social media and mental health

Social Media and Mental Health

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Social Media

Today, the world is referred to as a global village. There is an information overload but a dearth of genuine knowledge and wisdom. According to studies, fake news spreads up to 10 times faster than genuine news, which fans anxiety, hatred, and even violent crimes. It is even more important to verify news articles and received forwards before forwarding them to others. This article highlights the impact of social media on mental health. 

The world has come a long way from the gold economy to the oil economy and, currently, the attention and data economy. Data is the new gold. And, social media companies jostle to gain our attention. If something is offered free, then we are the product that is being sold. Social media behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Twitter earn billions of crores of revenues via advertising campaigns and targeted displays of goods and services based on our internet browsing history, including YouTube, LinkedIn, Quora, etc. However, it has been shown that social media usage, over some time, can lead to addictive behaviors that are very similar to those occurring from drug and alcohol abuse.

Excessive usage promotes dependence and a sense of virtual reality bubble. Whereas even a temporary break fuels anxiety, depression, and the fear of missing out (FOMO).

digital medium

In times of COVID-19

However, we have been going through an unprecedented pandemic of a scale that has never been seen in the last 100 years. The Covid-19 pandemic caused by the Sars-Cov2 has forced the world to change its ways. With numerous lockdowns and social distancing measures, the world has moved to virtual forums. So what is the relationship between social media and mental health?

Mobile data consumption has seen a three-fold rise among users, newer web series and movies released on Over-the-television platforms have replaced cinemas, live physical education classes have been substituted by online classes on virtual platforms such as Zoom. Sports events are played on empty platforms, being broadcast to our mobiles and televisions.

Thus, social media has proved invaluable in keeping in touch with friends, family, and long-distance acquaintances. However, it exacerbates stress and anxiety, which are signs that one must limit the usage.  

Social media and mental health

Humans are genetically wired to be social animals. We look out for companionship and connections for our sense of happiness, self-worth, achievement, and life perpetuation. Thus, it has a huge impact on the mental aspect of health. Healthy social interactions promote joy, longevity, and well-being while easing stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness. As a corollary, lacking meaningful relationships accentuates the opposite and poses a mental and emotional health hazard.

It is important to realize that such social media apps can never substitute for real-world interactions, which require in-person contact. They are shown to release endorphins and other hormones, which alleviate stress and make one feel positive about life.

Paradoxically, social media technologies have been shown to make people less-social and lonelier, and more isolated while fuelling guilt and depression.

It is important to balance the virtual and real world by adapting habits that promote well-being over negative emotions.

Like any breakthrough-invention, there are both positive and negative aspects of social media. 

The positive aspects include:

  • Keeping in touch with friends and family
  • Finding long-lost friends or distant networks with common interests.
  • Promoting worthwhile causes
  • Offering/ Anonymously seeking emotional support in hard times.
  • Bridging the rural-urban connect
  • Promoting one’s creativity and artistic abilities while learning valuable skills at the same time.

The negative aspects include:

The advent of this disruptive technology has outpaced the human abilities of thought and expression. Innumerable studies have shown a strong link between heavy, passive usage of social media and mental health problems mentioned above, including self-harm and suicidal ideation.

The negative emotions include:

Feeling of worthlessness: The number of filters and manipulation of experiences, photos, and videos is a mirage to one’s real self. They have promoted an entire generation of young adults who feel that they lack something or are just not up to the mark. Often, only the brighter side is displayed, while failures and rejections are seldom put up.

The fear of missing out (FOMO): Social media exacerbates the previous point while falsely implying that if we fail to do something, we miss out on the stuff in vogue and may be left behind. It can impact one’s self-esteem while promoting compulsive behaviors that may not be in-sync with our interests: Checking the phone first in the morning, responding to notifications, prioritizing virtual interactions over physical contacts.

Isolation and Loneliness: As mentioned above, ironically quitting social media or reducing usage makes one feel connected and ensures well-being and not the opposite.

Mood Disorders: Anxiety, compulsive behaviors, depression are all higher in those who are heavy social media users.

Cyberbullying and Hate Speech: Almost up to 15% of users have reported some form of social media bullying and hate-attacks and threats. Twitter, in particular, with top trends and hashtag features, has been found to spread rumors, unverified truths, and threats which can leave indelible marks on young minds.

Narcissism: Sharing anything and everything on social media, from relationship status to intimate experiences, can create an unhealthy egoistical life in which we live in our virtual bubble, detached from the reality of a filter-less world.

Drivers of Social Media Use:

The apps are designed in a way to keep us hooked to them for as long as possible so that we continue receiving notifications and devote our maximum time to screens of mobiles, tablets, and computers. Thus, it affects our ability to focus and concentrate, disturbs our sleep, and keeps us addicted via the reward pathways of dopamine. And it perpetuates a self-rewarding cycle of triggers, wanting to keep it using and experiencing more of the same.

The mirage of FOMO promotes impulsive behaviors while making one feel miserable and left out at the same time, constantly comparing our lives with the lives of others. Besides, to ward off social anxiety, we turn to unlock our phones and login to social media. But, it denies us the opportunity for real face-to-face conversations, which could have eased the same. More importantly, when we turn to social media to mask problems such as stress, depression, or boredom, we deny our bodies to feel those emotions and make peace with them and thus do not find a healthy outlet for our pent up feelings. Over time, social media’s use progresses to a negative vicious cycle that feeds on mental health issues like uncertainty and other negative emotions.

