Though social media is a relatively new advancement in technology, it has very quickly become an unavoidable aspect of our everyday lives. For most teens and millennials, constant access to social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter is facilitated through use of a smartphone that is always connected to the internet. For older populations, Facebook and YouTube are far more popular. For younger generations, exposure to screens starts in early infancy, with many parents using tablets and smartphones to keep young children entertained with games, videos and educational content. Regardless of your age group or lifestyle, chances are that you have some form of a relationship with social media, due to its accessibility, ease of use and various benefits.
Of course, there are many positive aspects to social media use. These revolutionary platforms allow us to have easy access to important information, which can be crucial during an ever-changing world. The latest information about the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines, elections and other crucial world events are available at the tap of a screen. With travel restrictions and lockdowns, social media allows us to keep in contact with loved ones we otherwise would not be able to reach.
Limited research on effects of social media use
Given the relative recency of these technologies, there is limited research on its effects on our mental health and wellbeing. The most accurate research studies take place over many years and measure long-term impact. With social media, there simply hasn’t enough time for such a comprehensive study. While we may not yet have information on the long-term effects of constant social media use, we do have quite a bit of research on the shorter-term impacts. This is crucial information that we can use to surmise what the impact will be if we continue using social media in a particular way over a longer period of time.
Many studies focus on the psychological impact of increased exposure to these platforms and how this exposure contributes to depression, anxiety, self-harm and disordered eating.
FOMO and the comparison game
By nature, humans are wired to compare themselves to each other. Long before these technologies existed, we have been “keeping up with the Joneses” by comparing our careers, possessions, children and bank accounts to our peers, neighbors and colleagues. For decades, research has indicated that we make upward comparisons, i.e. we measure the mundane or unpleasant aspects of our lives to the grandiose and glamorous aspects of other people’s lives.
Social media ups the ante of the comparison game by giving us constant access to the highlight reels of others. A few decades ago, we may be notified of a colleague’s new car if we happened to notice it in their parking spot at work or a chance encounter at the grocery store. Now, you can see how #grateful your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend is for her new car before she even drives it off the lot. Seeing this while you’re dealing with a tough financial time can easily bring on feelings of inadequacy and comparison.
These feelings of comparison can lead to FOMO, or the fear of missing out. Have you ever watched an Instagram story of a group of friends at a restaurant or party while you’re at home in your PJs? It’s easy to feel like life is passing you by while scrolling through the seemingly exciting lives of others.
In some ways, comparison can be a healthy and useful tool for self-development. By seeking inspiration from the achievements of others, we can find motivation to make improvements to our own lives. By using your peers as a benchmark, you can also find reassurance in the fact that you are on the right track or may even be doing better than you expected. But the comparison game can quickly take a very dark turn, leaving you feeling inferior, anxious or depressed.
Social Media & The 24-hour news cycle
The 24-hour news cycle came about in the mid-1990s when television networks began doing fast-paced investigative journalism in an effort to compete with each other. There is a constant race for the juiciest scoop, the exclusive interview and to be the first to break the latest news. This was a revolutionary concept in comparison to printed newspapers, which were only able to provide delayed information once per day. In the age of social media, the news cycle is even more constant because it’s in your pocket.
Back in the nineties, it was easy to turn off your TV to head to work or otherwise go about your day. Today, it’s more of a challenge to avoid the news than it is to stay informed. Information overload can lead to stress, anxiety and a whole host of mental health issues.
Steps you can take to minimize effects
If you’ve noticed that your social media use leaves you feeling depressed or that every notification brings a feeling of dread or anxiety, it may be time to make some changes.
- Remind yourself that you don’t need to be constantly connected to stay informed. Do you really need to hear every breaking news update? Checking a summary of your favorite news sites once or twice per day is enough to keep you informed of important local and world events. There are many services that offer personalized, condensed news reports based on your interests and location. Consider turning off the CNN notifications in favour of one of these options.
- It’s also important to remember that people are only putting the very best version of themselves on social media. It’s unfair to compare yourself in a low moment to a retouched, made-up, and hyper-positive social media post. Remember that we all face setbacks and challenges, but these are rarely shared on Instagram.
- Social media can easily cause us to feel like the star of our very own reality show. This can create a feeling of obligation in relation to updating your followers about your daily life and major life developments. Remind yourself that there is no such obligation. Release the pressure that comes with taking the perfect shot, writing the wittiest caption and getting the most likes or comments. It’s okay to take a break from posting. If you’re feeling up for it, why not take a social media detox? Disconnecting from the constant rat race can bring you unexpected peace and clarity. If your livelihood depends on social media, consider scheduling posts ahead of time to keep your feed updated.
- Another simple, yet important step to take is to unfollow or unsubscribe from accounts that negatively affect your wellbeing. Does a certain news site use anxiety-inducing headlines as clickbait? Unfollow! How about an email marketing newsletter that always leads to you making a purchase you’ll later regret? Unsubscribe! And the girl with the seemingly perfect life with the self-righteous captions that cause you to feel inferior? It’s okay to mute her, too.
- If you’re having issues detaching from social media and are concerned about its impact on your mental health, you may wish to discuss these concerns with a therapist. The clinicians at Flourish Psychology understand that social media is interwoven into our lives and are trained to address the mental health issues that may arise from constant use of these platforms. Schedule a free consult to get matched with a therapist who best meets your needs.