Medically Reviewed by Jacque Parker, RN
The increasing use of technology and social media networks means that the world is more connected than ever before. Social platforms make it easier for people to connect and interact with family, friends, and professionals. According to statistics, social media usage is estimated to rise to more than 3.02 billion users across the world by 2021. With so many people using social media, there are bound to be some effects on human life which begs the question "how does social media affect mental health"?
A study conducted by IDC examining the use of social media via smartphones discovered that the average social media user checks their social media account about 14 times a day. Another study published on SocialMediaToday showed that the average person spends about 2 hours on social media daily. This translates to 5 years and 4 months spent on social networking sites over a lifetime. According to the study, the time spent on social media is expected to increase as more platforms increase.
These statistics simply show that people are increasingly relying on social media in their day to day life to keep in touch, lobby for causes, and stay updated. So, how does social media affect mental health?
To answer this question effectively, it is important to examine the positive and negative effects of social media on mental health.
Positive effects of social media on mental health
Social media has been used to make positive changes in the lives of people. These include:
Inspires healthy lifestyle changes
Social media platforms can serve as an effective motivational tool to help people achieve healthy lifestyle goals like attending gym sessions regularly, kicking addictive habits and many more. This is achieved by publicizing your goals on social media and frequently posting updates which help to promote accountability to others as well as stimulating online social support systems.
A 2018 Fitspiration study published on the NCBI website has proven that sharing goals publicly helps to promote accountability and also assist individuals to stay focused. It also boosts your chances of success.
Relieves loneliness and social isolation
Social media opens up new communication pathways that help people to connect with others in spite of the distance and time constraints. In addition, it provides adequate anonymity to enable people battling psychological issues that attract stigma to express themselves fully without the need to reveal their identities. This means that social platforms allow self-expression without the threat of stigma, which helps to prevent loneliness and social isolation.
A 2012 research by Fenne Deters and Matthias Mehl shows that Facebook can reduce loneliness when it is used to keep in touch with other people and keep up with the latest events. Researchers assigned random participants to post more status updates than they did weekly. The researchers found that the participants experienced lower levels of loneliness and increased feelings of social connectedness.
Negative effects of social media on mental health
Social media seems to have an aspect that appeals to the pleasure-seeking side of the brain. This is demonstrated by the constant urge users experience to check their social media accounts for replies, new messages, or new posts.
IDC's study published on CNN's business site showed that 79 percent of smartphone users reach for their handsets within 15 minutes of waking up. The study further showed that 62 percent do not even wait for 15 minutes; rather, they grab their phones as soon as they wake up.
Just like addictive substances, social media's pleasure-giving ability seems to have the ability to alter the brain patterns of tech users by delivering instant gratification. Scientific studies show that over-reliance on social media has similar effects on the pleasure center of the brain as addictive substances as users tend to experience a "high" just like people engaging in other habit-forming activities.
A study conducted in 2019 by Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions showed a connection between social media and addiction-related criteria common in drug addicts and pathological gamblers. Some of these addiction characteristics include mental preoccupation, inability to focus, emotional shutdown, neglect of personal life, withdrawal symptoms, impaired risky decision-making, and trying to conceal or denying the habit.
Mental conditions arising from low physical inactivity
People who use social media often demonstrate reduced physical activity. Physical inactivity is closely linked to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
According to a study published in the Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, technological advancements have reduced physical activity as people no longer need to walk down several blocks to meet friends, go to stores to pick their favorite brand of detergent or walk to work. This sedentary lifestyle predisposes people to chronic conditions and mental disorders, including depression, low moods, and anxiety.
Sometimes people spend several hours on different social media platforms and may start losing valuable sleep. Studies show that most people are not getting adequate and quality sleep due to many factors, including poor sleep habits and pressure associated with modern life. These might explain the rise in mental health disorders.
Chronic insomnia is known to cause moodiness, overeating, lowers productivity. Inadequate shuteye time can aggravate existing problems such as ADD, depression, and anxiety.
In a 2017 study published on US National Library of Medicine, social media was positively identified as a cause of disturbed sleep young adults. The study found that participants who checked their social media accounts in the 30 minutes before sleep experienced disturbed sleep, unlike those who did not.
Triggers feelings of envy and jealousy
Envy and jealousy are considered normal emotions; however, they may wreak havoc on your brain and cause unhappiness. Most people on social media will only post the positive things and experiences that they are going through or will use funny anecdotes to make bad experiences appear lighter. When people compare their lives with others and start feeling sorry for themselves, they may end up with depressed, angry, lonely, and frustrated. A study carried out by the University of Copenhagen discovered that many people today are suffering from "Facebook envy". This is a painful feeling people get when they see their friends on social media seemingly doing better compared to how their lives. Nothing describes the ancient saying "the grass is always greener on the other side" better than Facebook envy. Surprisingly, the study discovered that people who refrained from using social platform felt more satisfied with their current lives.
Ultimately, does social media affect mental health? Yes, it can affect your life positively and negatively. It all depends on how you use it. However, for the sake of your general well-being, you should control the urge of getting on social platforms whenever it is not necessary. In other other words, use it in moderation to harness its positive power.