Currently, in a pandemic, more people than ever are turning to social media platforms to connect with their loved ones around the world. In fact, there has been an exponential increase in social media usage long young people in recent years even prior to the pandemic, and the link between social media and mental health is apparent.
How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health?
Pew Research Center found that 72% of adults report using some form of social media platform in 2019, while only 5% reported use in 2005. At the same time, however, anxiety and depression rates, body image disorders, and the widespread use of psychotherapeutic drugs have followed closely behind. For example, in 2019, the CDC reported that 18.5% of the population reported depression symptoms, which has increased to 40% in 2020. While the pandemic has most likely driven some of this symptom increase, the statistics suggest symptoms of depression may be driven by the immense growth of social media use.
Interestingly, however, empirical investigations of social media impacts on psychological well beings have not been as seamless as these numbers. In fact, among the scholarly community, there is competing evidence about the relationship of the impacts of social media usage on mental health problems. Some studies found social media and mental health to be correlated (O’Reilly et al., 2018) while others report no correlation (Berryman et al., 2018).
This dichotomy suggests there could potentially be a complex interplay between the positive and negative effects of social media simultaneously. In other words, social media use could be enhancing some aspects of psychological well being, while diminishing other aspects concurrently—which may explain the stark contrast between past empirical findings.
In fact, some researchers have set out to disentangle this relationship, and their findings corroborate this logic. Specifically, a meta-analysis of past studies has shown that there is extreme variation in the actual study designs, which may lead to faulty comparisons. However, at large, these comparisons suggest that social media use is both a risk factor and a preventative measure for symptoms of affective disorders such as depression and anxiety (Escobar-Viera et al., 2018).
Making Sense of the Relationship Between Social Media and Mental Health
If you have ever experienced the paradoxical effects of social media, like seeing both partners on a date staring at their phones, or having a large number of followers but minimal face to face social interaction, you may have an easier time conceptualizing this ironic interplay. Thus, the opposing impacts of social media use could be, in a way, balancing each other out, which may explain why some studies report no effect—there could be an effect, it may just be moving in both extreme directions at the same time, but limitations of data analyses fail to catch it.
Although researchers in the field have not solved this problem in understanding this interaction, or even the best way to measure it, empirical reviews of past findings do suggest that there is some form of relationship here. In such a way, it seems that understanding how this ironic interaction takes form in our everyday lives would be beneficial to ensure there is some system of checks and balances. No active engagement in monitoring the psychological effects of social media use runs the risk of having the negative effects outweigh the positives. Additionally, since the negative effects can be very detrimental to one’s normal levels of functioning, but the exact relationship between social media use and mental health remains empirically unexplained, monitoring must be employed with more than normal urgency.
The following will introduce five main strategies to understand how to better reflect on and re-establish your relationships to social media, to make it as efficacious and healthy as possible. These strategies are functionally independent, since they may all be beneficial in practice alone, however, they seem to yield the most rewarding effects when engaged concurrently.
Before one can actively employ an effective system of checks and balances in regards to their social media use, they must know how it is affecting them. This requires a great deal of heightened awareness on how social media influences one’s well being, which is often overlooked in everyday life. In fact, one must first be consciously aware enough to recognize that they are even using social media platforms before they can identify what impacts were experienced. While recognizing that one spends more time using social media may sound absurd, social media use is often a very habitual part of daily life, which may be carried out by processes in the brain responsible for “auto-pilot”. In other words, given how mundane it is to engage in social media use, and how frequently people tend to just keep scrolling, suggest that this engagement may be occurring at a rather unconscious level.
To overcome this, it can be very helpful to practice becoming attuned to one’s deep inner feelings, thoughts, motivations, and emotions in regards to social media. For example, being able to recognize and differentiate between a desire to use social media to forget about work versus a desire to gain social acceptance are two very different motivations, which would result in a multitude of different experiences, of which have the potential to be negative. Therefore, if one is more familiar with the inner workings of their social media use and what functions it serves, they may be more equipped to avoid the negative effects of social media. To read more about the general benefits of mindfulness and how to become more mindful towards yourself and others, check out The Mindful Couple Blog.
