When was the last time you liked a post on Facebook? Tweeted an opinion? “Hearted” a
picture on Instagram? Instant messaged? Shapchatted? Watched a YouTube video, hopped
into a Role Playing Game (RPG) for some downtime or “fact-checked” a detail on Wikipedia?
Was it five minutes ago? An hour? Sometime today?
If you’re anything like the majority of the internet-connected population, you’ve probably engaged
in at least one of the above social media platforms very recently and will likely do so again very soon.
It’s no longer just a cliché: We really are all connected, 24/7, no matter where in the world, we’re a
mere click (or retinally-connected blink) away from our families, co-workers, classmates, idols, mentors,
neighbours, and even strangers.
While social media has given rise to elaborate virtual communities, has brought awareness to important
social movements and has supported fundraising for many worthwhile causes, it has also served as a platform
and source for less beneficial and sometimes troubling occurrences at both individual and societal levels.
With technology evolving every minute, it’s only natural that social media – and how we
use it – is constantly changing. Basic instant messaging has evolved into a dizzying array
of ways to create, share and engage with one another. It starts with content that comes at
us from the moment we grab our cell phones in the morning, throughout the work day, and
long into the evening on computers, tablets and laptops. It’s completely changed the way we
communicate, interact and even how we feel about ourselves and others.
Without a doubt, there are upsides to social media, such as a feeling of community and being able
to reach out to others almost anywhere at any time. Social media has provided access to opinions
and information that can expand our minds and points of view. Some research even suggests
that certain platforms may have a positive impact on mental health by providing opportunities for
connections that may otherwise not happen; others suggest social media behaviour and posts can be
useful identifiers or predictors of depression.
There’s a darker side to how social media can affect us, however. According to researchers, the more time
you spend on social media, the more likely you are to suffer from mental health issues.1 This is especially
true in children and teens, however, prolonged and excessive use presents dangers that have become more
evident in adults as well. Multiple studies have begun to focus on the disturbing association between online
social networking and a variety of negative feelings and psychiatric disorders.
The most pronounced concerns lie in:
• Decreased self-esteem (which often works hand in
hand with eating disorders and body dysmorphia)
• Depression/depressive symptoms
• A feeling of a lack of connection
• Feelings of inferiority
• Deterioration in concentration and other
symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
• Addiction to social media
Of course, all of the above are complex and are often exacerbated by or intertwined with the
other indicators. Social media’s negative impact occurs mostly as the result of the upward
social comparisons we engage in while using it. We tend to make note of the contrasts between
a perfectly presented life and our own. Comparisons tend to lower self-esteem, which in turn
increases the risk and severity of depressive symptoms, anxiety and a host of other unhealthy
feelings and behaviours.
Though common sense tells us what we’re seeing is often “glossed over”, unrealistic or exaggerated
versions of reality when scrolling through social feeds. Perceived perfection in body type, family
composition, idealistic lifestyles and social preference, it’s all too easy to feel inadequate about our
own physical appearance, intelligence, success, lifestyle and even moral integrity.
The true relationship between the use of social media and mental health is a relatively new and
complex area of study given the constantly changing technological landscape. While some studies point
to the positive aspects and outcomes of our interactions online, a growing base of research seems to
reinforce the opposite view. Regardless, the impact social media has on us as individuals, organizations
and communities is something that can’t – and shouldn’t be – ignored.
How and when does social media go from negatively impacting your mental health
to full blown addiction? It’s a fine line and can be a tricky one to navigate. According to
Dr. Shannon M. Rauch at Benedictine University in Mesa, Arizona, when your online posts
are rewarded with comments and “likes” it serves as reinforcement, which can quickly
develop into a habit that’s hard to break. That’s just that sort of engagement most people
are looking for when they sign up for a social media platform, making the distinction between
what’s healthy and normal and what’s not even more ambiguous.
The study of social media addiction is relatively new, findings are mixed and with ever-expanding
research, this will likely be the case for some time. Still, without question, social media interactions
do stimulate the pleasure centres and dopamine production in the brain. The journal Psychological
Science notes that “social media websites may be as addictive as alcohol or cigarettes”.
If you think you may be addicted to social media, take a moment to consider:
1. Do you feel your social media use has become compulsive, that you “have to” use it?
2. Do you find it difficult not to engage in social media, even when you don’t really want to?
3. Do you find your use or desire to use social media rapidly growing?
4. Do you become angry, irritated, negatively emotional or physically affected, when you cut back or aren’t
engaging in social media platforms?
5. Do you often find yourself preoccupied with social media, how you’re going to use it or what’s going on in the
different social media platforms you use?
6. Are you neglecting other aspects of your life or have your offline relationships with your family and friends been
negatively affected by your social media use?
If any of the above resonate with you, a re-evaluation of your social media use is likely in order. And while any formal
diagnosis of addiction should be made by a professional, there are immediate, positive steps you can take to change
your habits and begin to establish control over your use of social media and your mental health.
So you want to cut back on social media. It’s not nearly as impossible as you might
expect. Recognizing that excessive social media use is actually undermining your health
and happiness is a huge first step.
Now that you’ve committed to making a change:
Reach out, offline: Substitute your social media time with face-to-face activities with family
and friends who support and care about you. Put down your phone and other devices when
you’re with others. Consider expanding your in-person social circles to include people with
Tune up your mind and body: Get moving toward something better when you feel a need to
hit social media. Exercise. Meditate. Going outside for some fresh air and activity can fire up
your muscles and give your mood a positive boost. Find a new healthy hobby; learn a new skill
or language. Of great importance, get some sleep. Chronic social media use wreaks havoc on the
normal sleeping patterns which is crucial for good mental health.
Unplug and erase: Take some time away from the Internet as a whole to remove the temptation of
logging onto your favorite social media platforms. Take social media off your radar by uninstalling apps,
removing shortcuts from your home screens and bookmarks from your browsers. This makes getting to
social media platforms longer and requires more effort. Sometimes, out of sight, out of mind really does
Set firm boundaries. If you must engage on social media, lay down clear limits in advance for how many
times a day, and for how long you will spend online. Steer clear of content and platforms that bring you down
or evoke negative responses. Set a timer to help stay on track and be accountable. You may also want to limit
your online social interactions to one device.
Get support: Remember, you’re not alone. Reach out to Homewood Health, friends, family, local and national
organizations specializing in addiction and mental health. They’re there to help!