Social media is around us all the time and therefore can’t avoid impacting our psychological processes. From college students and teachers, to children and business professionals, everyone is touched by both mental health and social media in their daily lives, and not always with positive consequences.
Social media can be an extremely useful tool for mental health awareness and advocacy, as well as support, but it can also be a detrimental instrument of destructive means.
Social media posts often present an idealized version of situations and events, and typically, people share an idealized representation of themselves too – there’s a reason Instagram has so many filters. This has been shown to influence people into comparing themselves to others and thinking more unfavourably of themselves. If all your friends in your newsfeed are posting awesome things they’re doing and you’re having a rough day, of course this will likely negatively affect your mood.
This area is still being researched with only small studies having been conducted so far.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
The phenomenon called Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO) occurs when you feel pressure to be doing what everyone else is doing, attending every event, and sharing every life experience. It can evoke anxiety and cause people to question why everyone is ‘having fun without them.’
“Surveys have found that some people feel insecure after using Pinterest because they feel that they aren’t crafty or creative enough. Facebook and Twitter can make people feel like they aren’t successful or smart enough.”
At the same time, social media can cause one to fear being alone. There’s always a friend around online, and with apps on mobile devices, we never have to be truly alone. “Social media feeds this anxiety about being alone with our thoughts,” says Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, “and prevents us from learning to enjoy our own company.” Designate “no-device zones” like the dining room or car; even US President Obama makes cabinet members leave their phones outside of meetings.
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.
Cyberbullying is a hot topic in many schools, and this infographic from Osiris Educational gives some startling facts from a student survey, and their experiences with cyberbullying.
Children and youth are much more impressionable than adults, with a greater need to ‘fit in’, so the self-comparisons and fears of missing out will likely be higher for this demographic. The US government has designated a website to help educate parents, students, and the public about cyberbullying safety and prevention.
As a society we are becoming increasingly obsessed with technology. Yes, social media is a fantastic way to connect with people all over the world, but it should never overshadow any aspect of your ‘real’ life.
Whether or not you consider it an addiction or just a habit, social media has the potential to negatively impact your mental health.
It is sometimes difficult to identify problematic online and social media habits, due to the fact that that the majority of us use social media for work, to keep in touch with family members, and to find information about errands such as grocery shopping or home improvement. Using social media sites daily and spending significant time on them is not alarming in and of itself. It’s when a habit consistently interferes with your daily life, however, that you should be concerned. This applies to everything from drug and alcohol abuse to social media to any other bad habit. Is it clinical addiction? Is it a symptom of another issue? The answer of course varies depending upon the individual.
If a person begins neglecting work or school, ignoring family and pets, and withdrawing from people and activities they used to enjoy, they are living an imbalanced and dysfunctional life. In fact, such behavior is so common that researchers have created a psychological scale to measure Facebook addiction – the Berge Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS), and researchers are now even advocating for warning labels on smartphones and tablets, similar to the labels on cigarettes.
How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many of them are you actually focusing on? Social media entices us into multitasking, and while it may seem like an opportunity to accomplish more, our divided attention actually hinders productivity.
“Researchers now know our brains cannot focus attention on two things at once,” says JoAnne Cantor, Ph.D., author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress. Multitasking is actually “switching tasks rapidly,” a series of interruptions that stresses one’s working memory by continuously making the brain remember where you left off on a particular task. Accuracy and quality are diminished as you lose focus, while frustration and distraction are increased. To boost your efficiency and accomplish more, disable social media every day for a minimum of 30 minutes. Your stress levels and productivity will thank you.
Social media’s impact on mental health is definitely not all negative. Perhaps one of the most important functions of social media is that it can be used to both restart and sustain existing relationships with other people.
From a mental health perspective, social media provides a seemingly endless supply of like-minded people who can connect in an instant.
On one hand, it can be extremely beneficial, like in the case of support groups for Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia. People who experience depression can take advantage of social media and its capability to bond them with others in order to help pull themselves up from ‘lows’. “Using social media to follow and ‘friend’ experts like doctors, dietitians, psychologists and therapists can help you change the ‘reality’ you may be living in,” says Julie Upton, R.D. If you are overweight, for example, engaging on social media with Weight Watchers can help inspire and instill positive new habits, feelings and behaviour.
On the other hand, it can unfortunately be enabling and self-destructive.
For example, there is some suggestion that social media glamorizes alcohol and drug use, particularly among teenagers. One study that explored the relationship between teenagers, social media, and drug use found that 70% of teenagers ages 12 to 17 use social media, and that those who interact with it on a daily basis are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana. The survey also found that 40% of all teens surveyed have seen pictures on social media of kids getting drunk, passed out, or using drugs. Half of teens who have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on social media first saw such pictures when they were 13 years of age or younger; more than 90% first saw such pictures when they were 15 or younger. Compared to teens that have never seen pictures of kids getting drunk, passed out, or using drugs on social networking sites, teens that have seen these images are four times likelier to be able to get marijuana, almost 3 times likelier to be able to get controlled prescription drugs without a prescription, and more than twice as likely to be able to get alcohol in a day or less.
The same triggering images can also negatively impact adults trying to overcome their addictions.
After a trying day, an hour on Facebook or Twitter with hundreds of “friends” is less demanding and more time-efficient than calling someone or going out. I know I’m like that sometimes.
But are online connections overshadowing real-life conversations? “Facebook crowds out other things,” says Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. “Over time, you almost start to feel phobic about conversation.”
In a talk entitled, “Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids,” at the 119th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills discussed potential positive effects. For example, online social networking can help introverted individuals learn how to socialize behind the safety of various screens, and that young adults who spend more time on Facebook are better at showing “virtual empathy” to their online friends.
Studies on the impact of social media on a person’s mental health are still new, and relatively few and far between. “While nobody can deny that Facebook has altered the landscape of social interaction, particularly among young people, we are just now starting to see solid psychological research demonstrating both the positives and the negatives,” says Rosen.
Be mindful of your online presence; evaluate your own usage from an addiction standpoint, assess your emotions when viewing online material, review your (and your child’s) online behaviour in terms of cyberbullying, and finally, try to make as much time as possible for the ‘real’ world.