Health experts have pronounced sitting as one of the worst things we can do for our health. Just as concerning is the thing many of us mindlessly do while we’re sitting: checking social media apps when we have a few minutes (or a few hours). And as we probably know intuitively and research is now confirming, it’s not the best habit for our brain health and our overall well-being.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about the negative effects of social media in young kids and teens, including cyber-bullying, “Facebook depression” and Facebook envy. But the same risks may be true for adults. Here’s a quick overview of studies that reveal the negative health consequences of social media and what you can do to better manage it in your home.
According to a 2018 report published by Blue Cross Blue Shield, depression and anxiety diagnoses among adolescents aged 12 to 17 have increased 63% since 2013. While social media cannot be blamed entirely for this increase, certain factors related to social media use, such as social connection and isolation, increased use of electronics, and impaired sleep are all risk factors that can lead to depression and anxiety.
Several recent studies indicate that the more we use social media, the less happy we seem to be. Heavy social media use (more than three hours per day) for all age groups is related to diminished life satisfaction, internalizing negative experiences, and increased rates of depression, anxiety, attention disorders, and stress. Studies of Facebook users and those who use other social media platforms such as YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat and Reddit, have shown a direct link between use of social media and reduced levels of happiness and contentment. The authors suggest this may have to do with the fact that social media conjures up a perception of social isolation. The more time people spend on these apps, the more socially isolated they perceive themselves to be. And perceived social isolation is one of the worst things for us mentally and physically.
UNHEALTHY LIFE COMPARISONS
Part of the reason social media makes people feel socially isolated (whether they actually are or not) is the comparison factor. We fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others as we scroll through our feeds and make rash judgments about how we measure up. One study looked at how we make comparisons to others’ posts, in superior or inferior directions—that is, feeling that we’re either better or worse than someone else. It turns out both types of comparisons make people feel worse. This is surprising, since in real life, only inferior comparisons (feeling another person has it better than you) make us feel bad. But in the social media world, it seems that any kind of comparison is linked to depressive symptoms.
JEALOUSY & DISCONTENT FROM SOCIAL MEDIA
It’s no secret that it’s a short path from comparison to jealousy. Studies have shown that social media use can trigger feelings of jealousy. The authors of one study examining jealousy and other negative feelings while using Facebook wrote that, “The magnitude of envy incidents taking place on FB alone is astounding, providing evidence that FB offers a breeding ground for invidious feelings.” Researchers add that it can become a vicious cycle: feeling jealous and inferior can make a person want to make his own life look better, increasing the desire to post jealousy-inducing posts, continuing in an endless cycle of feeling inferior and jealous but never reaching a point of satisfaction. Basing self-worth or happiness on the actions of others increases feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, both of which are precursors to depression.
AMERICA’S FAVORITE PASTIME?
Social media has become America’s favorite pastime. We keep coming back to it even though it doesn’t make us feel very good. We feel a compulsion to know what’s happening at all times, and we convince ourselves we’re staying connected with our family and friends. We have opinions that are important to share. Almost like a drug, we think getting a fix will help, but it actually makes us feel worse. One study looked at how people predicted they would feel after using Facebook and how they actually felt. Like other studies have demonstrated, the majority of study participants felt worse after using Facebook compared to people engaging in other activities. People generally believed they would feel better after using it, not worse. This pattern of feelings is similar to those of addiction.
IT DOESN’T PROVIDE A BETTER SOCIAL LIFE
A few years ago, a study found that more friends on social media doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better social life. There is a “cognitive constraint”: our brains really can’t process hundreds of close friendships. Anything above ten or so is just an acquaintance, if that. It takes actual social interaction (think face-to-face, not virtual) to keep up friendships. Feeling like you’re being social by being on Facebook doesn’t really count in terms of neurobiology.
Girls seem particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. In a recent study published in the Lancet, girls who spent 3-5 hours a day on social media showed higher rates of depressive symptoms. For both girls and boys, more time spent on social media was associated with poor sleep, poor body image, and poorer mental health. Researchers state social media reinforces unrealistic beauty standards and provides an endless array of images to which girls, in particular, compare themselves.
What’s most disconcerting is the youth of today have done most of their social and emotional development on the Internet, social media, and through texting. This is the new normal. They have not engaged in the same amount of real human engagement and socialization that previous generations have. Add this deficit of genuine human interaction to the lack of capacity for self-regulation (these skills don’t develop until later), and you have the recipe for disaster.
