Social Media came to bring us closer and help us keep in touch with friends and family from around the world. Of course, it's great to feel close to people who are physically far from us, but are these platforms contributing to making us feel less lonely?
Studies and research have been warning us against the prejudices of social media. The consequences of so much exposure have become urgent, especially after COVID isolation.
This article examines how social media affects your mental health, triggering symptoms like anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. Keep reading to know how you can establish a healthier relationship with social media to preserve your well-being!
Research about the effects of social media
As products evolve with technology, the internet becomes embedded in our daily tasks. Consequently, we also turn closer and closer to screens and smartphones.
It's time to ask ourselves: are we becoming addicted to our phones, to social media, or to the feeling of instant gratification? You have probably seen someone (perhaps yourself) constantly turning their attention to the phone to check something.
You might have to see your calendar for upcoming meetings or an email you've been waiting to receive. Then, when you finally realize, 30 minutes have passed, and you're still scrolling into your social media accounts.
Social media can be great for spreading information and an excellent tool for companies to sell their products. However, everything changed when Facebook implemented the Like button in 2009.
The leading social platforms created a behavioral mechanism to make users feel forever unsatisfied and referees of other people's lives.
Users' feeds now rely on an algorithm based on engagement, which basically means how well people approve or validate your posts. This simple shift unraveled dramatic changes in how we interact with our lives, bodies, and goals.
Fortunately, research about the impacts of social media have been getting attention, and the results are helping us to set boundaries.
Increase in depression symptoms
Did you know that the more time you spend looking at screens, the more likely you are to develop symptoms related to depression?
Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, and Martin published one of the most influential studies about this in 2018.
The authors found that the iGen—people born after 1995—showed higher rates of symptoms related to depression, like loneliness, anxiety, and sleep disorders. They also found that teenagers take longer to grow up, and as they avoid adulthood, they are less prepared for college or work.
Because these trends came around at the same time smartphones became increasingly popular, Twenge indicated that the time spent on mobiles, especially on social media, could be responsible for increasing adolescent mental health problems.
According to her, the smartphone generation is less likely to drive, work, have sex, go out, and drink alcohol. Notice that these are all activities related to our social lives.
She also points out the dangers of hyper-connectivity since most teenagers spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of screens and less time among friends, directly affecting the development of social skills.
"If an activity involves a screen, it's linked to less happiness and more depression. If it doesn't—particularly if it involves in-person social interaction or exercise—it's linked to more happiness and less depression." ―Jean M. Twenge.
Despite all this, being aware doesn't make us change our habits. That could be alarming because even knowing that so much on social media is harmful, we still can't seem to break the cycle.
What do you do before you go to bed? Most of us spend a reasonable amount of time scrolling through social media.
Research suggests that spending time on social media before going to bed is associated with FOMO (fear of missing out) and directly impacts your sleep, unraveling other issues like stress and anxiety. In addition, it affects your physical and mental health, so your cognitive system and emotional stability are also at stake.
For those who don't know, the "fear of missing out" represents a feeling described by many users, especially young adults. It's that unsettling sensation of missing something extraordinary that others are doing, something probably better than what you're doing.
This kind of comparison makes people believe that their lives are worse than others, making people feel unhappy.
Felipe Guimarães (Aela's founder) studied the impacts of social media on young adults, and his research showed that 4 in 5 participants complained about their mental health.
The participants associated their complaints with how long they spent on social media and how this affected their sleep habits. Unfortunately, the pandemic only accentuated these issues since people were even more connected to their phones.
Two of the people interviewed were already changing their habits and setting goals to spend less time on social media. Consequently, they noticed improved sleep quality and reported feeling more energetic and better humored during the day.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a minimum of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day it's recommended. Sleeping fewer hours is associated with behavioral, cognitive, and attention problems.
The trap of Instagram filters
Several studies indicate that Instagram is the most harmful social network for our mental health.
In the era of influencers, we are more used to seeing edited photos than real ones. This edited pictures with layers and layers of filters collaborate with a distortion of reality and increase our acute sense of what is, in fact, natural.
Instagram has had dramatic effects on female audiences, leading girls to "compare and despair" as they scroll through pictures showing bodies and lives that had been edited and re-edited until they were closer to perfection than reality.
Likes became a bargaining currency, a reward for following certain attitudes and behaviors validated by the masses.
As a network focused on visuals, Instagram leads to the overvaluation of the image. The profiles with the most likes and followers dictate beauty and social standards.
Comparing our bodies with others can be a gateway to eating disorders and problems in self-acceptance.
According to neuropsychology specialist Stanley Rodrigues, people can develop behaviors that deviate from their inner selves and ethical references to adapt to what the majority likes and comments on.
Increase in loneliness rates
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has assessed young people aged 15 and under in several countries since 2000.
The study shows that teenagers' loneliness factor was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012, with less than 18% reporting high levels of loneliness.
After 2012, however, 36 out of 37 countries showed an increase in the levels of school loneliness.
Rates have nearly doubled in Europe, Latin America, and English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States).
This global synchrony between the increase in loneliness among teenagers suggests a common cause. Everything points to smartphones and social networks being the story's main villains.
To test this hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge cross-referenced data on several global trends that could have impacted loneliness in adolescents.
The global factors included:
- reduced family size,
- increased income inequality,
- increased unemployment,
- more access to smartphones;
- more Internet usage.
But results were clear: solitude among teens began to rise as smartphone access and internet use increased. The other factors analyzed were either unrelated or inversely correlated.
We know that loneliness is not the same as depression, but the two are often linked — lonely teens tend to become depressed and vice versa. And loneliness is always painful, even when not followed by depression.
The dark side of social media
The Dark Side of Social Media examines the impact of social media on our emotional and mental health. They also address other issues caused by social networks, such as:
- Short attention spans (immediacy);
- Image overvaluation and narcissism;
- Decline in the quality of interpersonal relationships and social skills;
- Privacy and security;
- Misinformation and fake news;
- Negative effects on relationships.
Have you ever been so stuck on your phone that you lost track of time and went to bed later than you planned? Or have you ever been upset about posting something and not getting enough 'likes'? Perhaps a friend of yours has already been through an uncomfortable situation because you or someone else posted some private information on Instagram or Facebook.
You probably answered yes to at least one of these questions. And we have all been there before. But unfortunately, some of these seamless acts can cause a lot of suffering to teenagers.
Social networks might bring us closer to people that are far from us, but they can separate us from those who are close.
We waste so much time on social media in an attempt to feel connected. But don't be mistaken: our minds work best through the human touch.
Comparisons and expectations
Social networks are collective spaces for (over) sharing moments, usually good ones. And that's great. But it's a clipping of instants that generally don't translate into real lives.
When you only see happy people with impeccable clothes and impressive jobs, you compare your life to what you're seeing. Then, without noticing or even being aware, you set standards and expectations for your own life. Expectations about relationships, where you should be in your career, how to raise children, how to dress, and how to act.
We compare our worst moments with someone else's highlights – often filtered to look perfect. As a result, expectations for our lives turn out to be unrealistic and distorted based on what we assume others have.
Remember: people don't lead the lives we envision.
Expectations are the fastest lane to frustration, leading to great distress once reality catches up. This doesn't mean we shouldn't dream or expect to fly higher. Quite the contrary, comparisons happen naturally, and they can be healthy.
You can feel inspired by a colleague who got a promotion and study harder to achieve a better position yourself. This kind of comparison is inspirational and motivates you according to your own opinions and beliefs.
However, hoping that our lives correspond to what we see on Instagram can only lead to one result: feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, anxiety, and irritability.
A great article published in Psychology Today discusses the comparison trap we set ourselves when exposed to social media. People want to feel accepted, so they begin to pay attention to things that didn't matter to them in the past, like setting a perfect living room or baking a cake worthy of a book cover.
These things didn't bother them in the past because they were not part of their genuine interests; only now, social media pushes them to act according to specific standards approved by the masses. Everybody looks for validation, after all.
Notice that moments of life are much more appreciated when we're not worrying over the things we don't have but grateful for what we do have.
How to use social media without putting your well-being on the line
People spend an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes on social media daily; this number is much higher depending on the country or demographics. The average time increases every year, and the question remains: what would be the ideal time to spend on social networks?
However, we should focus more on how we use and why we use these websites and apps. Using them to engage, support, and connect with others, could be positive and uplifting. But they will continue to affect our mental health if we are not vigilant about it.
This way, we have compiled a list with some tips to create a healthier relationship with the time you spend on social networks:
1) Don't use it to kill time
Do you have some time to kill? Look around you, listen to music, read a book, or talk to someone new.
2) Pay attention to what is happening around you
Don't choose your phone over your own reality; embrace the present.
3) Think less about what others are doing
Don't fall into comparison traps, constantly observing what others are doing. Instead, take a look at yourself, and appreciate your life and the ones around you.
4) Monitor the time you spend on social media
Observe for how long and how often you check your social media accounts. This might help you estimate how much time you're wasting and how this could affect your personal life.
5) Pay attention to the friendly warnings
Notice when family and friends try to get your attention or say you spend too much time on your phone. You might be wasting a chance to forge real connections, which makes you feel less lonely in the long run.
6) Noticed any mood swings lately?
Monitor your emotions: before, during, and after spending time on social media. Did it make you feel good, or did it trigger feelings of anxiety, jealousy, rejection, or loneliness? One option is to filter what you see in your feed, unfollow profiles that don't do you any good, or mute someone's posts and stories.
7) Don't take everything you see as reality
Understand that what you see on social media doesn't reflect day-to-day experiences or even the situation at hand. So it makes no sense to make comparisons.
8) Learn to preserve yourself
Observe how much you expose yourself on social networks. For example, if opinions and comments upset you or make you sad, avoid posts that might contribute to that.
9) Practice self-control
Alright, you're used to inspecting your phone for notifications. When you notice that you are checking your phone repeatedly or that a lot of time has passed since you "just wanted to check something," put it aside a little, preferably further away from you.
10) Establish a goal
Set a daily time limit for social media and try not to go over that. Gradually, this will become a habit.
11) Turn off notifications
This is very important: disable any unnecessary notifications in your apps. Comments or interactions on social media are not urgent and do not need to be immediately checked.
12) Select the content you see
Control what you can: keep only content that promotes healthy reflections and brings you good feelings. Also, beware of what you share. Ask yourself before posting something: am I being transparent? Can this generate bad feelings for someone else?
It's common wanting to share the good times, but is it essential to do that on Instagram? Or why not show the vulnerable and imperfect side we all have to foster a support network? We invite you to reflect on that and take care of your mind!