Social media has become a huge part of our lives despite the many concerns around its impact on mental health. Recently, Norway passed a law that obligated influencers to label retouched photographs online. While Great Britain has banned the use of retouched images for online promotion altogether. And a year prior, Instagram suppressed likes on the platform to decrease a hurtful influence on users.
But how exactly does social media affect the lives of young adults? Are the negatives worse than the positive aspects of such platforms? And how can one be more cautious of its use? This article will attempt to answer these questions.
What Do Researchers Say?
As a student, one might think that there is nothing wrong with a little bit of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok. “I’m just having fun with friends, looking for someone to write my papers for me, and expressing myself via posting!” It is a valid point.
Social media have a lot of positive things to give:
- Instant connection to people all over the world, like loved ones and friends;
- Opportunity to find new friends or communities that share same interests;
- Educational resources and advice;
- Getting emotional support at times of need;
- Ability to spread awareness or share important causes;
- And, of course, self-expression.
Overall, humans are social creatures and connections help us reduce stress, anxiety, and ease depression. The lack of such connection can be detrimental to one’s well-being.
Yet, the internet is not a replacement for real-life connections. And spending too much time there can be very harmful to one’s well-being. Here are some stats to consider.
- According to GlobalWebIndex report (2018), users in the age group of 16-24 spend about 3 hours and 1 minute per day on social media;
- JAMA Psychiatry published research that shows that people that use SM more than 3 hours a day are at a higher risk of mental health problems;
- 20% of people revealed that they need to check their accounts at least every 3 hours to not feel anxiety. And this is now recognized as a social media anxiety disorder by ADAA.
- American Academy of Pediatrics also recognized such a condition as “Facebook depression”.
- Jean Twenge’s study (San Diego State University) showed that students who use electronic devices often are less satisfied with their lives in comparison to students that prefer real-life interactions.
- The same study shows that students that spend 5+ hours a day online are 71% likely to have one of the suicide risk factors.
A lot of studies point out the connection between various mental health issues and increased use of SM.
Why Is It So Addictive?
Social media has a reinforcing nature and activates the reward system of the human brain.
These platforms release dopamine in the same way as other enjoyable things like food, social interaction, and sex do. That’s why it is so easy to get addicted to social media – it is an easy and quick way to get some dopamine.
Another contributing factor is unpredictability. One never knows how many likes a picture will get nor will the TikTok video go viral this time. People use SM because of the idea of a potentially huge reward.
All of that electronic engagement leads to self-esteem and a sense of community or belonging. It is a dangerous connection as when one doesn’t receive desired engagement, they might link it to their self-esteem and worth.
People get used to constant gratification and validation that is so easy to see with all those metrics like followers count.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) is another huge reason people use social media so often. What if I miss an important update or party invitation? What if my friend will suffer from my lack of online attention?
All of that can lead to an unhealthy cycle of using social media:
- One opens SM when feeling lonely, stressed, anxious, or depressed.
- The increased usage of SM leads to FOMO and the necessity to constantly check their feed. A person might feel isolated without their phone or internet connection.
- These symptoms lead to more stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
- Because of that, a person turns to an easy fix to that – SM. And the cycle continues.
What Are the Effects on Students’ Mental Health?
It is important to mention that SM is not inherently detrimental. It is a tool that can be used both for good and for bad.
The negative impact depends on the time one spends online and the longevity of SM presence. The earlier in life one starts to use social media, the worse the impact on their mental health might be.
The heavy social media use is linked to:
- Suicidal thoughts;
It is also connected to decreased academic performance due to mental health problems. It can be quite damaging for students in many ways. But these are not the only issues one might face when using SM too much. Other consequences are:
- Dissatisfaction with one’s life and appearance up to body dysmorphia.
Even if we know that SM isn’t real and people highlight only the best parts of their lives, we still compare our lives to others. Pictures are usually highly retouched and everyone appears to have a perfect face and perfect body. And the idea of what beauty looks like can change to unrealistic standards.
Although it has existed before, SM makes it even worse. The feeling of everyone having a better life and more fun can be very painful. It feels like you are missing out on vacation, dates, perfect spots in the city, new restaurants, etc.
Despite the primary goal to connect with others, the use of social media only increases isolation and loneliness.
The necessity to always take pictures rather than living the moment and being too self-aware of one’s appearance.
What Can You Do?
Knowing that social media can be harmful won’t stop people from using it. So it is important to take some proactive measures to take care of one’s mental state. Social media can be harmful if you:
- Spend more time online than in real-life interactions;
- Compare yourself to others constantly;
- Get distracted from studies or work;
- Feel anxious if you don’t constantly check your phone;
- Have problems with sleep;
- Engage in risky behaviors to get more likes or shares;
- Feel that your anxiety or depression are getting worse.
There are several things one can do to make their use of social media healthier, for instance:
- Decrease the time spent online. It is better to spend about 30 minutes per day. If it is not realistic, use tracking apps to see how long exactly you use social media.
- Turn off the phone or alerts at specific times. In class, while at work, when studying, before sleep.
- Do not go to sleep with your phone. Scrolling in bed can significantly harm sleeping.
- Limit the number of times you check your social media.
- Be aware of your feelings.
Check how you feel after using specific apps. Find out triggers and how you can limit them.
Although social media can be useful in many ways, heavy use can lead to many mental health issues. From FOMO and anxiety up to depression and suicidal thoughts. It is important to be aware of your SM use and how it affects you. Try to limit time online and have a place for mindfulness and self-reflection.