Social media has changed the way we live. Thanks to sites like Facebook and Instagram, we can connect with people we see every day and reconnect with old friends we haven’t seen in years, and keep up with their lives in real time through photos, updates and shared posts.
Like many trends, though, social media is a double-edged sword. For all of the positives maintaining an online presence can bring, overuse can have a detrimental effect on mental health. Researchers have begun looking at the effects of heavy social media use, and are finding social media can lead to depression, anxiety and isolation. If you are already living with mental health problems and use medication to manage your symptoms, social media may worsen your problems. “Nobody Likes Me!”
Some people may wonder how social media can be detrimental. After all, the sites are optional and no one is required to join.
That may be true, but researchers suggest there is societal pressure to join social media even if you aren’t naturally a social person or prefer to have in-person social interactions. Facebook, for example, has more than 800 million members, about half of which access the site daily. Twitter has nearly 250 million active users, while Instagram checks in with about 50 million users. With so many people connecting online, those who choose not to join could end up feeling left out — or like they are missing out.
In fact, isolation is one of the most common effects of social media overuse. Scientists at MIT found using Facebook can make people less likely to actually go out and interact in person. Connecting online can be easier and more efficient than making the effort to actually go out, especially after a long and taxing day. The problem is that in time, some people maintain their entire social life online and remove almost all in-person interaction from their day. This is harmful to both physical and mental health, as human interaction — particularly positive encounters — increases endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones that influence mood and energy levels.
When you maintain your entire social life online, you also risk creating feelings of low self-esteem and neglect. Seeing your friends’ lives play out in daily status updates can create feelings of inadequacy and envy. Between your cousin’s fabulous tropical vacation, your college roommate’s fab new promotion and your neighbor’s Pinterest-worthy dinner parties, you may feel as if your life doesn’t measure up.
However, multiple studies indicate most people choose to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and minimize the negative. That’s why you rarely hear about the mosquitos that ruined the vacation or the fact your old roommate works 16 hours a day at her new job. Still, seeing everything everyone else is doing and what they have can cause feelings of inadequacy from comparison.
The level of interaction one has on social media can also trigger low self-esteem. It feels good when a post gets a flood of “likes” and positive comments. But when a post gets little or no reaction, someone who relies on social media for validation could feel ignored or that “nobody likes me.” In some cases, these feelings can cause depression, or lead to increasingly desperate pleas for attention, including making false statements about hurting themselves or others.
Of course, the problem of social media addiction can’t be overlooked. Researchers have found many social media users become addicted to the sites out of a fear of “missing out.” This can create information overload or even distract users from other important tasks — which causes guilt or stress as they struggle to catch up.
Addressing the Social Media Problem
Given the effect social media can have on mental health, it may seem like the easiest solution is to simply not use it. That’s not always possible; after all, there are benefits to the sites.
As a user, it’s important to be alert to the signs of a social media-induced problem. Some of them include:
Feeling sad or inadequate when seeing others’ posts.
Comparing yourself to others based on social media feeds.
Feeling let down when no one responds to your posts.
The idea of in-person interaction makes you feel anxious.
You check your feeds multiple times an hour and feel anxious if you cannot.
You are afraid to be alone — without your online community.
If you notice any of these signs, curb or limit your social media usage. Designate a period each day when you log out of your accounts or turn off your phone. Commit to staying off social media after a certain time each day, and create “mobile-free” zones in your home, such as the bedroom or kitchen, where you won’t check your feeds. Above all else, take time to interact “in real life,” either via a phone call or an in-person visit.
Limiting the influence of social media on your life can help reduce the chances of depression and mental health problems. If you are still struggling though, see your doctor for help. There are resources to help and there is no reason to live with anxiety or depression.