Each month, I wonder what to write about, and when there are no big themes recognised, it falls to me to choose something I am passionate about. From finding your motivation, setting good intentions, letting in the power of nature and establishing a more connected world, I have shared my thoughts on a range of topics. Now one that is close to home: social media and our mental health.
“Anxiety, loneliness and fear of missing out…” “unhappiness… the development of mental health issues”, “a vehicle for distress”, “sleep loss…”. These are just a few headlines of articles and websites when you search for “social media and mental health”.
It’s clear that they paint a pretty gloomy picture, and quite rightly so. For all of the benefits I live every day from being online (such as connection, friendship, support, inspiration and passion), I am fully aware of the negative aspects to such a hyper-connected world.
It’s a world where we have access to everyone’s lives, all of the time. Without physical barriers, we are free to peruse, indulge and obsess over other’s lives we see online. Whether they are famous people we admire or our friends from school, no-one is off limits (given that the large majority have an Instagram account nowadays).
Unrealistic expectations and gratification
Although it is still emerging, the rapid growth of social media platforms is widely supported to have a negative impact on our mental health, and in particular on younger generations. The very intention for connecting online is to form virtual relationships, to be inspired and to create an outlet for our minds, but more and more often, this connection to the online world can become addicting and unsatisfying. We mindlessly hit the social media app looking for our next dopamine hit without realising what we are doing. We receive that hit of gratification when our posts are being liked, we gain followers and see our post being shared by others, or we see other accounts that make us happy. On the flipside, when we believe our posts are not “preforming well” and our status updates are zero, the feelings of failure creep in. We are unsatisfied, we perpetually refresh our feeds looking for that hit… that may never come.
This behaviour may sound alien to you reading this, but if you think about your day-to-day, how often do you check your feeds? How much better do you feel when you have messages and comments to reply to? How uplifting is it when you have more likes than you thought?
And I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with this, per se, as long as we don’t then foster feelings of inadequacy, un-popularity and those of missing out on life, when we don’t receive the gratification, we desire. It is this ongoing desire, sub-conscious or otherwise, that can lead to heightened anxiety around social media apps, sleep loss due to constant scrolling and refreshing, the fear or missing out when we are not online and ultimately lower moods.
Furthermore, social media is also seen to have damaging effects on us, as users, for the unrealistic expectations they promote. Apps and platforms are often the trigger for feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt, body-image issues and so much more. To only intensify this problem, the invention of filters that can drastically change the users body/face heighten the unrealistic expectations for what we should or could look like, perpetuating our feelings of undesirability.
I can see that all of this, along with many studies and research articles, highlight issues of addiction, self-loathing and anxiety – produced by social media use, but it is not all bad. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Setting better boundaries
Although I myself struggle from time to time, I have such a better relationship now with social media thanks to a few home truths, reminders and daily practises. We all have slightly different habits, but from speaking with friends and platform users, I know that we all share a few common beliefs:
- Always remember social media is a highlights reel: even if we/they show off the “bad things” like the messy kitchen, the sleepless nights, the no-make up shots, we are still only seeing it because they chose to upload it. Bear in mind that this “messy shot” could be equally as curated.
- Use that unfollow button: your social media is yours to curate. There is no need to follow accounts that you acknowledge to make you feel worse about yourself and heighten your feelings of self-doubt. Unfollow them, or, if it could become socially awkward in real life, you can now mute them on Instagram, so you don’t see their stories or posts.
- Seek out accounts to inspire: if you are mainly in one particular niche (for me it is vegan food), spend some time or speak to some friends about accounts that lift them up. For me, this has meant following a few more women’s health accounts, positive message accounts and even expanding from vegan food only to ones with beautiful photography so my eyes are more open.
- Be an active user: as mentioned before, it is all too easy to mindlessly scroll. I am the first to admit I do spend a lot of time on social media for work, but I always try to make it as mindful as possible. To me, this means going on the app to post, to reply to messages and comments and to see what is new. I won’t endlessly refresh, instead I will go on and go off, put my phone down and then carry on. I will go on quite a few times in the day to respond to my posts, but I can tell the difference between mindful and mindless use. Mindless use comes in more last thing at night when I end up seeing people’s stories who I really don’t know!
- Bedtime rules: I am no saint and have slipped back into worser habits but having a bedtime for your phone about an hour or half hour before you go to bed is a great way to prevent the mindless, endless scrolling. Your brain can also begin to wind down for the day and prevent the blue screen-time, too.
- Find other ways to use up free time: when we commute, go for a walk or sit outside for 10 minutes, we often feel the need to use up this time. Our phones, and social media are ready at the touch of a button, and we get into the mindless scrolling zone. Instead, we could listen to an inspiring podcast, phone a friend or family member, listen to some music or sit with the silence and daydream!
- Spend time offline: social media ‘detoxes” get thrown around a lot, but have you ever taken one? You don’t need to go offline for long, try just a morning or afternoon and work up to a day off, and you will notice that you don’t miss out on a lot. The world won’t stop, and you will feel so refreshed going back to it. It can be as simple as putting your phone into airplane mode while watching a film with family and the temptation to “just have a look” reduces so much.
- Talk openly: some of us will feel bad talking about our relationship with social media. But research shows that we’d be in the majority feeling like this. Recently I have started to really talk about how it makes me feel and it won’t change the fact that my stats are low/my post isn’t performing but it does make me realise that it’s not the be all and end all.
- Do more things to make you not check your phone: real life is full of so many opportunities that do not revolve around social media. Meeting up with a friend, going out for a coffee, baking something delicious in the kitchen, all of these things get you out of your normal routine of having your phone sat by your side. This distance will help to ease the desire to check your socials at every moment because you’ll be engrossed in real life!
There are so many ways we can get outside of our social media lives abut that is not to say that social media is not real life, because on some levels, it is very real. Some people call it work, some call it friendship, others meet loved ones online, so we’d be too quick to paint social media in a negative light all the time. Being mindful of how and why we use certain apps, when we use them and who we follow and connect with while online can help to ease the rising levels of anxiety, fear of missing out and generally poor mental health. Be an active user, engage in content that fulfils and uplifts you and maintain attached to the world beyond your phone.
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