It’s hard to remember that just a few years ago, social media didn’t exist. It’s become such a large part of our lives that we can’t imagine being without it. Social media lets us find community and entertainment. It lets us stay connected when we can’t meet physically. But it can also have negative effects on our mental health. We need to be aware of the risks of social media as well as its benefits.
The Rise of Social Media
In 2005, only 5% of us used social media. By 2011, that number had risen to 50%. Today, 75% of American adults use social media. Worldwide, the average person spends more than two hours a day on social media platforms and websites. Besides offering connection, entertainment and a break from our day, social media provides information and resources. Young adults are the heaviest social media users. But as social media has become more established, all age groups have increased their usage. YouTube and Facebook are the most popular platforms. Younger users favor Instagram and Snapchat—68% of Snapchat fans use the app multiple times a day.
Even for social creatures, social media can present risks as well as benefits to mental health. The main danger seems to lie in comparing ourselves with others. In a survey of 1,500 British adults who used social media, nearly two thirds said they felt inadequate or jealous of others after screen time.
Comparing yourself to others who seem to have it all together, who take fabulous vacations, or who display lots of “likes” and online friends can take its toll. Feeling inadequate and envious on a regular basis can cause depression and anxiety. And if you’re already feeling depressed or anxious, social media can amplify those feelings.
Studies also support parallels between excessive social media use and addiction disorders. Warning signs include:
- anxiety when you can’t check social media
- interrupting a real-life interaction to check social media
- excessive FOMO—”fear of missing out” on interactions and news
- lying about how much time you spend online
- withdrawal from family and friends
- losing interest in real-life activities
- neglecting school or work
“We polled 1,500 social media users and found that although people are most likely to feel amused (84%) or better connected to other people (69%) when they use social media, nearly a third (30%) admit that they actually feel lonely when they look at their social media feed.”Scope’s Digital Detox Survey
Challenges for Teens and Young Adults
Comparisons are also dangerous for this age group. Their favorite platforms of Snapchat and Instagram are heavily focused on image. In a large survey, half of 18–34 year olds said their social media feeds made them feel unattractive. One study found that greater Instagram use resulted in an unhealthy concern about body image.
Teens who use social media more than three hours a day are more likely to report internalizing behaviors—social withdrawal and difficulty coping with feelings of anxiety or depression. One study found that the greater the number of platforms used, the greater the tendency toward depression and anxiety, regardless of total screen time. And heavy users are three times more likely to report feeling socially isolated.
Lack of limits on screen time can cut into needed sleep hours, a risk to mental and physical health. Unsupervised younger teens may also be exposed to explicit, traumatizing content. And they may fall victim to—or become perpetrators of—cyberbullying.
“It may not be how much, but rather how, we use social media…Problematic social media use is strongly and independently associated with depressive symptoms.”Social Science & Medicine
Healthy Social Media Use
When used wisely, social media has significant benefits. It provides social support as we connect with friends, family and peers. It can be a good source of information (from reliable sources). For those with social anxiety, social media can be a useful outlet for expressing emotions and parts of their identity more difficult to reveal in real-life interactions. In addition to making social connections, teens can practice communication skills, learn new technologies and widen their perspectives about the world. How social media is used is just as important as the amount of time spent online, perhaps more so. “Active” users—who interact with others, commenting and reaching out—tend to have a more positive experience than those who simply scroll through feeds. It also helps to know why you are online. Do you want to find a community? Or is boredom a driving factor?
Reduce Your Social Media Risks
A number of practices and considerations can help you stay on the healthy side of social media:
- Give as well as receive—interact with others and offer support.
- It’s better to share than compare—remember that people often post an “improved” version of their reality on social media.
- Pay attention to your real self, not just your virtual self. Take care of yourself physically; get outside and exercise, interact IRL (“in real life”).
- Be mindful of WHO you interact with. One study found that people who engage with former romantic partners experience more anxiety and depression than those who don’t. You can limit who you engage with and what you see from them.
- Set time limits. If you notice the warning signs of addictive use, consider reducing your time on social media. Take a day off once a week. Limit use for at least an hour before bedtime to help you relax before sleep.
- Remember that communicating on social media is not like communicating IRL. Missing those cues from facial expression and body language makes miscommunication more likely on social media.
- Pick your platform. In one study, YouTube rated as the most positive platform, then Twitter, then Facebook, then Snapchat.
- Instagram was considered the most “negative” platform.
Social media has become a big part of our lives, for better AND worse. The key lies in striking a healthy balance between social media and real life. If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety or depression during social media use or IRL, our counselors at Best Day can help you sort through your feelings and move toward a healthier balance.
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help: