Whether we like it or not, social media can cause anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. And, it gets worse.
Mental health came up when Instagram announced that it was going to remove the “like” option on posts so that people would stop comparing themselves to others. Social media activates the brain’s immediate reward center by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities like sex or eating. Digital platforms are designed to be addictive, and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical conditions.
Imagine a slot machine in Las Vegas. If we knew that we were never going to win we wouldn’t keep betting, right? It’s that idea of an uncertain outcome that makes gambling possible. The same thing happens with social media. We ask ourselves: “If I post this photo, how many likes will I get? Who will comment?” The unknown outcomes and the possibility of a desired reward are what keep us glued to our social media accounts. The reason we constantly check these apps is to feel a boost in self-esteem and a sense of belonging in our social circles.
FOMO also plays an important role. If everyone else is on social media, and we aren’t, then, aren’t we missing out on jokes, news, and even conversations with friends? Missing out on experiences can lead to anxiety and depression. When we feel excluded, even virtually, it can affect our thoughts and feelings, and in the long run, our bodies.
In several studies, the use of social media has been linked to the decrease, interruption, and delay of sleep, which is, in turn, associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance. The use of social networks can affect users’ physical health even more directly. Researchers have found that the mind-gut connection can turn anxiety and depression into nausea, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors.
The younger we start using social media, the more impact it may have on mental health. Especially for women. While society expects boys to express aggression physically, it expects girls to do so by excluding others and making hurtful comments. Social media provides the perfect opportunity for these types of harmful interactions.
In addition, social networks give us a distorted lens on reality and physical appearance. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat expose teens to filtered and unrealistic photos at a time when their bodies are changing and their self-esteem is fluctuating. In this filtered digital world, it can be difficult for teens to know what’s real and what isn’t, and this can cause hard physical and emotional experiences. Adults are vulnerable too. In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an increase in requests from patients wanting to look like filtered Snapchat and Instagram pics. There are a ton of apps that can provide effects like airbrushing, teeth whitening, and makeup filters. With this kind of thing, not only do celebrities look perfect, everyone does.
Now it’s time for the million-dollar question: how can I use social media in a healthy way? One thing you can do is monitor your behavior and reactions to see how using certain apps affects you. Try rating your emotions on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 10 being the most intense) before and after using social media at the same time every day for a week. If you find that you feel worse after using these apps, then it might be time for a change–either using social media less or switching out this activity for other ones that you actually enjoy. Self-monitoring can change really one’s perception of social media.
As parents, we can also develop monitoring strategies for our kids and set limits on how long they can be on their devices. This helps teach children healthy social media use and good sleep habits. When teens start using social media, parents can ask them to turn in their phones at night so that parents can review posts and messages. This helps parents stay informed about what is going on in their children’s lives, and it helps remind teens that everything they share online is permanent. The logic is: if you don’t want your parents to see it, you probably shouldn’t post it.
Another great method is the “no selfies” rule. Kids can post photos of objects and spaces, but not of themselves. This way, they can share their experiences without emphasizing a focus on their appearance. Finally, remember that your own cellphone use will set a standard for your kids. If you want them to put down their phones at dinner, you’ll have better luck if you also do the same.