You routinely scroll through Facebook and Twitter, post on Instagram, and watch videos on TikTok — but how is all this affecting your wellbeing — especially while quarantined due to COVID-19?
As a therapist I’ll explore social media’s effects on the brain, helpful boundary-setting, mindfulness exercises, and more!
Positive Aspects of Social Media
Social media can positively impact our mental health by promoting:
- Self-expression: Social media can offer a creative outlet for you to create and engage with others’ content. Whether it’s a blog post, Instagram photo, or TikTok video, positive self-expression can be therapeutic.
- Communication: Staying in touch with family and friends across the world can be simplified through social media. This can be especially helpful for those who live in remote areas.
- Emotional support: We can reach out to others during difficult times whether to seek support or offer it. We’re able to efficiently update our friends and family about significant events in our lives.
- Awareness: Important issues occuring at the local and global levels can be promoted through social media. People are able to disseminate information and form communities around worthwhile causes.
Negative Aspects of Social Media
Social media may deteriorate mental health by increasing:
- Insecurity: Social comparison theory states that people determine their social and personal worth based on how they compare to others. While comparing yourself to others can help motivate you to improve, it can also foster envy, insecurity, and overly competitive attitudes.
- Isolation: Sharing your life on social media and forming virtual relationships can detract from in-person social interactions. It can be easy to isolate yourself with virtual relationships instead of engaging in real-life activities that boost mental health (e.g., exercise, spending time with friends, engaging in hobbies, etc.)
- Fear of missing out (“FOMO”): Viewing the airbrushed lives of others on social media can foster the belief that your life isn’t as fun, isn’t as exciting, isn’t as good. Instead of appreciating your own life, it can be easy to envy the edited version of someone else’s.
- Depression & anxiety: Research has shown an association between excessive social media use and an increased risk for anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality, etc. Preoccupation with your social image while comparing your life to others can deteriorate your self-esteem and self-acceptance.
What Does the Research Say?
While most of the research surrounding this topic has only been able to show an association between social media and negative mental health outcomes, a study at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that there is a causal link between social media use and depression and loneliness. It found that decreased social media use is linked with a positive impact on mental health while increased social media is linked to worsened mental health such as increased levels of depression. Remember that mental illness, including depression, is not a weakness.
Social Media: A Drug?
Just like marijuana, cocaine, and opioids, social media use stimulates the same dopamine reward pathway involved in addiction. When you receive “likes,” “comments,” or other forms of virtual validation, this stimulates your brain’s “pleasure pathway” that keeps you going back for more. The mindless act of scrolling through your social media feed trains your brain to crave it in order to feel comfort and pleasure.
Replace Mindlessness with Intention
Reflecting on why you use social media can help you avoid mindless scrolling. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- “What do I get out of social media?“
- “What version of myself do I portray online?”
- “How do I feel after using social media?”
When social media is your main source of entertainment — especially during this time of quarantine due to COVID-19 — how can you protect your mental health?:
- Limit screen-time: You can easily spend hours on social media over the course of a day without realizing it. Setting a time-limit for yourself can help you monitor your consumption. Many social media apps have built-in features to track your use, or you can use specific apps to keep track of this.
- Don’t bring your phone to bed: Social media use can disrupt your sleep by training your brain to associate your bed with social media. People often find themselves unable to calm their racing minds before they sleep, and this could be due to the mind anticipating social media stimulation while laying in bed.
- Disable notifications: Remember that dopamine pathway we talked about earlier? Well, social media stimulates this pathway with its unpredictable “reward” system, or the notifications that pop up on your screen, that lure you back into the apps and perpetuate your cycle of dependence.
Put Your Phone Down
So… what can you do that’s still fun and entertaining without social media?:
Revisit an old hobby or try a new one.
Put your phone aside for at least thirty minutes and focus your attention on an activity of your choice. It might be difficult to decide what to do, so here are some ideas:
- Try a new recipe.
- Stretch or do a workout.
- Draw, paint, or color something.
- Take a walk in nature.
- Listen to or make music with no distractions.
- Freely write down your thoughts.
- Spend time with animals.
Get to know yourself better through journaling.
Journaling can offer a healthy outlet for you to express your emotions and find a way back to yourself. These are some prompts that might help you get started:
- “Something I really enjoy is…“
- “My favorite place to be is…“
- “Others say I’m good at…“
- “I think I’m a pretty good…“
- “I’m proud of myself for…“
- “If I could tell past-me one thing…“
- “My future goals are…“
Practice mindfulness & tune into your body.
The word “mindfulness” can be daunting if you’ve never tried it before. Fear not! Mindfulness is a relaxation technique that helps you acknowledge and manage your emotions and physical sensations. Here are some mindful practices to try:
- Mindful eating: First observe your food, noting its color and texture. Smell it, taking in all its aromas. Slowly chew it, allowing all of your senses to activate. This can help you increase awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and physical cues while eating.
- Guided meditations: Using these can be helpful, especially if you’re new to meditation. Apps like Headspace, Calm, and Youtube are just a few sources that offer free guided meditations to help you relax.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: This is a technique that helps you relax by systematically tensing and relaxing various muscle groups. It can help alleviate pain, decrease stress and anxiety, and help you fall asleep more easily. An example of one exercise can be found here.
In an era where approximately 77 percent of Americans have some kind of social media platform, it’s critical that we explore how social media may be impacting our mental and emotional wellbeing. While it can offer valuable benefits, it can also be a silent killer of mental health. Setting boundaries around consumption can increase well-being and allow us to become more mindful of what we prioritize. While COVID-19 quarantine can make it difficult to set these boundaries, don’t lose hope! Challenge yourself to reflect on your social media use and find a healthy balance that works for you.