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How Social Media Affects Your Mental Health (& What You Can Do)


 

Social media is making us more connected than ever, but at what cost?

Human beings are social creatures. We need the companionships of others to thrive and develop throughout our lives. Being socially connected to others can help ease stress, boost confidence and self-worth, prevent loneliness, and even add years to your life. On the other hand, lacking social connection can negatively affect your mental and emotional health. 


Social media, it would seem, should improve these social connections that bring value to our lives. With Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok, Facebook, and more, we can not only share about our own lives but know about the lives of strangers around the world. 


Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case. Let’s take a look at how social media impacts your mental health, how to know when you have a problem, and what you can do to use social media in a way that is healthy for you. 


How social media impacts your mental health

The comparison trap

While it’s exciting to peek into the lives of others online, it’s easy to feel inadequate about your life or appearance in comparison to theirs. Although we are aware of how easy it is to portray a more idealistic reality online, we often end up comparing our messy, imperfect reality to the edited, curated snippets that others post.

The fear of missing out (FOMO)

The fear of missing out existed long before social media, but platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat only magnify the issue. The feeling of missing out or being excluded can impact self-esteem, trigger anxiety, or even cause you to use your phone more often.

 

Loneliness

A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that social media increases rather than decreases feelings of loneliness. The groups that used social media less had better mental health outcomes. (Note that the groups didn’t have to give it up entirely, they only had to use it less.)

Depression and anxiety

Nothing reduces stress quicker than face-to-face contact with someone that cares about you. Prioritizing social media over in-person connections can risk developing depression and anxiety or exacerbate existing mental health conditions.  A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance.


How to know when you have a problem with social media

Like anything, there are healthy and unhealthy habits when it comes to social media. But how do you know when your relationship with social media has become a problem? Dr. Lara Fielding, a behavioral psychologist, says that it all comes down to three things: frequency, function, and escapism. 


First, how often do you use social media? Do you feel the need to check it every few minutes? Does checking social media cause feelings of anxiety? While there’s no magic number of minutes to spend on social media, it may be an issue when it prevents you from functioning. 


Function refers to your purpose when using social media. According to Dr. Fielding, your intention behind social media can significantly impact your experience. Do you log on to check your email or chat with a friend? Or do you do it to feel safe, validated, or “in the know?” 


Finally, social media becomes an issue when used to escape from life rather than connect to it. If you are experiencing discomfort or hardship, it is crucial to be able to sit with those feelings, and social media can prevent you from doing so. 



How to protect your mental health online:

1. Unfollow accounts that evoke comparison.
Who says you need to follow everyone that follows you, or the girl you haven’t spoken to in five years? Being picky about who you let grace your feed is one of the first steps to cultivating a social media that makes you feel good about yourself. If you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to certain people or feeling disparaged after visiting their profile, unfollow them. If it’s an influencer or celebrity, you can even go so far as to block them — they’ll never know, and you’ll stop yourself from searching for their page. 
 
2. Clean up your explore page. 
The Instagram algorithm is great at recommending posts or accounts it thinks you’ll like, but it isn’t great at assessing how these posts influence your mental health. After cleaning up your feed and followers, redirect what the algorithm recommends for you by selecting the “not interested” option on photos on the explore page. Then, interact with photos and accounts that inspire you and make you smile, so that the algorithm knows to recommend you similar accounts!
 
 
3. Monitor your time spent on social media apps
We all know that feeling — you pick up your phone to check something, and the next thing you know, twenty minutes have passed. Choosing a social media limit for the day can help you be mindful of how much time you are spending on the apps. You can even set a limit on most apps, and have it remind you of when you exceed your allotted time. If you often find yourself reaching for your phone during work or school, download a productivity app such as Flora, which prevents you from using your phone for a set amount of time. You can even practice the 50:10 rule — 50 minutes of hard work then a 10 minute break when you can use your phone freely. 
 
4. Don’t reach for your phone when you wake up.
Reaching for your phone immediately after waking up does a few things to your brain. First, opening your eyes to a slew of emails, unanswered texts, or other stimuli can increase feelings of stress and anxiety. 
External stimuli grab for your attention, inhibiting your ability to start your day with a calm intention. Instead of focusing on your own goals for the day, your attention is immediately hijacked by the lives of others. 
Finally, by starting the day distracted, you can prime your mind for distraction for the rest of the day. According to Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, “The information overload that hits [you] before you’re fully awake interferes with your ability to prioritize tasks.”
This habit may be difficult to break at first (and may require you to buy an actual alarm clock), but you’ll soon see the benefits of saving the first hour of each day just for you.
 
5. Check-in with yourself often.
Having a healthy relationship with social media doesn’t have to mean giving it up entirely and living under a rock for the rest of your life, but no one knows your own needs better than you. Check-in with yourself often to assess whether you are using social media too often or whether you are using it to escape reality or achieve external validation. Think before posting, and post with a clear intention in mind. And of course, don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family, or a professional for help if you can’t seem to make changes to your habits on your own. 
Your mental health matters. Learn more about mental health or get the resources you need here.


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