social media wellness

According to a recent survey conducted by Grow Therapy, 100% of the nearly 300 therapists polled said that social media use could have a negative impact on mental health in some capacity, contributing to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Big surprise? Not at all. Our relationship to social media can be complicated to say the least and learning to take a proactively mindful approach is absolutely key.

Just this week, Meta launched their latest platform, Threads, a Twitter-like platform that connect to your Instagram account. With so much happening online, we thought this was a good time to stop and take stock. Let’s take a moment and pay attention to how we feel online and mindfully manage potentially addictive habits. It’s never been more important for our collective well-being.

Update your habits with these insights from Greg Lozano, a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in mental health from the team at Grow Therapy.

The Positive Aspects of Social Media Use

Despite the fact that social media can have detrimental effects on mental well-being, there are certainly some positive aspects, including:

+ Community, connection, and support: It’s easy to find groups online for like-minded people, whether you’re looking for a community of people who share the same hobbies as you, or who struggle with the same mental health condition as you. “It’s hard to feel alone with so many people [dealing with] the same thing, and it kind of normalizes what a person may be going through,” says Elizabeth DeLullo, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy. These communities can provide a sense of belonging, allow for self-expression, and reduce feelings of isolation.

A large recent survey showed that more than half of respondents in all age groups polled (Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers) said that social media had a positive effect on their social connectivity, and at least half of respondents said it had a positive impact on self-expression.

+ Support system: Online communities and opportunities to connect with people who have similar struggles can provide a support system for those who may not have the same support at home or in their community. May says it’s common for young people in marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQIA+ communities, to use social media as a place for connection. “In many cases, social media can save young people’s lives by giving them access to communities when they might not be accepted at home,” says May.

+ Information at your fingertips: Social media (and the internet in general) offers easy access to so much information, DeLullo says. Anyone who’s struggling with pretty much anything can easily search and find resources. However, it’s important to note that this positive can also become a negative. Make sure your information is coming from reputable and non-biased sources. Also, remember that any mental health advice you find online, especially on social media, is not a substitute for mental health treatment, although it can certainly point you in the right direction.

+ Raising awareness and breaking stigmas: Social media is an excellent tool for raising awareness about mental health conditions. People can share information about mental health and promote awareness. This helps reduce the stigma associated with mental health, making it less taboo and encouraging people to seek help.

The Negative Aspects of Social Media Use

All of those positives must be taken with a grain of salt. When you don’t use social media in a mindful way, the following negatives can affect your well-being.

+ It has addictive qualities: Social media platforms are designed to be engaging and addictive, leading people to spend an excessive amount of time scrolling through their feeds and refreshing their likes and messages. Getting notifications and likes releases dopamine in our brains, activating our pleasure and reward system and making us crave even more.

+ It promotes unrealistic beauty standards and hurts body image: “The use of beauty filters and editing can degrade people’s self-esteem and mess with body image,” DeLullo says. Oftentimes, the photos that individuals post (whether it’s your friends, influencers, or celebrities) are filtered or edited. With technology today, it can be hard to tell.

“This may particularly impact young women, especially those who don’t fit into Westernized beauty standards that capitalism propagates,” May says. This is especially a problem for young girls. Per an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, internal research within Instagram found that about one-third of teenage girls experienced a worsened body image due to Instagram. Furthermore, a 2023 study of teens and young adults suggests that cutting social media use in half could result in improved body image.

+ It causes social comparison: On top of the comparison of appearances, social media causes social comparison, which can be harmful. In psychology, social comparison theory is the idea that we humans tend to compare ourselves to others to evaluate our own self-image and self-worth. We tend to look at others to see how we measure up to them. Social media fuels this.

“Seeing people having fun and being accomplished all the time can deteriorate self-esteem. Feeling like one has to live up to expectations of the masses can be depressing,” says DeLullo. Users often compare their circumstances to the seemingly perfect lives of others portrayed on social media. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and depression. Teens and young adults ages 13 through 24 are at the highest risk for the negative effects of social comparison.

+ It feeds into FOMO: Social media is a huge culprit in feeding into FOMO, or the fear of missing out. People feel anxious or insecure when they see others doing something that they are not. For example, people may feel FOMO when they’re home on their couch, scrolling social media, looking at people out at parties or on vacations. This can make them feel jealous, stressed, or lonely.

One 2019 study titled “No More FOMO” was one of the first investigations of the link between mental health and social media usage on multiple platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat). The results suggested that limiting social media use to 30 minutes total a day (just 10 minutes on each platform) could lead to reductions in feelings of loneliness. A more recent 2022 study also looked into the phenomenon of social media and FOMO, suggesting a link between online FOMO and decreased life satisfaction.

