In today’s world, many of us rely on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram to find and connect with each other. While each has its benefits, it’s important to remember that social media can never be a replacement for real-world human connection. It requires in-person contact with others to trigger the hormones that alleviate stress. Making you feel happier, healthier, and more positive. Ironically for a technology that’s designed to bring people closer together, spending too much time engaging with on these platforms can actually make you feel more lonely and isolated. And exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression. In several recent studies, teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on social platforms were shown to have a substantially higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time.
Does that mean that Instagram and Facebook are actually causing depression? These studies show a correlation, not causation. But it’s worth a serious look at how social media could be affecting teenagers and young adults negatively. Smartphones were introduced in 2007, and by 2015 fully 92 percent of teens and young adults owned a smartphone. The rise in depressive symptoms correlates with smartphone adoption during that period.
Many of us use at least one social media platform to connect with friends, family or global communities. According to Roy Morgan in 2019, 83% of Australians over 14 used Facebook at least once over a four week period. Despite so many of us using social platforms on a regular basis, research into the impact of social media on our mental health is still a relatively emerging field.
Social media and depression
One of the biggest differences in the lives of current teenagers and young adults, compared to earlier generations, is that they spend much less time connecting with their peers in person. They spend more time connecting electronically, principally through social media.
Some experts see the rise in depression as evidence that the connections social media users form electronically are less emotionally satisfying. Leaving them feeling socially isolated.
“The less you are connected with human beings, the less you’re really getting the benefits of a social interaction. According to Alexandra Hamlet, PsyD. “The more superficial it is, the less likely it’s going to cause you to feel connected.”
What’s driving your social media use?
These days, most of us access social media via our smartphones or tablets. While this makes it very convenient to keep in touch, it also means that social media is always accessible. This round-the-clock, hyper connectivity can trigger impulse control problems. The constant alerts and notifications affect your concentration and focus. They disturb your sleep and make you a slave to your phone.
These platforms snare your attention, keep you online, and have you repeatedly checking your screen for updates. It’s how the companies make money. Much like gambling or an addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs, social media use can create psychological cravings. When you receive a favorable reaction to a post, it can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. The same “reward” chemical that follows winning on a slot machine, taking a bite of chocolate, or lighting up a cigarette, for example. The more you’re rewarded, the more time you want to spend online. Even if it becomes detrimental to other aspects of your life.
What is keeping you going back?
A fear of missing out (FOMO)
FOMO can keep you returning to social platforms over and over again. There are very few things that can’t wait or need an immediate response. However, FOMO will have you believing otherwise. Perhaps you’re worried that you’ll be left out of the conversation if you miss the latest news or gossip? Or maybe you feel that your relationships will suffer if you don’t immediately react or respond to other people’s posts? Or you could be worried you’ll miss out on an invitation or that other people are having a better time than you.
Many of us use it as a “security blanket”.
Whenever we’re in a social situation and feel anxious, awkward, or lonely, we turn to our phones and log on to social platforms. Of course, interacting with social media only denies you the face-to-face interaction that can help to ease anxiety.
Your heavy social media use could be masking other underlying problems, such as stress, depression, or boredom.
If you spend more time on social media when you’re feeling down, lonely, or bored, you may be using it as a way to distract yourself from unpleasant feelings or self-soothe your moods. While it can be difficult at first, allowing yourself to feel can open you up to finding healthier ways to manage your moods.
Signs that social media is impacting your mental health
Everyone is different and there is no specific amount of time spent on social media, or the frequency you check for updates, or the number of posts you make that indicates your use is becoming unhealthy. Rather, it has to do with the impact time spent on social media has on your mood and other aspects of your life, along with your motivations for using it.
For example, your social media use may be problematic if it causes you to neglect face-to-face relationships, distracts you from work or school, or leaves you feeling envious, angry, or depressed. Similarly, if you’re motivated to use social platforms just because you’re bored or lonely, or want to post something to make others jealous or upset, it may be time to reassess your social media habits.
Indicators that this may be adversely affecting your mental health include:
Spending more time on social media than with real world friends.
Part of the potential reason that social media causes depression could stem from the amount of time spent on various channels. This time could be spent doing more productive activities such as exercising, meeting with friends, meditating, doing work. Engage in activities that could benefit your mental health. Using social platforms has become a substitute for a lot of your offline social interaction.
