To say that social media platforms have revolutionised the way we stay in touch with each other would be a tremendous understatement. For many, they’ve become an essential part of daily life.
They enable us to stay connected with old friends. They may also serve as our primary platform for organising parties or announcing important life events (‘we’re getting married’, ‘we’re having children’, ‘we’re moving to another country’, and so on).
Social media plays a positive role in helping us to maintain rich and varied social lives, and the sheer volume of users is a testament to this; it has been projected that by 2020 close to three billion people worldwide will be using some form of social media.
However, there are some drawbacks to using social media to excess. In recent years, various reports have said that over- or misuse of social media can have a negative impact on self esteem and mental health, particularly among younger users.
To discuss this further, we spoke to Nicky Lidbetter, the CEO for mental health charity Anxiety UK:
‘Today, technologies such as social media are increasingly available at the touch of a button. While there are many great benefits associated with social media, it is important to be aware of the potential negatives.’
How can social media negatively impact mental health?
As stated above, there are many practical advantages to using social media. They help to nurture and maintain good relationships with friends, share updates, organise activities, and provide an instantaneous means of communication.
So how and when might social media use be detrimental to our mental wellbeing?
The more social media use becomes a staple of our daily routine, the more we may become to emotionally and psychologically depend on it. One piece of research posited that tweeting or checking emails may be ‘harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol’.
Use in moderation is unlikely to cause any significant issues; but social media use may be developing into a problem if it is starting to distract from or impede your everyday life. Addiction to social media may have a detrimental impact on our everyday relationships, our sleep hygiene, or our performance at work or in our studies.
So what is it about social media that can make it so addictive?
- It’s so easy to access. You can now use social media on just about any device, be it your computer, tablet or smartphone. (80 percent of UK adults own a smartphone.)
- It provides instant gratification. Social media provides a simple solution to boredom.
- The Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) factor. The prospect of missing out on an update from a friend or celebrity may tempt us to check social media at all available given times.
Getting into the habit of checking social media at any available time may lead to us checking on impulse. This can lead to us never really switching off or taking time to relax.
Social networking sites give users the opportunity to share glimpses into their lives while being able to keep up to date with the lives of others. However, being in constant contact with the lives of others can lead to critical comparison.
‘Feelings of insecurity which arise from comparing ourselves to others can prevent us from being able to relax around other people,’ Nicky explains, ‘for fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing or being judged for the way we look, act or behave. Comparing ourselves to others can therefore have an impact on our ability to create and maintain lasting relationships both on and offline.’
Constant exposure to carefully selected and filtered images may cause users to be more critical of themselves. Whilst these type of images may inspire some people they could also leave users feeling dissatisfied with their own lives.
Social media users are able to make connections with people all over the world. Online networks can offer support to some users but it is also possible that social media use can lead to feelings of loneliness. One study has suggested that the more frequently you visit social networking sites the more likely you are to feel socially isolated.
However, like many of the studies exploring the effects of social media on mental health, it is difficult to pinpoint causation. It is possible that people who are already feeling socially isolated turn to social networking sites in order to feel a connection.
The Royal Society for Public Health says that victims of bullying are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and even self-harm.
Popular social networking sites have policies in place to stop forms of bullying and intimidation from happening. You can read the policies here for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
Users are also able to block specific people. This feature usually stops the blocked person from messaging you and accessing your profile. It is also possible to report offensive material to the site administrators who will then review the content and take action when they deem it appropriate.
Anxiety and depression
One study has reported that simultaneous use of multiple social networking sites led users to be more likely to report feelings of anxiety or depression.
‘Social media allows people to present a filtered sense of reality when it comes to their lives; one which may be far from accurate.’ Nicky tells us.
‘When people start to compare themselves to what they are seeing on social media, they can find themselves trying to meet unrealistic expectations. This can impact on an individual’s mental well being in a number of ways. For example, it can leave people experiencing:
- increased levels of self-doubt,
- body image insecurity,
- feelings of anxiety,
- and lowered self-esteem.
For those that already have difficulties with anxiety, problems such as body dysmorphic disorder and low self-esteem issues may be compounded by social media.’
Using social media the right way
Using social networking sites can and should be an enjoyable experience but, as we’ve already mentioned, getting the balance right between your online life and everyday life is crucial.
