In our rapidly-evolving online world, the effect of social media on our health is a hotly-debated topic. Is the ability to communicate faster than ever before good for us? Does the content we see daily affect our wellness? Is it possible to find a happy middle ground?
Let’s get into it!
The Pros and Cons of Social Media
First of all, let’s look at some of the science! This is an ever-developing field of study, with research on both sides of the aisle. So, what does the scientific community make of our lightning-fast information age?
Social media spreads moods! Researchers from the University of California coined the term “the emotional contagion” after looking through over a billion status updates to get a baseline for the average moods of over a hundred million people. They found that the things people are exposed to influence their moods directly, and this is reflected later through their posts, which then spread those feelings to other users. Therefore, the outlook of it being good or bad can be entirely dependent on the type of content that users are exposed to. Seeing positive content, people that inspire us, or simply things that we enjoy can improve our mental wellbeing, and in turn, can have positive effects on community wellbeing. But the same is true for negative content. There are also external factors that can influence our content too! A study particularly focused on the weather, found that good weather resulted in more positive posts, with each positive post resulting in 1.75 more happy posts. So it’s not only about what we’re seeing, but also about what we’re sharing!
Online connectedness can expand everyone’s support network. Being able to quickly communicate with loved ones can alleviate negative feelings much more quickly than waiting to see them in person. In fact, social media’s improved communication can be good for social health and can compensate for the way social interactions can diminish in our increasingly busy post-Covid lives!
Another way that social media can be great for us is that it can help us vent, or relieve stress. It’s not all sunshine and daffodils though, there are also some ways that social media can be a detriment to our health.
The Not So Good
One important factor when it comes to social media-related wellness is that the effect it can have on wellbeing is directly related to both the amount of usage, and the demographic a person belongs to. For instance, adolescent girls use more social media overall than boys, and on top of that, heavy social media use is associated with lower mental wellbeing. This is something to be aware of, since certain groups may be more at risk than others. Although, just because one group is more at risk, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something to worry about. Social media is highly personalized, and every user’s experience with it is unique!
Another thing to consider is that sleep quality can be affected by social media usage. This can be due to content making our minds overly active during the night, or it could also be due to exposure to blue light, which is the light that comes off our phones. Blue light has a way of affecting the circadian rhythm, the system that regulates our sleep patterns. If we’re on our phones just before bed, our thoughts may be too active, disrupting this rhythm, and making it difficult for us to doze off naturally, but this can be overcome in many ways. For instance, most phones have a blue light filter that we can turn on at night, and we can also try to avoid our phones or other screens before bed and switch to reading a book or listening to music to wind down.
Social media has also been shown to have addictive qualities. This is highlighted by the constant preoccupation and strong motivation to use social media platforms that take over most of our time, and compromise our interest in social in-person interactions at work, school, relationships, and with family. They can also undermine our overall wellbeing. Have you ever been away from your phone for a couple of hours and felt yourself starting to worry about it, wanting to scratch that itch and have a look? This could be a signifier of a potentially addictive relationship. Addiction is when a person continues to do something in the face of mounting consequences, due to psychological and neurochemical influences on the psyche. What this means is that we might develop a negative relationship with social media, and that it would be in control of us, more than we are in control of it. The good news is, that just by separating ourselves from our phones for a while, it’s possible to disrupt any addictive tendencies we might have in relation to social media.
What Can We Do to Help?
The manner in which social media affects our health is a complex matter. The most important thing is how we choose to interact with it. With that in mind, here are five top tips for developing a healthy relationship with social media!
- Using mindfulness can alleviate stress and social anxiety associated with problematic social media usage, such as using it too often, or exposing ourselves to negative content. However, we can use techniques such as mindfulness to negate this potential for negativity. Mindfulness is a meditative practice where, through bringing awareness to the present moment and promoting non-judgmental thoughts and feelings, we can teach ourselves to interact with the world in a way that’s better for our mental health and self-esteem. We can tell ourselves things like, “I won’t let any of this affect my personal feelings”. We can try not to internalize the content we view. Instead of being impacted by negativity, we can ask ourselves what we can learn from it, and what we gain from exposing ourselves to such things.
- We can also try to view more positive content and unfollow influencers that we feel are not right for us. One of the amazing things about all of our newsfeeds and applications is that we have some control over the content that we’re seeing. For instance, I often browse Reddit, but I have noticed that reading political posts (especially during the pandemic) was quite stressful for me. So, I sought a balance, where if I wanted to look into politics, I would actively seek those pages out, but if I was simply absentmindedly scrolling, it was better to keep things light-hearted. While it’s important to stay informed, it’s also important to look after our mental health. If anything ever appears on our feed that we feel is causing a stressful reaction, or isn’t nurturing healthy attitudes and behaviors, we can simply unfollow. This helps change the algorithm of the app so we see more positive content! Let’s view content that’s right for us!
- Limiting time has been shown to decrease feelings of loneliness and certain depressive symptoms related to social media. In one study, people who were tasked to limit their social media usage to ten minutes a day recorded huge improvements in mental health across the board over just a few weeks. Simply reducing the time spent on social media is something we all can do; there are even certain apps out there that can set timers and close social media applications, or notify us when we’ve spent enough time on them. Of course, everyone’s different, but there are loads of ways to ensure we’re spending a specific amount of time on social media that’s right for us!
- Take breaks, and detox! It’s so easy to fall into the habit of just whipping out the phone whenever we’re bored, but a study conducted by the Libyan Journal of Medicine discovered that most people reported amazing improvements in mood, levels of anxiety, and even in the quality of sleep when they simply stopped using social media for a little while. Taking some time to reconnect with ourselves and our surroundings might just be the perfect medicine!
- We need to be aware that the online and offline worlds are not the same – what we’re seeing on a screen isn’t the reality. Fostering this knowledge can make a huge difference in the way we allow social media to impact our health. On social media, people are showing who they want to appear to be, rather than who they truly are. If we remember that everyone is a fallible human being, then a little bit more respect and understanding can prevail. Comparing ourselves to others can be damaging for our self-esteem, particularly when others are being unrepresentative of themselves. On the other hand, being unrepresentative of ourselves can also impact others. So, why not take some time to consider this disconnect?
So, is social media good for our health? It’s all about how we choose to interact with it. Let’s seek some healthy ways to use our internet applications, being aware of the challenges we’re facing as a society, and find some ways to move forward. Why not look after ourselves and our community’s wellness?
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