During a time when we are more glued to our phone screens than ever, there is no doubt that our social media use is likely higher than ever before. The way we use apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has shifted just as quickly as the social networks themselves, and the subsequent impact on our wellbeing is only starting to be fully understood. In a simplistic sense, we often associate social media with negative outcomes such as cyberbullying, body dysmorphia, or the ever-terrifying FOMO. But should we be so quick to tar all social media use with the same harmful brush? Research is emerging that a controlled and specific use of social media can actually be a good thing, a positive outcome that many of us may already be able to anecdotally confirm.
79.9% of Australians have at least one active social media account, and that statistic jumps to 85% of Australians over the age of 13. Spending an average of 1 hour 46 minutes each day online, there is no doubt that it has become an integral part of modern communication, especially for a younger demographic. When assessing the good versus bad impacts of social media, it seems to come down to whether social media apps are used in a daily, routine way, or as a source of emotional validation. Routine use - such as responding to the content of friends - can be a tool for connection, while an emotional connection - such as obsessively checking Instagram “likes”- can be detrimental to mental health and contribute to feelings of isolation and anxiety.
So how do we tip-toe the line between helpful and harmful social media use? Let’s assess both the positive and negative effects of social media use, signs that it may be affecting your mental health, and actionable tools to create healthy social media habits.
Positive Effects Of Social Media
It looks as though social media isn’t going anywhere, so it seems fitting to start with the valuable outcomes of using Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, or any other of the apparently infinite forms of social media. These include:
Especially surviving the isolation of a pandemic, social media can serve as a tool to support social connection and maintain relationships with friends, family, and community.
Inspire Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Social media can be harnessed as a tool to learn about health and wellness and act as a daily accountability tool. Whether it is discovering new recipes, workouts, mindfulness techniques, or simply a reminder to get outside from behind your computer, social media can facilitate healthy habits in the “real world”.
Find New Friends And Communities
Beyond staying connected with our existing circles, social media can facilitate connections between people with common interests who otherwise may not have met. Being able to bridge the constraints of location, age and means can encourage deeply fulfilling community connections.
Platform for Education And Activism
As more people turn away from traditional media, social media has become an important tool for the dissemination of information and grassroots activism. As potentially anyone can use social media as a platform for political or social action, so too can social media users be exposed to new and ground-breaking perspectives.
Negative Effects Of Social Media
Of course, there is another side of the social media sword that is important to address and be wary of. The negative effect on mental health has been staggering, especially as we see younger generations growing up online. Some of the potentially harmful effects of social media include:
Contributing To Depression And Anxiety
The intentional nature of what is posted on social media can result in a “highlights reel” phenomenon, where people feel their life doesn’t live up to everyone else’s around them. This constant comparison and fear-of-missing-out can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety and create unhealthy thought spirals.
Altered Sense Of Self
In trying to perpetuate the aforementioned “highlights reel,” social media can negatively impact our own self-image. This can manifest either as self-absorption, or in a dysmorphic self-image. The widespread and normalised use of FaceTune (or other personal photo editing apps) perpetuates an adjacent reality to both obsess over and strive towards. Hint: this is an unrealistic goal.
Impulse Control Issues
If you’ve ever found yourself mindlessly scrolling through an app you barely remember opening, you likely know the power that social media can have over our unconscious habits. Impulse control issues can manifest as a shortened attention span, reckless in-app purchases, or the infamous “doom-scroll”.
One of the risks of social media is the potential for cyberbullying. Harsh and hurtful comments are more likely to appear in the comment sections by anonymous users than they are to be said to someone’s face. This breakdown of social norms can be truly harmful, even extending offline.
Tips for Healthy Social Media Use
When unchecked, social media use can easily tip into a harmful zone. The vicious cycle of feeling low and seeking online validation - only to feel worse - is a risk we all take when on our daily scrolls. Whether you already recognise some of the harmful effects or not, here are some actionable habits to harness social media as a tool for, rather than an enemy of, mental health.
Reduce Time Online
This one is simple: use social media less. This may look like downloading an app to limit screen time, turning your phone off at certain times, not taking your phone to bed, disabling notifications, or deleting problem apps. Reducing time online opens the opportunity for real-world connection and centering.
Change Your Focus
Instead of passively scrolling, try to use social media to actively engage with real-life friends or inspiring content. Follow accounts that leave you feeling fulfilled or informed and unfollow those that leave you feeling unworthy or upset.
Change Your Offline Habits
What we do offline is just as important as what we do online. Social media is meant to be just a portion of our social lives, so prioritise seeing friends in person. Cultivating mindfulness and a practice of gratitude can introduce some welcome perspective, and prioritising physical activity is an evergreen way to support mental health.
Seeing as social media is firmly ingrained in our modern lives, understanding its power over our mental health is the first step in harnessing it as a positive tool. Just as our psychological state is always in flux, so too is the impact of online social networks. Next time you feel a doom-scroll approaching, remember that you have the power to reframe your relationship with social media and ultimately position it as a positive tool for mental health.