Comparing yourself unfavorably with others on social media.
Does social media leave you wishing your life was different? You’re not the only one. Comparison is particularly common on image-based social platforms like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram. Young people especially might compare themselves to influencers and celebrities, wishing they had the same looks, money, trips, and followers – even if they know they’re just seeing the highlight reel. You have low self-esteem or negative body image. You may even have patterns of disordered eating.
Social media also increases the risk of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying happens when someone deliberately and repeatedly hurts another person via the internet. It can include hurtful or threatening comments, sharing of photos or videos intended to embarrass you or someone posing as you online. If someone is experiencing cyberbullying, they can feel a range of emotions including fear, shame and anxiety. Or you worry that you have no control over the things people post about you.
Having no time for self-reflection.
Every spare moment is filled by engaging on social platforms. Leaving you little or no time for reflecting on who you are, what you think, or why you act the way that you do—the things that allow you to grow as a person. You become distracted at school or work. You feel pressure to post regular content about yourself, get comments or likes on your posts, or respond quickly and enthusiastically to friends’ posts.
Suffering from sleep problems.
Studies show that heavy social media use is linked to poor sleep. Scrolling through your socials can seriously mess with your body clock and reduce time spent sleeping, which can have negative impacts on your mental health. The light from phones and other devices can disrupt your sleep, which in turn can have a serious impact on your mental health. People who spent more than five hours a day on social media were 70% more likely to go to bed after 11 p.m. on school nights and more likely to have trouble falling back asleep.
Worsening symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Rather than helping to alleviate negative feelings and boost your mood, you feel more anxious, depressed, or lonely after spending time online. Not only does social media cause unhappiness, but it can also lead to the development of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression when used too much or without caution.
Modifying social media use to improve mental health
Social media may contribute to depressive symptoms. These tips can help you scroll less and feel better about your time spent online:
1. Turn off notifications.
Try muting notifications for all apps including emails and texts. Without these constant reminders, you may be able to limit how much time you spend on online.
2. Set time limits.
Setting a limit on how often you use social media apps will cause an alert to appear when you’ve gone over your allotted amount of time. Following these limits can help reduce screen time. There are several apps that track how much time you spend on various platforms and alert you when it’s time to take a break. There are even apps that can temporarily block social media apps so you can focus on more important things. This can help you avoid mindless scrolling every few minutes out of boredom.
3. Be selective.
Instead of connecting with everyone on social media, focus on a few strong relationships. Then, set up times to engage with these friends face-to-face, outside digital confines. Unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, and follow the ones that make you feel positive and empowered. You have the control to curate your platforms’ feed that makes you feel better after scrolling, not worse.
4. Use social media mindfully.
Seek out positive platforms and interactions. These could be meditation apps or talking to a friend. Spend less time following people you constantly compare yourself to like celebrities or models.
5. Change your focus.
Many of us access social platforms purely out of habit or to mindlessly kill moments of downtime. But by focusing on your motivation for logging on, you can reduce the time you spend on these platform. Additionally, you can also improve your experience and avoid many of the negative aspects. If you’re accessing social media to find specific information your experience is likely to be very different. Unlike if you want to see how many likes you got from a previous post. Next time you go to access social media, pause for a moment and clarify your motivation for doing so. Try taking up a new hobby instead.
6. Spend more time with offline friends.
We all need the face-to-face company of others to be happy and healthy. At its best, social media is a great tool for facilitating real-life connections. If you’ve allowed virtual connections to replace real-life friendships in your life, there are plenty of ways to build meaningful connections without relying on social media.
Finally, get professional help if necessary. When people struggle with social media depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome, or any other psychological condition, it can greatly diminish their quality of life.
The bottom line
If you’re spending an excessive amount of time on social media and feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, frustration, or loneliness are impacting your life, it may be time to re-examine your online habits and find a healthier balance.
While social media use doesn’t directly cause depression, it can increase the likelihood of depressive symptoms. These could be increasing feelings of isolation, sleep deprivation, and cyberbullying. Being aware of how you feel on different social media platforms. Taking a break can help mitigate these negative consequences.