Social media has become a normal part of our everyday lives. Often, we don’t even think about using it, we just log on. It’s how we stay connected with our family and friends. It’s how we get our news, discuss topics that are important to us, share our hobbies, and follow people we admire.If you think about it, you might come up with a few people you know who don’t use social media at all. But more than likely, everyone from your grandma to your coworkers to your pastor is probably using social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. 77% of Americans have at least one social media profile.
Even though this technology has become an intricate part of our daily lives, we don’t often stop and think about the effects of social media on mental health. Many of us might even be addicted to social media, without realizing it.
Here are some important things to consider about the effects of social media on mental health, and how to make sure your Internet use isn’t negatively impacting your well-being.
The Pervasive Use of Social Media
Now that over 4 billion people around the world have access to the Internet, it’s as much a part of our lives as breathing. You probably checked your phone within a few minutes of waking up this morning. It’s a habit.
And these habits aren’t just about the Internet in general, they’re about social media platforms in particular. Of the approximately 4.4 billion global Internet users, about 3.4 billion of them actively use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that provide a place for users to network with each other.
Since the inception of Facebook over 15 years ago, social media has become just as ubiquitous as the Internet. It’s tough to get current statistics on how often people use these services, but a 2017 study found that on average, people used social media platforms for 2 ½ hours each day.
Another 2017 study found that the average American checks his or her phone about 80 times a day, and a 2018 study reported that over a quarter of Americans say they are online “almost constantly.”
You don’t need to read statistics to realize how often people are logging in; just look around. There’s probably at least one person using social media in the same room you’re reading this article.
What do all these statistics tell us? They tell us that social media is a booming industry that has grown exponentially over the past decade and a half. This is an entirely new communication tool that has taken over human behavior.
We don’t yet know all the effects this type of communication is having on our mental health. Can we suddenly transfer vast amounts of our time, attention, and communication to social media without noticing any effects on mental health?
Can we constantly check social media, scroll through feeds, and barrage our brains with vast amounts of information for split seconds at a time, without experiencing noticeable cognitive, emotional, and/or mental effects?
Social Media and Mental Health
<It can be difficult to prove causal links between social media use and poor mental health outcomes. Most studies that have been done so far have established correlation but not causation. One study found that teens who spend at least five hours a day online had a much higher likelihood (about 71%) of having at least one risk factor for suicide.
Numerous studies have focused on the effects of social media use on teens and young adults. Rates of teen depression skyrocketed by a third between 2010 and 2015, the same time period in which social media use was drastically increasing. Among teenage girls in that time period, suicide rates increased by 65%.
Researchers also noted a correlation between smartphone use and the number of college students who sought counseling services for depression or anxiety. Visits to college counseling services rose by almost one-third between 2010 and 2015. Again, these correlations don’t establish causation, but they should cause us to ask questions and not take the harmlessness of social media use for granted.
There is one study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, that was able to demonstrate a causal link between social media usage and a decrease in mental well-being. In this study, people whose social media use was limited to 30 minutes per day saw significant reductions in their levels of depression and loneliness.
Until multiple meta-analyses can prove that social media use causes depression and anxiety, we are left to draw conclusions from the evidence available to us, whether research-based or anecdotal. But it seems that heavy social media use does have detrimental effects on mental well-being, particularly for children, teenagers, and young adults. (Whether this is due to their developmental vulnerability, or the fact that they tend to be particularly heavy Internet users, may be subject to debate.)
What is it about social media causes these negative effects? Is it the fear of missing out (FOMO) you feel when you compare your life to others’ highlight reels? Is it the fragmented attention you experience, a million interruptions a day, making your brain feel scattered, taking away your ability to focus? Is it the dopamine addiction to notifications that reduces your overall sense of well-being, making you dependent on your phone for that little miniature high it offers?
The DSM-V does include behavioral addictions, but it doesn’t list Internet addiction as one of them. However, many experts do recognize the dangers of Internet addiction.
In his book computer science professor and author Cal Newport describes two ways social media use, driven by tech companies, encourages behavioral addiction: “intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.” (17) In other words, the negative effects of social media come from the unpredictable positive benefits, combined with wanting to be “liked” and followed, keeps you coming back over and over and over.
If nothing else, we can conclude that accepting social media use unquestioningly and using it limitlessly is not wise. And if you already struggle with anxiety and depression, it’s worth considering whether social media use may be making your condition worse.
How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Social Media
If social media is full of these potential pitfalls, should you get rid of it altogether? The fact is, social media does add value to our lives, and most of us are unwilling to give it up altogether.
For some, using social media isn’t really optional; it’s an integral part of their work or their role in their community. But, there are certain tweaks you can make to limit the negative effects of social media in your daily life:
- Turn off non-essential communications (everything but texts and emails).
- Get rid of unnecessary apps and digital clutter.
- Use apps or plug-ins that help monitor or limit your Internet use.
- Use a browser instead of apps. Apps are deliberately engineered to be addictive.
- Find an accountability partner.
However, tweaks will only go so far with overcoming a social media addiction. Newport suggests, “To reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.” (28)Newport shares three principles of digital minimalism (35-36):
- Clutter is costly,
- Optimization is important,
- Intentionality is satisfying.
In other words, get rid of the excess, streamline your digital content so that you only see the very best, and recognize the value of using your time intentionally. Implementing these standards will look different for everyone, but consider setting pre-planned windows of time aside for social media use, and not checking anything in between those times.
As Newport reiterates, in order to successfully limit your Internet use, you must cultivate valuable offline activities to replace the time you might spend browsing social media. Without offline hobbies, you’ll always be missing something to fill the empty space in your day.
Don’t take it for granted that social media isn’t affecting your mental health. There are benefits to these platforms, but there are huge drawbacks as well. Consider taking a social media fast or figuring out how to set boundaries to limit the effect these services have on your life and mental health.
If you think you might have an Internet or social media addiction, reach out for help by contacting one of our Christian counselors. Our counselors are experienced in helping clients recover from behavioral addictions, and will help you find freedom through confidential and compassionate help.
- Digital Minimalism,Cal Newport
“Texting”, Courtesy of Robin Worrall, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Phone Users”, Courtesy of Fauxels, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Apps”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Knitting”, Courtesy of Bob Dmyt, Pixabay.com, CC0 License
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