Over the past decade, social media has had a huge impact on our society and us as individuals. As a result, it has become an integral part of our life and is set to become an even more central aspect of our lives in the future. The effect of social media can have a significant and in some cases devastating impact on our mental health if not managed correctly.
There’s no doubt social media has changed our lives and is now a normal and vital part of people’s everyday routine. Accessing information has become easy and we are used the instant responses and gratification it provides, finding products, services, opinions, directions, reviews, news and sport. It provides an effective platform to promote products and services and allows detailed targeting, which can reach a wider audience. Many people have also made successful careers as social influencers.
Social media can be positive for our wellbeing – it connects us and gives people a voice, allows self-expression and can influence social change. It can be motivational, inspiring, answer questions, pose questions, offer opportunities, extends hobbies and interests and provide an online support network, this ability to communicate increases a sense of worth and belonging.
Social media platforms offer a positive and negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. YouTube ranks the most positive because it offers such a wealth of information, whilst representing diversity in a very real, honest and at times inspirational way. Meanwhile, Instagram is ranked the most negative; due to the impact it can have on our body image perceptions. The majority of people with Instagram will scroll through their feed looking at highly distorted and edited images. People will then compare themselves, their social lives and relationship to those shown on Instagram. This obviously has a detrimental impact on our self worth especially if your confidence is low already. In reality, these images often are manipulated and people post because they need instant gratification themselves. This is what I like to call the ‘smoke and mirrors’ effect. It is always interesting to see how people’s social media habits change according to their life events. Through my research, it has become clear that a specific trend is that when people go through breakups they post more on Instagram. These images are often more provocative than previous posts. We see this because when going through emotional distress, we need more support and gratification. On social media, this is how people perceive that this can be achieved.
Social media is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression, disturbed sleeping patterns and suicide. It has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. People are so addicted to this because unlike cigarettes and alcohol it is not seen as physically harmful. The dark side to social media cannot be ignored: ‘fake news’ false information, cyberbullying, trolls, oversharing and pro-hate groups. Everyone now has a voice and an opinion, some of which are not positive or constructive. Fear of missing out, peer pressure, constantly comparing yourself to others is commonplace both in real life and online, but social media can really increase these feelings of anxiety. When social media is used to compare ourselves to others we constantly seek approval and become over-reliant on likes for posts and images. When you don’t get the response you were hoping for or receive negative feedback, our relationship with social media can become unhealthy. It can quite quickly contribute to feelings of low self-esteem, lack of self- worth and this then, increases anxiety and depression and in some cases can increase suicidal thoughts. People’s social media habits are not always the same as those in real life. Some people will post horrible comments and be very disrespectful online, however, they would never say these things to people’s faces. This is because people feel like they have a safety blanket behind a screen, they will have no consequences for what they say and this can give a distorted sense of self-worth, people who do this can be known as ‘keyboard warriors’. It is important to remember though that just because you can not see the immediate impact of your actions, it does not mean it does not exist.
The negative impact on sleep is also a concern; the use of electronic devices too close to bedtime has also been proven to disrupt sleep due to the blue light emitted delaying the release of sleep-inducing melatonin. It is also very common to stay up late scrolling through social media, as that can seem more important than having a good nights sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to poor mental health.
As with all things in life, it’s all about balance and moderation. Many of us would admit we are a little addicted to social media and are guilty of letting it encroach on our time to the detriment of relationships, It’s just as important to have face to face conversations and allow ourselves time away from our ‘devices’.This is evident through our screen time usage. The average screen time usage in the UK is 3 hours and 23 minutes daily, this amounts to 50 days a year. This also means that every decade we lose almost two years to social media!
We must be mindful of how we use social media to ensure it is a positive addition to our lives, I would like to see more education around safe use of social media and further research into the use and effects of social media. In schools, they are now teaching this within the ICT curriculum. So, hopefully futures generations will be more mindful and use social media for good.
Instead of sharing every aspect of our daily life on Instagram or Snapchat, why not give people a glimpse once a week? Designate a day to share special moments. This will set clear boundaries. If you are sharing nearly every moment of every day, how are you ever truly living in the moment? Give yourself time to connect with you before connecting to social media.
The truth is, we live in a social media age, but many are waking up to the idea of mindfulness. So how do we effectively incorporate both into our lives? It may look different for everyone, but I think it starts with being aware of your usage and noticing how you feel when you choose to be in the moment instead of pulling your phone out to share it with the digital world, confusing it with the real world.
Nothing compares to the real world: being in the moment, making real connections, experiencing events as they are happening. Know that in a social media age, there’s something priceless about not sharing every moment. Try going to bed without your phone, or make a point of not engaging with social media first thing in the morning. These are all ways to reduce our usage and be more mindful, in turn, this will improve our overall health.
I look forward to hearing your comments and experiences with social media – both positive and negative.