Here are five steps you can take to keep your social media use in check:
Disconnect. It can be a good idea to regularly take time away from social networking sites. You may find it useful to schedule some time each day to do this.
‘Technology has inevitably caused life to become much quicker than it ever was and there is a pressure to move quickly, eat quickly and live quickly,’ Nicky explains. ‘This constant focus on being speedy at whatever is not good for our mental wellbeing. We need mental down time just as much as we need physical down time. Allowing your mind to be free from the constant buzz of white noise for 10 minutes a day is to be encouraged.Practising mindfulness techniques can assist with this, helping with the stilling of the mind and relaxation.’
One time of day where it is essential to step away from your computer screen or smartphone is during the hour before you go to sleep. Reducing your screen exposure at this time may help you get to sleep quicker and enjoy a deeper sleep.
It can also be useful to take time away from social media at the weekends in order to feel completely ‘switched off’ from the feeling of being constantly connected.
- Keep perspective. It is important to remember that social media content can be manipulated before it is shared. What you see may not necessarily be a true representation of what actually happened. The perfected online world can skew reality and make users feel that they are not good enough or are missing out.
Nicky says: ‘Remind yourself that what you see on social media has been specifically selected, edited, touched up and has often had numerous filters added. The content we see on our newsfeeds is therefore often not presenting a truthful representation of someone’s life at all; it’s only giving you access to a ‘touched up’ version of that person which is usually inaccurate and not at all representative of what their actual life is like.’
- Balance is key. Your social media use should take place alongside your day-to-day activities. It should not replace them.
‘We would advise that people maintain a healthy balance between using social media and taking part in other activities.’ Nicky illustrates. ‘Make a conscious effort to take some time out from social media and focus on enjoying what you are doing in that moment. This can be really valuable as it allows you to make the most of what you are doing at the time (rather than worrying about what is going to make for a good profile picture).’
- Set a time limit. The average internet user is said to spend over two hours per day on social media. However, it has also been suggested that young people spend closer to a staggering nine hours per day.
‘It can also be useful to set a time limit on your use of social media.’ Nicky explains. ‘By setting aside time at a certain part of the day, this encourages you to make the most of your time using it, catch up on the latest happenings, and engage with those you are connected to. This can help prevent excessive time being spent subconsciously scrolling through social media feeds throughout the day.’
- Exercise. A great way to maintain a healthy balance between your online life and your everyday life is to exercise.
As Nicky explains: ‘Connecting with the outdoors and engaging in physical exercise is really important; both represent an ideal way to switch off devices and break away from technology, allowing yourself to experience the moment in a truly mindful and uninterrupted manner.’
The positive effects of social media on mental health
While social media can in some instances have a negative effect on mental health, it’s important to note that it can be of great benefit to mental well-being too (where used appropriately).
Some people turn to social media for emotional support when they are in need. It can offer valuable access to a community where certain topics are perhaps more openly discussed than they would be in face-to-face circumstances. This allows people to share their experiences and connect with other like-minded people.
Social media has an extremely wide reach, one which could be harnessed to improve awareness of mental health problems and other health issues. Providing a sharing platform for people with similar health experiences can enlighten and inform those who feel like they are going it alone.
Having processes in place to address cyberbullying is important. However, there have been numerous calls for social networking sites to take more steps to help protect the mental wellbeing of its users.
Suggestions have included the following:
- Pop-up warnings for heavy usage.
- Disclosure of digitally enhanced photos or images.
- Providing accessible information on available mental health support.
Is your social media usage affecting your mental health?
It can be difficult to judge at what point your use of social media starts to infringe on your mental wellbeing.
Several potential signs that your social media usage is beginning to negatively impact your mental health may include:
- Feeling the need to post everything you do online.
- Having low self-esteem.
- Needing to check your social media platforms continually throughout the day.
- Not getting as much enjoyment from other activities that are not based online.
Nicky says: ‘If you are really struggling with low self-esteem, confidence or anxiety issues, a short course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be really helpful to have. Anxiety UK has a network of Approved Therapists that offer CBT, counselling, clinical hypnotherapy and also acupuncture. For further information visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk or call 08444 775 774 for more information.’