Social Media and your Mental Health

Posted by Top Livin on

Article By: Luke Foster, Psychologist 

Firstly, I want to preface this article with the fact that I’m a psychologist, not a social media or media expert by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, outside of LinkedIn, which is of course a social media platform, I rarely use social media and I infrequently read a newspaper, magazine or watch the news.

The times I do use social media, it’s to help raise mental health awareness and break the stigma surrounding mental health via LIVIN’s social media channels. That said, I’ve spent hours researching the effects that social media and media in general can have on your mental health and have formulated an informed, hopefully balanced opinion on the topic which I will dispense to you now.

Let’s explore both sides of the coin and then look at some tips and tricks that you can practice everyday. . . 

Recent research suggests that the more time you spend on Facebook, the more depressed you become. One could speculate that this is likely the case for time spent on other forms of social media, such as Instagram. This seems to have something to do with the fact that these are platforms where people display an advertisement of their life and this advertising is almost always skewed towards positivity. For example, “Here I am in Hawaii with my beautiful family having the time of my life”; “Look at my HOT body after an 8-week fitness challenge” [author fails to note that the photo has taken advantage of easy to use photo-editing technology]. Invariably leading many to exaggerate – posting promiscuous pictures they wouldn’t ordinarily post, posting comments that they more than likely wouldn’t say to someone’s face in desperation to stand out.

We typically don’t broadcast the shitty things that MANY of us experience OFTEN in life - life’s a bitch at times. We don't see the pictures of people waking up with a cold sore not wanting to get out of bed on one of their down days, and WE ALL experience these down days from time to time. 

What then can begin to happen, we start to compare our own lives with those positively advertised lives displayed on social media and invariably come up short - ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ - we start to feel unhappy about our own lives, our self-esteem can take a hit, in some instances it can trigger significant body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, you name it!

There is a great lyric in a song by Baz Luhrmann titled “Wear Sunscreen” (adapted from an essay written by Mary Schmich), where he says, “Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel UGLY”. This same advice might be appropriate for those of you who spend a hell of a lot of time on social media and a hell of a lot of time reading/ watching other forms of media. This all depends on who you are following and what you are reading/ watching of course.

For those of you reading this article above the age of say, 30 (a rough number I randomly plucked), think back to some of the stupid things you did as a teenager. If you had to write a book of all of those stupid things you did, it’d likely be as thick as a George R. R. Martin Novel, plus some. This book would be even worse if there were photographs accompanying it – let’s all collectively cringe at some of the stupid shit we’ve done in our lives. The advantage that many of us had growing up that young people don’t necessarily have today is that when our day of stupidity was over, we could all go home and for the most part forget about it, it certainly wasn’t on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. There weren't 50 of our “friends” commenting about what ridiculous thing we did at a party or other social event. Young people now are just followed by the ‘paparazzi’ constantly. 

For many, they’re their own paparazzi. This can be anxiety provoking, depressing, shameful for far too many people. Be careful with what you post on social media. What others post about you is unfortunately much more difficult to control, but in the same breath can be bloody miserable. The more concerning thing, we really have no idea about what the medium and long-term consequences of these platforms are going to be, and we’ll probably never find out because the communication landscape changes so rapidly that by the time you get adapted to one platform, another one has come along that’s even more complex and confusing to have master. Dealing with this fast-paced technological transformation in many ways is scary! Imagine what’s to come. It could be great; it could be terrifying.

If you want a daily dose of hate, there’s no doubt you can get this within minutes on social media. And, as humans, we are much more sensitive to negative information than we are to positive information – this is an evolutionary thing which has stuck with us – negative shit in the cave man days used to kill us. Going back to that song I mentioned before, Baz Luhrmann also says that you should try to “Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how”.

How much time do you spend reflecting on the positive comments you receive on social media compared to the negative ones?

Something to ponder as you consider your own social media use and the benefits of social media in your life.

Let’s now touch on the mainstream news and some of the strange things that watching the news frequently can do to our brains. You may come to believe that the events depicted on the news (e.g. terrorists attacks, child abductions, murders, shark attacks) are more common than they actually are. You might even think that such things are likely threats in your own life. You are particularly protective of yourself and the people in your life who you care about (again, this is an evolutionary thing, think caveman days and sabre toothed tigers) and not instinctively likely to put the awful events portrayed on the news, and let’s face it, most of the stuff on the news is pretty bloody awful these days, into the context of the law of averages or the law of numbers. In other words, you may start to believe, in an irrational manner that the awful events are very likely threats in your own life – “that could have been me”.

The image of a grieving parent with a missing child is much more likely to gain our attention than the fact that millions upon millions of children played joyfully and safely that very same day. Watching too much news can mess with our heads, so please be careful how much news you are watching and how it is impacting your judgement about awful situations actually happening to you; they are almost certainly less likely to occur than you may start to think or are already thinking. 

ENOUGH DOOM AND GLOOM ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE BROADER MEDIA? I think so, so before all of you social media connoisseurs out there begin to hate me, let’s now talk about some of the pros/ benefits of social media.   