+ It lends itself to cyberbullying: Social media allows bullies to target victims from a distance, behind a screen, and often anonymously. The consequences of cyberbullying unsurprisingly extend beyond the online world and affect people’s offline lives. Cyberbullying primarily affects adolescents. Pew Research Center found that the majority of teens (59%) have experienced some form of cyberbullying. However, adults are certainly not immune.

+ It’s linked to mental health issues: Social media use is a public health concern for good reason. For example, researchers suggested that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media may be at higher risk for mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression symptoms. The study authors also urged for future research to dig deeper and determine effective ways to combat this.

Other research on teens has shown possible links between social media and poor sleep quality and decreases in life satisfaction. It’s not just teenagers, though – additional research based on surveys of adults in the US showed an association between social media use (especially Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube) and increased depression symptoms.

Additionally, a recent study suggested an association between taking a week-long break from social media and improvements in mental well-being, including depression and anxiety symptoms.

All of this being said, other research, specifically amongst teenagers, suggested that there is not strong evidence that social media use is a risk factor for depression. Although many studies have pointed to correlations between social media use and some negative mental health effects, further research is needed to truly determine the risks and impacts of social media use.

Research does not indicate that social media definitely and directly causes negative mental health impacts, but it does show links between the two. As researchers from the McKinsey Health Institute survey said, “But correlation is not causation, and our data indicates that the relationship between social media use and mental health is complex.”

8 Healthy Social Media Habits

You don’t have to completely cut social media out of your life to experience mental health benefits. Here are eight tips for using social media in a more mindful, healthy way.

Notice How Social Media Makes You Feel | You may be mindlessly scrolling social media without truly understanding how it’s making you feel and affecting your mental health. May suggests taking a step back and keeping a journal of your screen time and how you feel. Take note if you feel bad about yourself, anxious, or depressed after a social media scroll session.

Understand Active Versus Passive Social Media Use | Using our phones has become second nature. You may find yourself reaching for your phone and clicking on Instagram or TikTok just out of habit. You start to zone out and before you know it, an hour has passed. Sound familiar? This is an example of passive social media use.

May suggests being aware of active social media use versus passive social media use, and recommends having an intention before you log on – a specific goal that will benefit you rather than mindless scrolling. “Not all screen time is created equal,” she says.

Limit the Amount of Time You Spend on Social Media | On top of avoiding passive social media use, you should also make it a goal to spend less time on social media sites. “It’s not always realistic to completely unplug in the digital-first world we live in, so a great step is to limit what and when you consume on different platforms,” says May.

Take small steps and make little goals. Even if you decide to spend 10 minutes less a day social networking, this is still something. A bigger goal can be to go for a full period of time without checking social media. “Don’t be afraid to take a break once or twice a week and just live your life. It will do you much good,” DeLullo says.

If you’re having trouble sticking to your self-imposed rules, you can use social media blocker apps that lock you out of certain apps at times you tell them to. Examples of these are AppBlock and Freedom.

Know When to Step Away | When you’re on social media, make sure you stay mindful. Check in with your mind and your body. If you’re not feeling good mentally or physically, this is a sign to get off now.

“If you feel yourself getting jealous or too envious and your fingers want to start typing negative words, it’s time to take a break from social media,” DeLullo says. To re-center and de-stress after you’re worked up, try meditating, exercising, practicing gratitude, or having some good old-fashioned face-to-face social interaction with a friend.

Designate Phone-Free Time | May suggests designating certain times or activities as phone-free. For example, if you’re sharing a meal with your friends, you can decide that you’re going to put your phones away. To gamify it, whoever uses their phone first is on dishwashing duty.

Additionally, she recommends making it a habit to start your day off with an hour of screen-free time. Instead of checking your social media feeds first thing in the morning, use this time to do something more productive for your mental health, like maybe some self-care.

Try to Avoid the Comparison Trap | Although it’s much easier said than done, try to avoid comparing yourself to others. What you see is only #HalfTheStory! Someone could seem like everything is perfect in their life based on their feed, but there is way more below the surface. Social media is a highlight reel of curated (and likely edited) photos and videos. People are far more likely to post about the good than they are about the bad.

Unfollow Accounts That Make You Feel Bad | If there are accounts you follow that always make you feel worse about yourself in one way or another, May recommends unfollowing them. The goal is to limit the harm your screen time does to you. If unfollowing feels like a drastic step, you can mute the accounts instead so they just won’t appear on your feed.

Do a Tech Tidy Up | “The art of tidying up applies to tech too,” May says. “If you free your tech space, you’ll free your brain space.” On top of tidying up who you follow, May suggests deleting apps you haven’t used in the last three days and turning off all of your notifications. If your screen is tidy and isn’t constantly lighting up with notifications about likes or DMs, you’ll probably be less likely to reach for it.

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