STEPS TO BETTER BALANCE YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA HABITS
- USE AN OLD-FASHIONED ALARM CLOCK
Instead of using your phone to wake up in the morning, switch to a simple alarm clock to avoid being pulled into social media as soon as you wake up.
- SCHEDULE FREE TIME
Set social media-free time slots during your day to give your mind a break.
- GET FACE-TO-FACE
Dedicate time to have face-to-face interactions and conversations with your friends. Make a standing date with your closest friends every couple of weeks.
- CALL INSTEAD
Can’t visit face-to-face? Call your friends. Research shows people seem to feel best when their relationships happen face-to-face or over the phone as opposed to just through social media
- SHUT DOWN BEFORE BED
Set a household rule of shutting down devices an hour before bedtime. Better yet, avoid bringing your device into the bedroom at all. Social media and the light from devices stimulate the brain and make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- PRACTICE SELF AWARENESS
Take note of how you feel before and after using social media and adjust what you spend your time doing.
It’s important to define what healthy, human social connection actually is. All humans need social connection. Infants thrive through physical touch and connection and actually fail to thrive without it. At the other end of the life cycle, close relationships and daily face-to-face interactions are just as important as diet and exercise when it comes to living a long, healthy life. So, it’s no surprise that adolescents need regular human connection to develop both social relationships and lasting, intimate bonds with family, friends, and peers. These connections lead to better interpersonal awareness which enable adolescents to understand the needs of others and respond to nonverbal communication (facial expressions, posture, eye contact, etc.), which makes up the bulk of human communication. Liking a post, commenting “cute,” or keeping up with a “Snapchat streak” don’t qualify as genuine social connection. Virtual friend time doesn’t offer the therapeutic effect real friends do.
Yet, many teens and adults substitute real life interactions with social media posts, and we’re all paying the price.
All of this is not to say that there’s no benefit to social media. Obviously, it keeps us connected across great distances and helps us find people we’d lost touch with years ago. But getting on social media when you have time to kill, or, worse, when you need an emotional lift, is very likely a bad idea. Studies have found that taking a break from Facebook helps boost psychological well-being. If you’re feeling brave, try taking a little break, and see how it goes. And if you’re going to keep “using,” then at least try to use it in moderation.
It’s not just your subconscious brain that you need to worry about, but also the extent to which your brain is able to fully concentrate when you’re awake.
While it’s incredible to consider the amount of information readily available at our fingertips thanks to social media, it also means that people have become far more easily distracted. Social media has provided a means of constantly giving into the temptation of instant, easy-access entertainment.
TEENS ARE PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE
According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens use a smartphone, and 45% say they are online almost constantly. About 70% of teens are on Snapchat and Instagram, while 85% are on Youtube.
One would think all this near constant “socializing” would make teens feel more connected than ever before, but research is showing the opposite is true. “Interaction on social media is not beneficial. It’s electronic,” explains Jacob Barkley, professor of health sciences at Kent State University, who has been studying smartphone use and students since 2013. “The higher the cellphone use, the more time spent on social media, and the higher the anxiety. Peer relationships actually get worse the more you use your phone.”
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, reached similar conclusions in 2017. In her study, Twenge discovered that students who spend more time using smartphones and other electronic devices are less satisfied with their lives than students who frequently engage in face-to-face interaction.
5 WAYS FOR TEENS TO FOSTER THEIR WELL-BEING
- TAKE TIME TO CONNECT
Make an effort to build new relationships and actively maintain your connection with your friends and family outside social media.
- BE PHYSICALLY ACTIVE
Exercise regularly so that you can ward off anxiety and depression. It is necessary for teenagers to make time for consistent physical activity to relieve stress.
- BE MINDFUL
Be aware of your thoughts and feelings, and try to recognize things you are grateful for each day. Research has shown that this practice can significantly enhance one’s mental health and well-being.
- KEEP LEARNING NEW & CREATIVE SKILLS
Continued development of creative skills enhances self-esteem and encourages social interaction.
- GIVE YOUR TIME
Giving your time and energy will enhance your sense of purpose and help you develop empathy.
“We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online,” Twenge wrote in 2017.