A compulsive need to know. The fear of missing out (FOMO). The fear of hate comments. The counting of likes. Mindlessness or numbing out. The freedom to say hateful things under cover of anonymity.
Just like all other things, too much of social media can also be bad for us. While many of us enjoy staying connected and keeping up with the world on social media, excessive use can often fuel feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, inadequacy, and FOMO.
We humans are social beings. We need the companionship of others to thrive in life, and the strength of our connections has a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing. In today’s world, many of us rely on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Snapchat, Clubhouse to find and connect with each other. Ironically these very platforms that have been designed to bring people closer together, can actually make you feel more lonely, isolated and exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression if not used with care and caution.
Recently, we had the documentary, Social Dilemma releasing which tried to shed light on the negative reinforcing cycle around social media addiction. It showed us how social media is highly addictive, manipulatively designed on the basis of an ‘attention extraction model’ to control our behaviour, keep us scrolling and wanting more by way of exploiting our human desire for the connection to and validation of others. People talk about themselves around 30-40% of the time in person. On social media, people talk about themselves 80% of the time. So when they receive a notification of positive feedback, they feel a positive sensation from dopamine. This is where the idea of instant gratification comes in as it looks at giving us a dopamine hit every time we get a like, follow or reply, without ever actually fulfilling our deep human needs. This can further to a whole host of negative emotions as we seek this validation from others, which drive us back to social media for that quick fix. To try to combat this, last year it was Instagram that made headlines last year for suppressing likes in an effort to curb the comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content.
Social media can also impact our sense of self and affect our self esteem while in some cases, can also lead to a dissatisfaction with our bodies and appearance. For instance, social media can cause you to experience feelings of inadequacy about your life and your appearance when we see content shared by others we know and influencers online. Even if you often deep down might know that the images you see online are manipulated, airbrushed, photoshopped or represent someone else's highlight reel, they can still cause feelings of insecurity, envy, and dissatisfaction. Very often we forget that those we see in pictures online themselves may not look like the people in those photos online, but we still very often do fall prey to the glamourous side of life people portray online. It always helps to remember that no one is posting their failures or their lows online, so we need to not judge ourselves so harshly when we scroll through the content we see.
Closely linked to the FOMO feeling coupled with our need to be relevant online, we can become self-absorbed or obsessive in our use of social media to the point where we may be constantly either seeking validation from the online world for our actions or we may do things only to curate content for our social media profiles while missing out on the actual joy of the moment. Sharing endless selfies as well as your innermost thoughts on social media can create an unhealthy self-centeredness (which in extreme cases can lead to narcissism and vanity) that causes you to focus on crafting your online image rather than being in the moment in real life. These efforts of impression management can have detrimental effects especially we don’t get the approval we are seeking. Ultimately, this lack of feedback can further fuel self-doubt and self-loathing.
Social media can often fuel panic, fear and worry as very often we can fall prey to doom scrolling, fake news and the rumour mongering which often runs rampant online. This has been one thing which we have seen a lot during the times of the pandemic in particular. A good way to combat this is to ‘Check before you Wreck’ - always verify what you read online before you believe it or share it forward.
Another aspect of Social Media that we cannot over look is trolling and cyber bullying. About 10 percent of teenagers have report being bullied on social media and many other users are subjected to offensive comments. Given the anonymity which social media offers, these platforms can be hotspots for nasty comments and abuse that can leave lasting emotional scars.It can take a troll 10 seconds to comment but end up creating a bigger impact on the person who they are trying to troll. The mental damage from this vile kind of online bullying is almost similar to that of being bullied in a physical setting despite being received in a different setting of horror. While traditional bullying leaves the victim shattered, physically at times; trolling establishes itself deeply into the victims leaving them decapitated of their individuality and questioning themselves and their opinions. Research has shown increasing symptoms of depression in online bullying compared to traditional bullying. While we cannot compare the severity of the two situations, it is important to understand that trolling is indeed a pre-manifestation of bullying and should be considered so by the authorities, as trolls characteristically relate themselves to bullies.
We can be judicious while using Social Media to minimise the negative impacts. At this time of social distancing and isolation, social media can be an invaluable tool for keeping you in touch with friends, loved ones, and the wider world. However, it is important to always be mindful of how it makes you feel. If spending time on social media exacerbates your stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, it is always wiser take steps to limit your engagement. A little digital detox never hurts! Few other things which can help including setting aside your phone at a fixed time every day, turning off notifications or having ‘Do not Disturb’ activated when you're trying to work. Additionally, you may choose to take a break from apps that you notice contribute to unhealthy body image or feelings of inadequacy and instead try apps meant to help you feel better about yourself, such as meditation or journaling apps. If you ever find yourself being bullied or seeing hateful comments on social media, don’t be afraid to report, mute of block as you feel fit. If you find yourself getting caught up in the numbers, remember that you are so much more and that a number of likes, followers or subscribers can never determine your worth - there is more to life than these trivial things, try to look beyond.
While there’s several downfalls to social media, we can harness the power of social media to create positive spaces and promote awareness about Mental Health as well. We can for instance curate feeds/ threads of happiness and positive news stories to promote ‘joy-scrolling’ as a combat mechanism to doom scrolling. Mental health is worthy of powerful, positive conversations. When it comes to promoting Mental Health, we can all do our bit by talking about it online, sharing our stories, sharing self-care tips, being a positive example to others, calling out the misinformation online and being more supportive rather than judgmental.
These are some insights on how social media can impact our Mental Health and wellbeing along with some ways in which we can engage with it more mindfully. While this is an evolving and relatively new field, in the years to come we may see more research coming out in the space of Mental Health in an online world. The rise of social media has been a fundamentally multifaceted phenomenon, the statistics suggesting that it will come to play an increasingly dominant role in our lives. There is however some evidence at present which does link it with increasing anxiety, loneliness and depression, but whether it is causal or just a correlation will need to be further examined by researchers, mental health policy stakeholders and the social media industry in the years to come. Till then, let’s focus on trying to engage judiciously and smartly with social media & know that there is more to life than the like, follow or subscribe count!
Written by: Vedica Podar
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