Is social media harmful to our mental health?
Today’s world sees a huge number of us frequently using social media. We have over 2 billion monthly Facebook users, over 1 billion Instagram users, and over 300 million monthly Twitter users. Of those 2 billion + Facebook users, 1.74 billion of them are mobile users as of the end of 2016. I’m sure that stat has only risen and even worse, according to the internet (so take it with a pinch of salt), teens spend an average of 9 hours! – a day, online. Even if the actual number is remotely close to that, social media has become a huge detriment to the mental health of young people.
There are a few issues with our use of social media that we have probably all heard mention of before. Firstly there is the practicality of it, the literal use of our time. What could we get done in our lives each day if we weren’t procrastinating on our phones?
Secondly is this idea of addiction, the theory that we are addicted to social media, addicted to likes. This theory states that when we receive likes etc. on social media, we release a chemical called dopamine. This makes us feel good and so we do it again. We become, in a way, addicted to social media, becoming reliant on likes. And when we don’t get them we feel ‘withdrawal symptoms’. Feelings of rejection, of being un-liked and unwanted. This experience of social media can then trigger all kinds of insecurities in us and seriously harm our mental health.
Our final familiar problem is the competition and comparisons we hold on social media. A large majority of us portray a biased profile of ourselves on Facebook or Instagram, a profile that shows only our best pictures and our happy moments. This can create the false impression that everyone around us has their lives together, while we don’t. Or that the people around us are beautiful and we aren’t, that the people around us are happy and we aren’t. This again can cause us to be insecure and once again, social media harms our mental health.
So to answer the question that we started with, is social media harmful to our mental health and well-being? Yes, it absolutely can be, for those three reasons mentioned above. Though, there is one reason I only recently clocked on to. It turns out I have been blind to a glaringly obvious and seriously harmful issue of social media abuse.
Which is simply the time spent on our phones or on social media. The sheer amount of time. To be precise, it is the time that we keep from ourselves, the peace that we steal from ourselves by giving our time, our thoughts, attention and energy to social media. We keep precious alone time at bay, far from reach, lost behind a screen.
When I say alone time in this context, I mean alone time for the mind. We can be completely alone for the day, but if that day is spent scrolling through social media then the mind has had no chance to be alone, no chance to rest, relax or unwind. This unwinding of the mind is crucial in the maintenance of our mental health and social media abuse strips that from us. We all need time in which we can just stop, process and catch up with ourselves, without this time the mind becomes overrun and cluttered with information. We become mentally overwhelmed and continue to be so until we get some time to mentally unwind. If we are using our phones for 9 hours a day, we have precious little of that time. Meaning we maintain this overwhelmed state and in fact, we build on it each day.
The longer we go without resting the mind, without catching up with ourselves, the more unstable we become. This nonstop information overload has our minds spinning around in a mess, unable to think clearly. This instability makes us feel unsafe and therefore anxious. This idea that that too much time on phones or social media can create feelings of anxiety, could go a long way in explaining why so many of the young generation often feel anxious. With so many of us stuck on social media, not allowing our minds enough true peace, no wonder our mental health is suffering.
I find also, that scrolling through social media on my phone gives me that same feeling I described in my first ever blog post, Living In Our Heads, where life doesn’t feel real. Too much scrolling makes me feel dazed, unaware and a bit zombie-like. Not just while I’m scrolling but for the whole day. Too much social media gets me well and truly stuck in my head. For those of you who have read Living In Our Heads Part 2: The Home Of Mental Illness, you will know that the head can be a horrible place to live. A place that if we spend too much time, our mental health is bound to suffer, often with depression.
Last week, after being inspired by a video from Yes Theory, I challenged myself to cut down my screen time and try to keep it under 1 hour per day. I succeeded, on the whole, only going over by 15 minutes or so, a couple of times. This was a reduction in screen time by probably 2 hours per day for me and I really did notice a difference. By putting down my phone, by giving those moments back to myself, I was able to unwind. I allowed my mind to go from spinning around at 100mph to a gentle stir at 20.
The biggest difference I felt was that I was naturally more present. More aware of who I was, what I was doing, where I was going and what was around me. Without the distraction of my phone, I took back those little moments of awareness and mental rest. Walking to university, waiting at the train station, relaxing at home. They all became a time in which I could recharge and recover mentally, by being more present. This extra presence lasted for the whole day more often than not, and made me feel much lighter, gave me more energy and reduced any stress or fear I had that week. Presence or getting out of our own heads is a huge factor in our mental health and the added awareness from a lack of social media was hugely beneficial.
This added presence, extra energy and light feeling gave me great focus and productivity. I was able to do more work on my dissertation in 3 days than I had done in the last 3 months. With a clearer, more peaceful and present mind, I was able to almost breeze through the work I had to do. I truly believe that all of these benefits are born from that time we give back to ourselves, to our minds and mental health rather than to social media.
So to go back to the original question, is social media harmful? Yes and no. Social media is not harmful in and of itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with it and nothing inherently wrong with phones. Both are great and have added some real benefits to humankind. It is our use of phones and social media that is harmful. The fact is, we don’t use social media, we abuse it. So should it come as a shock to us that it’s harmful? Social media can be great, but like so many other things, when we use it right and in moderation.
If you enjoyed this post and think someone you know can benefit from it, then maybe sharing it can be your moderation.
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(PS, here is the video I mentioned earlier)