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Log Off! How Social Media might be harming your mental health

Over the past couple of decades, social media has radically changed the way that people access information and communicate and interact with others. Social media apps which can be easily accessed via smartphones provide many possibilities for social connection. There are many positives to this, such as keeping in touch with friends and family who are geographically distant from us, accessing online support groups or joining online groups and communities for people with shared interests. Social media can also be used for entertainment in general, it can help us to relax and unwind and we can even use it to source desired items for hire or purchase. For many of us, ‘logging on’ to our social media accounts is just part of our everyday routine – it gives us access to all the afore mentioned benefits and is a positive experience, but there is also a darker and much more harmful side to the use of social media, which includes cyberbullying, trolling, online witch hunts, fake news, privacy abuse and addictive use.


According to the latest statistics, people spend on average 145 minutes (2 hours and 25 minutes) every day on social media – that is around 10% of your day! Addictive use is one the most widely-reported negative issues of smartphone use - this may be because sharing personal information on social media taps into the ‘reward’ system of the brain, which is generally triggered by taking an addictive substance. Notably, the risk of becoming addicted to smartphones and social media is higher in adolescents and young adults, and in one study nearly half of respondents stated that they feel they are unable to live without their phone – this seems really shocking to me, as we only need to go back 25 years or so to find a time when no-one even owned a mobile phone – never mind a smartphone!


Many of us use what we share online as a tool to help us feel better about ourselves – receiving likes, positive comments and reactions from those we are connected to makes us feel noticed, accepted and validated - and also gives us a hit of dopamine - which makes us feel good. However, the social media ‘like’ triggers the reward cycle and the more likes we get, the more we want – we crave more and more attention and may end up constantly seeking the approval of others rather than trusting our own judgement and being satisfied as we are.


Growing research on the impact of smartphone use and time spent on social media suggests that excessive use has a negative impact on people’s wellbeing. In contrast to the positive reactions we get that make us feel good, social media can expose people to:

  • more frequent negative feedback from peers

  • online harassment/bullying

  • unhealthy and unrealistic perceptions of body image, and

  • continual judgement through comparison to others

There is now a well-established link between smartphone addiction and depression. Sleep problems, low self-esteem and anxiety have also been found to be elevated in those with excessive or problematic social media use, and prolonged social media use has been shown to be related to a range of issues including impaired mental functioning, loneliness and poorer body image (exposure to thin-ideal media images is linked to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating). Furthermore, FOMO (fear of missing out) on social interactions appears to lead to higher and more continuous use of social media – creating a harmful cycle of behaviour and affect.


What we don’t always fully take stock of when it comes to social media is that it is not real life! Other people’s posts are often highly edited and filtered, and are biased towards being positive - only showing a snapshot of the specific moments that others want you to see – usually their ‘best moments’ - the times when that person has something ‘good’ to share - they might be really dressed up for an event, loved up in their relationship, celebrating something like the birth of a baby, or feeling happy because they have a new job or are on a holiday. These posts can give us the impression that other people are happier and more successful, that their lives are better and more exciting than our own, and these comparisons can leave us feeling a range of difficult emotions such as sadness, anger and despair…after all they do say 'comparison is the thief of joy'.


However, social media posts never tell the whole story - we don’t necessarily see what else is happening in other people’s lives, or what they have had to go through to get where they are – for example how much time was spent ‘perfecting’ hair and make-up and editing the photo of the girl who looks incredible in her latest selfie, how long it took that couple to save for their envy-inducing all-inclusive holiday, or the hard work and overtime that man put into securing his impressive job promotion. Moreover, it is far less often that we see posts from people who aren't doing so well, those who are struggling in their relationships, in finding a job, dealing with a bereavement or trying to manage their mental health…people tend not to want to share these aspects of their lives quite so much - but in reality, we all go through these kinds of difficult times (and seeing that others are facing tough situations can help to normalise our own struggles).


If you often find yourself comparing your life unfavourably to others online, or are finding that using social media makes you feel low or unhappy about yourself, then consider doing some or all of the following to help transform your relationship with it:


  • Turn off notifications for all your social media apps – this can help to reduce how much you think about them, and therefore how much time you spend using them

  • Delete all of the apps/social media accounts that you don’t use – this lessens the temptation to go back to them

  • Turn your phone display to ‘grey pixel’ – this is a tried and tested technique which you can do by changing the desktop colour settings of your phone to black and white (on my Samsung phone I can do this by switching to ‘bedtime mode’) Experts believe that people are attracted to the different colours on our phone screens and in the apps we use, which helps to keep us hooked on our smartphones. Once everything is grey pixeled, the attraction is reduced

  • Where possible, mute, unfollow and unfriend anyone who doesn’t add something positive to your life, or who has a negative influence on you in any way such as making you feel anxious or insecure– if you don’t see it, you can’t be affected by it! Instead aim to follow accounts that you find educational, inspiring, supportive and encouraging

  • Reach out for real – make a commitment to reconnect and re-engage with family and friends. It’s more fulfilling and satisfying to engage with others in person

  • Try something new - focusing on an activity or hobby can help you to overcome the tendency to use social media. You could even try learning a new skill or doing something you always wanted to do

  • Limit your use of social media - try reducing the amount of time you spend on social media each day

  • Take a break from social media altogether - AKA a ‘social media cleanse’ - this could be for one day a week, a few days at a time or for even longer. Rewarding yourself for doing this can add an extra incentive and make it feel easier and more enjoyable – the reward can be anything you find enjoyable


Go on and give it a try, and see if you notice a difference in your mood and general wellbeing once you have made any of these changes.



References


Andrew, R., Tiggemann, M., & Clark, L. (2015). The protective role of body appreciation against media-induced body dissatisfaction. Body Image, 15, 98–104.


Cleary, M., West, S., & Visentin. D. (2020). The Mental Health Impacts of Smartphone and Social Media Use. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 41:8, 755-757.


Djordjevic, M (2021). Letterly. ‘Global social media usage: How much time do people spend on social media?’ Accessed 23/11/21. https://letter.ly/how-much-time-do-people-spend-on-social-media/




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