Thanks to social media, we’re constantly connected with friends, family, coworkers and even people we didn’t like that much in real life. While platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be a great tool for both personal and professional networking, spending too much time on social media can have a negative effect on your mental health. Why are we so obsessed with the need to know everything people post on social media, and how is that obsession affecting our collective mental health?
The Danger of Comparisons
It can be great fun to see all of the things our friends and family do on social media, but it also creates an environment where we’re tempted to compare ourselves with others. Unrealistic comparisons have a negative impact on our mental health by creating the perfect platform to worsen body image worries, as well as allow for anonymous bullying.
Envying what others post as the “ideal” versions of their lives serves to increase depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness, especially in young adults between the ages of 14 and 24. Instagram, the photo-sharing application, is ranked as the worst for these problems, along with Facebook and Twitter. YouTube ended up in these rankings as well, mostly for causing sleep problems.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in comparing our lives with those of our friends. How often have you been lying in bed scrolling through Instagram when, all of a sudden, a picture of three of your best buds having drinks on that Cancun trip that you didn’t have the money to join them on pops up? Or a picture of that distant acquaintance from high school who’s now a CEO and seemingly living the perfect life? I know I’ve been there.
It’s important to remind ourselves that no one’s life is perfect all the time, and that the entire concept of social media has become about promoting the image of ourselves that we want others to perceive. Just as we tend to compare ourselves with others, we tend to spend a lot of time making ourselves worthy of comparison.
Studies have shown people tend to only post edited photos or images that show them in the best light — literally placing rose-colored glasses over others’ perceptions of them.
This false sense of perfection may improve the impression they leave on other people, but it can also encourage depression and depressive tendencies — people have trouble living up to the image they project on social media, which creates problems with self-image, self-esteem and mental health.
It’s toxic to compare our own lives to others like this. Everyone is facing their own problems, and most of the time, people don’t choose to post about those things, which leads us to develop a skewed perception of those around us. And yet, the exception to this is the people who post their sad 2 A.M. thoughts on Facebook -- they can’t detach their feelings from their online image, and they’re part of the information overload problem.
Social media has become an invaluable tool for learning about current events as they’re happening — during some events, we’ve gotten more accurate information from Twitter and Facebook than we’ve managed to get from mainstream media, and in some cases, it’s even helped save lives. During the chaos that followed the explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in London, we all noticed Twitter and other social media platforms helping parents reunite with their children who were attending the concert.
On the other hand, though, these tools and the constant influx of information about current events they bring can make people anxious and even exacerbate existing anxiety. It’s information overload, but we now have this fierce need to know everything that’s happening, and we obsessively refresh our feeds in search of new information. This inherent “need to know” can definitely exacerbate mental illness, and it can also create problems in relationships.
Who under the age of about 30 can say they’ve never “creeped on” their crush or significant other on social media? If you can say you’re not guilty, you’re better than I am. However, this can create situations where people take something that they see online out of context and make assumptions about the other person’s whereabouts or intentions, often leading to suspicion, jealousy, resentment and controlling behaviors.
Eating Disorders and Instagram
Instagram is one of the most popular social media sites. The app allows people to post images for public consumption and scroll through photos others have posted. Unfortunately, as we’ve mentioned before, people tend to post heavily edited photos on social sites. Looking at the world through a Photoshop lens can contribute to or cause eating disorders.
The most commonly diagnosed Instagram-related eating disorder is called orthorexia nervosa — an obsession with eating healthy. While eating a healthy, balanced diet isn’t a bad thing, individuals with orthorexia nervosa have a higher instance of malnutrition and dietary restrictions. Instagram accounts dedicated to exercise and pictures of healthy food only help increase the occurrence of these cases.
A Diagnostic Tool
Social media isn’t all bad when it comes to mental health. A recent study found that by studying an individual’s Instagram feed, a machine-learning algorithm can determine whether a user is displaying symptoms of depression with a higher rate of accuracy than human doctors. While this algorithm isn’t a replacement for a doctor’s care, it could potentially be used as an early diagnostic tool to help medical professionals accurately diagnose a mental illness.
Social media can be an invaluable tool when used correctly, but excessive use can become dangerous to both our mental and physical health. The best thing we can do is either cut it out or try to use all forms of social media in moderation, and know when to shut them off to help preserve our peace of mind.
There are even apps available nowadays that will help you monitor your screen time. One more extreme version that I tried out even goes as far as to entirely shut you out of your phone after a certain predetermined amount of time. That may be a bit drastic for the average user, but you might find that’s what you need at first to catalyze the lifestyle shift. Just make sure you’re doing what you need to in order to take care of your mental health and get the most out of your life and physical surroundings every day.