How social media adversely impacts our wellbeing

Over the last decade, social media has become an integral part of people’s lives worldwide. Its rapid growth around the globe has unquestionably changed the way we communicate with each other.

Social Media Perth recently reported some key statistics around social media usage:

  • 60% of the world population are active social media users
  • 70% of Australians are social media users
  • Since January 2020 there has been an increase of  4.3% in the number users in Australia
  • 86% of Australian from age of 16 to 64 used social media for networking

The increase use of social media on various networking platforms has many benefits. However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest social media can adversely impact the psychological well-being of its users.

For example:

In March 2018, it was reported that over 30% of 1000 Generation Z individuals surveyed intended to quit social media due to growing feelings of anxiousness and depression.

Similarly, a recent study in 2017 by Shakya and Christakis found Facebook undermined the mental health of its users.

Why is social media detrimental to our mental health?

The Risks of Social Media

Though there are definite positives, it is extremely important to understand the potentially detrimental risks social media use can present.

 The number of “likes” a post gets is a measure of success or popularity to many on Instagram and Facebook.

When you post an image or article on social media what are your expectations?

No doubt you hope to see the ‘like’ button pressed again, again and again.

When you see the stream of incoming likes how does it make you feel?

Do you feel that natural high of joy and happiness after being recognised and acknowledged?

Alternatively, how do you feel after receiving very few ‘likes’? 

Do you feel a sense of isolation?

Do you feel a sense of loneliness?

The likes, and comments on social media can often seem insignificant, nevertheless they matter.

It exposes our psychological vulnerability in the form of insecurities, fears, addictions, and anxieties.

What can we learn from the “like” button?

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image Unsplash

The damaging impact of the ‘like’ button on our mental health has been studied by a number of researchers in recent times to try and better understand why it matters.

In 2016 Anthony Burrows of Cornell University published the results of a study on the emotional reaction to receiving high or low “like” numbers.

First, 102 undergraduates completed an attitude assessment of their sense of purpose and self-worth. Then, they were asked to randomly post “selfies” to a fake Facebook profile site. The students were then casually told if their photos received high, low or average “likes” to evaluate their emotional response.

Interestingly, results indicated that those who scored low on the purpose and self-worth assessment were more likely to show an improvement in self-esteem when they were told they received a large number of “likes”.

Alternatively, those who received a small number of “likes,” but had a strong sense of purpose in life, were not greatly influenced by the outcome.

The findings strongly suggest that some individuals rely on approval from others for a sense of worth that they might otherwise be lacking in their life.

Their evaluation of themselves is totally swayed by their perception of what others may think of them.

Social media, comparison and low self-esteem

Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Our identity, beliefs and behaviours come from and are shaped by our interactions with others around us from a very young age.  

If our self-esteem is fragile it is easy to get discouraged when things do not go your way.

For many, self-esteem and success in life is dictated by comparing themselves to the people around them.

In his book the ‘The Confidence Gap’, Dr Russ Harris suggests comparing ourselves to others is fundamentally problematic. “It creates a desperate need to achieve, fuelled by the fear of becoming a loser or a failure.”

This human need to compare was tested by Chou and Edge in 2012. Their published study indicated impressions on Facebook of others doing better in life does have a damaging impact to individuals well-being and self-esteem.

Knowing this what are the possible solutions?

Removing the “likes” on social media platforms can improve mental heath

Description: man taking photo near building
image Unsplash

Recently, in a bold move, Instagram decided to trial hiding the number of likes on posts. This test was to evaluate whether it helped reduce feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem among users.

Under the trial, “likes” would no longer be easily visible to others. Only the profile owner would have direct access to their numbers.

The trial took place in seven countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand.

In theory, this bold move by Instagram has some merit. However, to-date, there is no apparent evidence to suggest this experiment has been successful in reducing mental health issues.  

Moreover, the present reality maybe worse for some individuals struggling with wellness issues relating to social media.

On every post there is easy access to a click button to see a full list of every person who has liked a post. For some competing for external validation, this visual of endless “likes “may be the tipping point to negatively triggering comparison and self-esteem issues.

Facebook followed in a similar manner. In a test they concealed the like and reaction counts on its platform. Their reasoning was to emphasise the quality of content and remove the popularity aspect, which has been associated with mental-health issues.

Again, there is no evidence to suggest this was successful. Access to numbers is still one click away.

Signals that social media is impacting your mental health

Everyone is different.  There is no evidence to suggest excessive time on social media indicates your use is becoming unhealthy.

 However, it is more to do with the impression social media leaves on you that influence your mood and other aspects of your life.

Examples social media may be adversely affecting your mental health:

  • Spending more time on social media than with real world friends.
  • Comparing yourself unfavourably with others on social media.
  • Engaging in risky behaviour in order to gain likes.
  • Increasing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Tips to help you modifying social media habits to improve your mental health

While many of us enjoy staying connected on social media, excessive use can be problematic from a wellbeing perspective.

 Here are some practical concepts that can help you modify your habits and improve your mental health and wellbeing:

  • Reduce time online. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and FOMO. But you don’t need to cut back on your social media use that drastically to improve your mental health. The same study concluded that just being more mindful of your social media use can have beneficial results on your mood and focus. 
  • Use an app.  Track how much time you spend on social media each day. Then set a goal for how much you want to reduce it by.
  • Turn off your phone at certain times of the day. When you’re driving, in a meeting, at the gym, having dinner, spending time with offline friends, or playing with your kids. Don’t bring your phone or tablet to bed. Turn devices off and leave them in another room overnight to charge.
  • Disable social media notifications. It’s hard to resist the constant buzzing, beeping, and dinging of your phone alerting you to new messages. Turning off notifications can help you regain control of your time and focus.
  • Limit checks. If you compulsively check your phone every few minutes, deter yourself off by limiting your checks to once every 15 minutes. Then once every 30 minutes, then once an hour. There are apps that can automatically limit when you’re able to access your phone.
  • Try removing social media apps from your phone. Only check Facebook, Twitter and the like from your tablet or computer. If this sounds like too drastic a step, try removing one social media app at a time to see how much you really miss it.

What’s the take home message?

While social media can be a great tool, offering access to a wide variety of information and allowing unlimited networking opportunities, there is a potential downside that we need to be vigilant of.

Using social media excessively should come with a health warning.

Evidence suggests that technology-based social comparison and feedback-seeking behaviours can be associated with mental health issues.

What about you?

Does excessive social media exposure in your life influence your moods in a positive or negative way?

 Do you think the world is better or worse off with social networks?

Do you feel pressured to compete and be liked on social media?

I would love to hear your thoughts around this topic. Leave a comment below!

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