Social media: When does it become problematic?

While there is no fixed limit to the hours one must/must not spend on social media, the threshold depends on its impact on our everyday living, mood, and how it makes us feel. Using it to ward off boredom or making others jealous is a sign that one must use it wisely. Some of the indicators, as mentioned, include:

  • Substituting real-world friends and conversations with online friends and chats.
  • Unrealistic comparisons of oneself and having poor perceptions of self. It includes body-morphic disorders such as over-eating/ eating less.
  • A feeling that one is not in control of one’s life with the stuff people put up online about oneself.
  • Constant distractions at work and succumbing to peer pressure.
  • Lack of time and efforts to engage with oneself and one’s emotions.
  • Risky behavior and compulsive posting to gain more attention.
  • Sleep and eye problems are arising out of blue light from mobile phones.

The way out:

The following modifications in daily life can help:

1. Reducing online screen-time

2. Focusing on things which matter

3. Spending one’s time in the real world

4. Expressing gratitude and practicing mindfulness

Social media and mental health: Striking the balance

1. Reducing online screen-time

Limiting social media usage to less than 30 minutes a day has been shown to have several positive effects, from reducing anxiety, loneliness, and depression to promoting mood and focus. Also, being mindful of what content one consumes helps in being in control of one’s life. Thus a reduction in smartphone usage by the following tips helps.

Using an app-tracker such as Your Hour or App Block to monitor one’s time spent and setting realistic goals for reducing it.

Switching off phones at certain times of the day when we are with friends and family. Practicing ‘No-mobile’ zones by not taking the mobile to bathroom, bed, or while driving.

Disabling app notifications helps one focus while preventing ourselves from being distracted as we focus on our work.

Limiting one’s checks of the phone by unlocking it frequently. Again, certain apps can help.

Uninstalling the majority of social media apps while occasionally logging in from one’s browser rather than the app.

2. Focusing on things which matter

Being mindful of one’s motivations to log in to social media (either to kill time or learn a new skill) can help us be aware of our usage patterns and reduce the time we spend mindlessly scrolling. Actively using social media for forging better relations and checking on family members is indeed different from its addictive usage for short term gains or pleasure.

If a feeling of loneliness creeps in, we might call a friend or go for brunch. If feeling depressed, we could go for a walk of fresh air, putting our favorite songs or channeling that time towards learning a new hobby.

Success and failures are part of daily life. Rather than being bogged down by disappointments and inferiority complex by looking at others’ supposed perfect lives, we deny ourselves the chance to be our authentic selves. Not every restaurant outing, not every trek needs to be shared online. Enjoy your personal space and privacy.

3. Spending one’s time in the real world

Social media should facilitate rather than replace relationships. Setting aside dedicated time for interacting with closed ones, keeping electronic distractions away is a sure way to make you feel good. Reaching out to old friends, arranging get-togethers, or exercising together also promotes bonding and kinship.

Shunning reservations while engaging with like-minded people, also boosts confidence and leads to new ideas and creative endeavors. Building friendships helps overcome insecurity and shyness while breaking the ice. A simple courtesy greeting or a warm smile to the next-door neighbors or strangers on a bus goes a long way in promoting positivity.

4. Expressing gratitude and practicing mindfulness

Feeling and expressing thankfulness for the things which we have in life is a great way to attract more abundance and joy in our lives. It gives a break from the hatred, discontent, and insecurity generated by social media at times.

Private reflections, maintaining a diary, keeping track of happy memories reinforce the positivity in one’s life. When we have time to count our blessings, we seldom have the time to vent out negative emotions or anger.

Practicing present-moment awareness, as an extension, helps ward off the feelings of FOMO. Dwelling in the uncertainties of the future prevents us from realizing our full potential. Mindfulness helps one to live in the present moment and improves our mental peace. Volunteering for community services also aids in practicing empathy, which enriches our self and our community.

social media and mental health: in children

For parents to help their children in formative years

The young minds are like wet clay, which can be molded by giving their attention to things. There have been rising cases of anxiety, cyberbullying, depression, and self-worth doubts among teenagers. Confiscating phones or a blanket ban on the child’s social media use might backfire as they may be separated from their friends and other positive aspects of internet use. 

Monitoring the child’s social media usage while being partners rather than spying on their activities would better address the problem. Adjusting parental control and privacy settings limits the exposure to useful things while limiting exposure to bullies.

A recent behavior change and decreased academic or social performance warrants an open and frank discussion with the child to unmask deeper problems. Sometimes, teenagers refer to online web sources to understand sexuality and consume a lot of misinformation.  Read about: Sex education for teenagers and Its Importance.

Maintaining ‘mobile-distancing’ and ‘social media breaks’ and switching off phones before sleeping helps cut down usage and over-dependence on social media.

Lastly, stressing that social media is an inaccurate description of one’s life is important. Having fewer virtual friends, fewer likes, or shares should not be equated with popularity or lower self-esteem. It is important to engage in physical activities and lifestyle changes like healthy eating and reading to be fit, aware, and make the best out of life. 

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