone has their own struggles.


Test things out


If you always worry about missing out on something online or being left out, try testing out what really happens if you don’t look at your socials.


You could spend an evening without logging in or checking your phone. Did anything bad happen? Was it as bad as you feared?


Clean up your feed


Take control of your social media environment by curating a positive feed. You can unfollow, mute or block accounts that make you feel anxious or upset, or that you think take up too much of your time.


Follow accounts that make you feel good, you’re interested in and share positive content. Also, try to take a moment before you post anything yourself. Why are you posting? Is this something helpful for you or the people who follow you?


Ultimately, each individual's experience with social media and mental health is unique. It’s important to listen to our own feelings and reactions, finding the balance that works best for us.


By staying aware, proactive, and prioritizing our wellbeing, we can navigate the digital landscape in a way that promotes a happier and healthier online experience.


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