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Health & Wellness

Exploring the Connection Between Social Media and Mental Health

Growing up today is tough. In many ways, it's a lot tougher than growing up even a couple of decades ago. It used to be that young people would go to school, then come home from school and if they'd had a bad day or they were being bullied they could forget about it for a while. That is no longer the case.

Today, young people are constantly connected to each other, which means that bullying at school can turn into cyber bullying that is tougher for them to escape. Yes, they can put their phones down or step away from their computer, but if they need to communicate online to do their homework then they're going to see those messages eventually.

It's Tougher Than Ever to Switch Off

Adults face similar challenges. Social media creates a pressure to 'always be available', and it can form toxic environments. Social media encourages people to put their 'best foot forward' which can leave others questioning whether their lives are as 'good' as other people's. It can also create echo chambers, where people expose themselves only to those with views similar to their own, making it harder for them to empathize with more diverse views in real life.

FOMO and Social Media

One recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that people who spend large amounts of time in social media report 'fear of missing out', as well as anxiety, depression and loneliness. 1 Limiting social media use to no more than 30 minutes per day significantly reduced that feeling.

Social media use can leave people questioning their own lives and successes because all they see is a curated version of the lives of their friends. Some researchers even call the phenomenon 'Facebook Depression' because young adults who spend a lot of time online are bombarded with notifications of their friends 'having fun' and wonder why they aren't enjoying the same experiences. 2

Even those who are older can experience this to an extent, seeing a constant stream of ads, negative news and political content, and spending more time checking in on the happenings in the online world than actually enjoying their own lives.

young woman smiling at her phone The Positive Side of Social Media

Interestingly, the nature of a person's social media updates can evolve over time, and can sometimes give an idea of their mood and the state of their mental health. Researchers are investigating options for tracking people's mental health via analysis of their social media patterns. 3

There are many people who are also looking at the good side of social media and mental health. For example, social media could be used to provide peer-to-peer support. 4 This is particularly useful for younger demographics. For example, young people with cancer or with chronic health issues may find that social media helps them to understand and cope with their condition. 5

Escaping the Trap of Social Media

Social media doesn't have to be a bad thing, but the 'reward-based' nature of it with likes, streaks, and other counters and instant updates means that it can become a compelling tool. It is a huge time sink, and some people become addicted to it, checking in constantly throughout the day at work.

There are ways around this. There are tools such as Rescue Time that will track how long you spend in various applications or on particular websites on your PC. There are similar apps for your phone which will show you how much time you are spending using social media. If simply seeing how much time you are spending on a given platform is not enough, then there are ways to lock down the apps so that you are not able to access them at certain times of day.

The impact of social media on the overall health of young people is something that the government in the UK is concerned about, to the point that they commissioned a report that examined the benefits, as well as the risks, with a section devoted to mental health and wellbeing as a potential risk. 6 The ICO has proposed a ban on 'likes' and 'streaks' for young users of social media platforms, in a bid to reduce the addictive nature of the sites and apps. 7

ipad and focus monq When it comes to social media and mental health we have a lot to learn. Breaking the habit of flicking through Instagram during your commute, reading Reddit on your lunch break and answering every message that pops up is not going to be easy. You may get a helping hand using essential oils that can help like coffee, mint, bergamot and black pepper. Bergamot has been found to be a powerful mood booster 8 , 9

Long-term, however, the only way to break free from social media is to change your habits. Social media is important for networking, but you can choose your platforms carefully. Limiting what you consume and when, and setting expectations for when you will reply to messages is essential if you are going to take control of your life.

How You Use Tools Matters

A lot of good can come from social media. It can help you to stay in touch with distant relatives and old friends. It can help you to stay up to date with the latest happenings in various social circles, and many community groups use social media platforms as their central hubs.

Follow friends and family, and your social media experience can be a positive one. Follow brands and strangers, or join too many groups devoted to 'movements', and you can find that your social media experience becomes a more fraught one. Keeping your network small and focusing on quality real-life interactions instead will help you to enjoy life a lot more and will give you a more balanced outlook which can only help your mental health.

Photo credits: AntonioGuillem/, VasinLee/

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