Setting intentions on social media can be extremely beneficial for many reasons. Not only should intention setting be used temporally to avoid spending too much time on one’s phone, setting intentions about what one truly wants to gain from social media can avoid many of the negative effects people often report. In other words, if one turns to social media for a creative outlet, they probably will not waste their time looking at other communities that could potentially harm one’s self-concept, since their intentions were identified and their efforts were then streamlined. Additionally, if an intention is set, they may have a better chance at catching when they have fallen off track, if they do. In such a way, setting overarching intentions for one’s social media engagement may be very helpful in deterring the negative effects while, also, increasing the positive ones.
One of the most detrimental effects of social media occurs in the form of making toxic comparisons. Given the show and tell nature of social media platforms, social media has a large tendency to breed comparisons. Unfortunately, comparisons often require the identification of one thing being more superior than the other. This may largely be explained by humans’ innate desire to make judgments about things and people for social exploration purposes, and while this may sound harmless on the surface, there is a catch.
Social media falsely represents real-life people, with real-life values, flaws, needs, and emotions as two-dimensional avatars. Although creatively freeing, this degree of control leaves vast room to selectively and intentionally cultivate their avatar, which is often taken advantage of. Life is not always rainbows and butterflies, but when users can choose exactly what picture out of the hundreds taken, edit it, and decide what caption, users gain the power to manipulate others into believing their lives are picture-perfect. Thus, when comparisons occur, users compare one’s real-life to one’s sugar-coated reality, which is staged, cultivating a recipe for disaster.
Similar to the notion that oranges and apples should not be compared, the real world and the digital world are fundamentally two different things, each of which creates different experiences of life and the human experience. As such, comparisons on social media often place importance on popularity, validation, and jealousy, rather than foundational aspects of human connection, such as empathy, respect, and authenticity. Fortunately, however, being able to make the distinction between real life and digital life may aid in decreasing the negative impacts felt from toxic comparisons. In turn, mitigating comparisons may produce positive downstream effects on one’s sense of well being.
Reap the Benefits
Because the positive aspects of social media do exist and maybe as anecdotally salient as the negative ones, it is important to reap the benefits of staying socially connection on social media while trying to maintain the negative ones. One of the biggest benefits of social media is that it allows people to connect with others they would never otherwise connect with. Therefore, after one’s intention is set, try to find a community or niche that closely identifies with one’s values. This will require one to actively contribute or belong to a supportive, healthy, and motivating community on social media, which may in turn, feel good and refocus one’s attention on the positives of social media.
Post What You Want to See
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, post what you want to see on social media. The vast majority of users restrict to posting the most perfected moments in their lives since it requires a great sense of vulnerability to share with others when you are not proud of yourself or feel as if you are not the best version of yourself. However, since humans are social beings, there is an innate drive to replicate observed behavior in attempts to gain social acceptance. Thus, to some extent, the old paradigm “monkey see; monkey do” does have immense merit when it comes to this domain, and knowing this can become very effective in practice.
For example, if one feels as if social media is very fake, they can then choose to present themselves in a more realistic light. Rather than conforming to the glorified/sugar-coated realities, which the masses like to portray, they can go against the grain, and attempt to break this tendency. Even if the outcomes of this are not as rewarding or as fruitful as expected, the mere act of focusing on sharing what you would like to see, taps into being more conscious of the positives of social media (ie: a potential platform for change/personal growth) than the negatives.
Social Media + Mental Health? Be Intentional
Ultimately, social media will impact everyone on an individually unique level. It is up to the user to figure out, reflect on, explore what effects are being experienced and which of those or undesirable/desirable. Once the most prominent effects are determined, actions can be taken to decrease the likelihood of the aversive effects while also increasing the likelihood of attractive outcomes. The culmination and continuous synthesis of this heightened awareness, reflection, and enforcement should indeed make the effects of social media more positive and enjoyable as a whole rather than being overwhelmingly negative.