The first time I ever thought about the potential negative effects of social media use was when a friend and I were discussing her widowed daughter. Lisa’s husband had died in a tragic accident, and she was grieving by spending hours alone in her bedroom, scrolling through her social media feed. My friend was worried because instead of being comforted by her social media, Lisa seemed to be getting more depressed as time went on.
“Do you think spending hours looking at all of these happy families on social media could actually be making her feel worse?” she asked.
That conversation was 10 years ago, before we had research linking social media and depression. Studies over the last decade have shown that the more time you spend engaged on social media, the more likely you are to feel unhappy with yourself and your life.
A study conducted just last year found that adolescent girls who spend five or more hours a day on social media are three times more likely to be depressed. According to a 2015 study led by Dr. Erin Vogel at Rutgers, this is especially true for those who have a tendency to compare themselves to others.
Many consumers are growing more concerned about their social media habits, assessing their usage, and changing their behaviors. From turning off notifications to removing social media apps from mobile devices, they are finding ways to improve and reclaim control of their relationship with social media.
But not everyone who uses social media is unhappy.
So how do you know if you need to overhaul your social media habits? A good place to start is by asking these three questions:
How do I feel about myself when I use social media?
If the answer is that you feel worse about yourself or your life after using social media, then the odds are that you’re using social media for upward social comparison rather than for social connection. Upward social comparison is comparing your life to people who you believe are better, richer, prettier, more accomplished, etc. than you are. Upward social comparison is a known happiness killer and can force you into a downward emotional spiral as you spend more and more time believing you are not keeping up.
If this pattern describes you, rethink who you want in your social media community and seek connections instead with people whose life purpose or contributions you admire, rather than those whose physical attributes, material possessions, or flashy lifestyle you envy.
Recognize, too, that often those lives you envy are carefully curated to project that envious image. Using social media to keep connected to people you actually know, and to facilitate face to face interactions, can help keep the impact of your social media feed positive.
Am I spending too much time on social media?
Americans average 2 hours and 22 minutes a day on social media, which is up from 1 hour and 30 minutes in 2012. This increase in time had to come from somewhere, and research shows that some of our time spent on social media today used to be spent on sleep and face-to-face interactions with friends.
If you are feeling tired and lonely, you may want to reduce your time on social media and increase your time resting and engaging in person with friends, and maybe strangers. Research has shown that even engaging with people you don’t know makes you happier.
If you aren’t sure how much time you are spending on social media via your mobile device, there are apps and settings on most smartphones that will assist you in monitoring and limiting time spent on social media.
Am I spending time in the right places?
If your social media environment is full of questionable content such as hate-filled rants, unkind posts and news from unreliable sources that increase your stress level, you need to pull up stakes and move. Block, unfriend, and disconnect from any person or organization spreading misinformation and fomenting hate. Social media can be informative and enlightening, but you must first carefully curate your online environment.
If you decide to overhaul your social media habits, let these questions guide your process. Make sure your activities are centered around connecting with others, and that your interactions are with good people and reputable organizations who seek to share accurate content.
Then examine how much time you spend in the digital world and ask yourself if it is too much. By becoming more self-aware of your social media habits and cognizant of the potential pitfalls, you can better control your time spent on social media so that it meets your needs and leaves you feeling positive.