Technology has no doubt improved our lives in many ways. Social media in particular has become a mainstay for millions of people, especially children and teenagers, and a key element of daily life.
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even LinkedIn are all great for staying in touch with family and friends or networking with professionals.
However, a growing body of research and widely reported stories now indicate that social media may actually be bad for your mental health.
So, wondering how social media could be bad for you? Here’s how.
The first criticism that’s often fired at social media sites is that they’re deliberately designed to be addictive.
Typically, for something to be considered an “addiction”, it has to involve an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a particular behaviour, even if it’s causing you harm.
Indeed, while addiction may seem like a strong word for it, Silicon Valley insiders actually told the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2018 that the sites were deliberately making their platforms more addictive.
In fact, an investigation by the Guardian even revealed that many of the individuals who were responsible for creating the platforms don’t let themselves or their children use them for exactly that reason.
These addictive effects have been found in more formal research, too. A review study by Nottingham Trent University that assessed previous research in social network addiction concluded that such behaviours with social media sites would constitute addiction.
In individuals who “use social networking sites excessively”, the study found symptoms such as:
- Neglect of personal life
- Mental preoccupation
- Mood-modifying experiences
- Concealing the addictive behaviours.
A dependence on social media could undoubtedly be bad for your mental health – especially if you’re not aware of your own addictive behaviour.
It makes you feel lonelier, not better connected
Social media platforms claim that their sites are about connecting individuals to their friends and family in a safe and accessible way online.
While this may be true for many people, there’s also a great deal of evidence that suggests social media actually makes people feel lonelier.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that those with the most social media use time also had the highest sense of perceived social isolation.
There could be a few reasons for this effect:
- Lack of genuine social interaction
- Fear of missing out, or FOMO, of activities that you haven’t been included in
- Jealously arising from viewing snapshot highlights of someone else’s life.
In fact, one study available on the Guilford Press Periodicals even found that subjects who constantly compare themselves to their friends on Facebook felt worse about themselves, even if they thought that their lives were subjectively better.
Rather than building positive social relationships, the evidence suggests that social media may in fact be doing the opposite.
It can make you more stressed and anxious
As a result of the feelings of FOMO, constant comparison, and social isolation, research shows that social media in turn worsens symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
In a 2018 study of 1,000 generation Z individuals by Hill Holliday, 41% of participants said that social media made them feel anxious, sad, or depressed.
Interestingly, research published by Psychology Today found a vicious cycle of anxiety among social media users, in which:
- Individuals felt a form of “withdrawal anxiety” by not being on the sites
- They would log in and scroll to reduce these feelings
- In turn, they found themselves experiencing social anxiety on the platforms.
In combination, the evidence seems to suggest that the addictive nature of social media, along with the perceived social isolation it creates, leads to these feelings of stress, anxiety, and even depression.
This surely constitutes a negative effect on mental health.
Breaking your dependence on social media
Despite these drawbacks, social media does still have its merits. The ability to communicate with family and friends is a great feature, and was especially important throughout the Covid-induced lockdowns when we were unable to socialise in person.
As a result, you may be wondering how you can protect your mental health while still using the platforms.
Just like any other vice, it’s all about balance to ensure that your social media usage is part of a healthy lifestyle.
Here are three things you could consider doing to improve your relationship with social media.
1. Turn off notifications
Firstly, turn off notifications for these platforms on any device you use them on.
Notifications are the first page of the social media platform playbook, attempting to reel you back in and trap your attention with dopamine-inducing colours and movements.
While this might not prevent you from scrolling, it will stop the platforms from having a hold over you from just a single sound or vibration.
2. Delete the apps from your phone – or even delete your accounts
An extra step on from turning off notifications is to delete the apps on your phone. Doing this creates a huge barrier to entry, forcing you to actively seek out the platforms through a PC or browser.
Even if you end up doing this every now and then, you’re still more of an active participant in your usage than if you open the app when you’re bored, just for something to do.
If you have the stomach for it, you could go as far as deactivating or even deleting your account. This “scorched earth” approach is severe but effective if you find that you’re wasting hours on these platforms.
3. Set time limits on your devices
If you’re not quite ready to go cold turkey by deleting the apps or your account entirely, most phones and devices allow you to set time limits on how long you can use platforms in a single day.
It can be useful to have a timer running so you can see how much time you waste on the apps. Knowing how much time you spend on social media each day can be eye-opening, and may be a catalyst for you to change your behaviours.