  • Individual and community communication and connection: Social media plays a great role in helping people to maintain social and community relations – to connect, communicate and collaborate. It allows for collaboration and dissemination of information to a wide audience; and to maintain and foster relationships. Social media together with the expanding use of mobile devices, has enabled people to communicate with one another ‘anytime, anywhere’ and to express opinions in an innovatively fast way. We always talk about the importance of social support at Team LIVIN and its importance in recent times, during the ‘pandemic’ can’t be understated. It is estimated that approximately 25-35 percent of the general community has experienced, and will continue to experience heightened levels of anxiety, panic, depression, anger, confusion, uncertainty, and financial stress as a consequence of disease outbreak/ COVID-19 and social media has been pivotal in helping people to maintain social connections. Following on from this, social media is a very powerful communication tool to deploy information in times of emergency where other means of communication are simply less efficient. Social media has allowed millions of Australians to keep in touch with family, friends, work colleagues on a daily basis to either be informed or to inform others about current affairs and other issues – this is powerful and can obviously be highly beneficial. In case you didn’t hear me the first time, social media has allowed many people to build and maintain social connection and social support – two of the greatest predictors of human resilience and factors so important for maintaining good mental health.
  • Business: Social media platforms can help businesses to share information, knowledge and ideas promptly, and send motivational messages. LIVIN is a prime example of an organisation using social media to do these very things with reported good effect. It also allows businesses to learn new things and helps to connect so many people all over the world. At LIVIN, we have been able to connect with people from New Zealand, America and South Korea for example – helping us to break the stigma of mental health not only in Australia but in places we never thought possible. In a purely business sense, social media allows businesses to widen market share, improve customer service, promote company brand and build rapport and mutually beneficial relationships across Australia and the globe.
  • Education: Social media permits educational discussions and knowledge sharing. They are platforms which help to send information across the board – at LIVIN we truly embrace this aspect of social media and try our hardest to use many different platforms to educate the masses on issues related to mental health, mental ill-health and as a means to break the stigma surrounding mental health. It also allows users to share learning resources and engage in collaborative learning (a prime example of this is LIVIN’s special partnership with SANE Australia). It allows for the sharing of ideas and for people and communities to ask and answer questions. 
  • Entertainment: Let’s face it, social media can be bloody entertaining and brings a lot of joy and laughter to the lives of millions of people each and every day. It can also be highly educational, as we’ve touched on above depending on the organisations and people you follow. Also, there’s no point denying that it’s nice to be liked, or in the case of Facebook and Instagram, to get likes. These things actually do release feel-good chemicals in the brain, but read below about some of the cautions associated with relying on this too much to feel good about yourself. 

So, what’s the verdict? The incentive for social media use include gaining a sense of connection and community, reaching out to family, friends, work colleagues and society, seeking support, education, entertainment and helping businesses to thrive, but when abused, or when used to the extent that it starts causing you more harm than good, the incentive becomes problematic.

Try to develop a deeper understanding of why you use social media, similarly why you’re viewing mainstream media, and if it ever starts to bring you down, step away from the screen and start doing something more productive or something that makes you feel better about yourself. This can be different for everyone, but if you look at our article on self-care you might gain some inspiration.

Lengthy article I know, and a seriously complex topic with a myriad of pros and cons that could be debated until the cows come home (moo), but let’s conclude with some short sharp tips on how you can moderate your social media use to stop you feeling…shit, if that is in fact what is happening to you from time-to-time.

  1. Place less importance on getting likes online. There are a tonne of reasons why you might not be receiving triple digit likes on your latest body shot photo, but if you’ve started to associate likes with being liked as a human being (the real you), then it can start to cause problems in your life.
  2. If you are ever on social media or watching the news and you start to feel shit about your own life, step away from the screen and do something that does make you feel good about your own life. Again, here are some ideas on our article on self-care 
  3. Set times where you will check social media, say, early morning and early evening for an hour at a time. This will be a hard habit to instill, but if practiced regularly you can succeed, and I have no doubt you will feel better for it. This mightn’t be possible for everyone, perhaps business owners needing to respond to customer complaints as an example, but possible for many of you.
  4. Dedicate time to a screen-free hobby. Whilst doing this hobby, that thing you enjoy, put your phone on Do Not Disturb Mode or switch it off completely.
  5. Do not access your phone at dinner time or when catching up with friends over a coffee. Be present and embrace your family and friends for who they are – important people in your life who no doubt want and deserve your full attention. Give your phone to a friend or family member if the itch to check your notifications is that strong.
  6. Leave your phone outside the bedroom when you decide to go to bed. Sharing your bed with your partner, cat, or little pug (not that I’m a dog in bed kinda guy) might be lovely, but sharing your bed with a bright, shiny screen is guaranteed to interrupt your sleep. 

“Everything in moderation. Except awesome. You can never have too much awesome.” (Unknown Author).

Not everything on social media or on the news is awesome, so we advise you to proceed with caution.

If you are struggling and need support, check out our Get Help for resources and organisations that can help.