Time To Go Off The Grid? These Are The Ways Social Media Negatively Affects Our Mental Health

Is social media doing a number on your mental health? Here are some ways you can cope.

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September 28, 2017
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Jaimie Seaton is looking forward to the day when she can cut ties with social media. Because she’s a freelance journalist, social platforms are the New Englander’s lifeblood. They’re places where she finds work and makes crucial connections.

But they’re also slowly eroding Seaton’s mental health.

“When I was in Thailand [on vacation], I didn’t look at Twitter for two weeks and noticed a marked change in my mood,” Seaton says. “I was calmer, less anxious. I was more in the moment. If I were not a writer trying to get an agent, I would delete Twitter and never look again.”

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Seaton is far from alone; 8 in 10 Americans are now on some form of social media, according to figures from Pew Research Center, and some 35 percent of job seekers have used social media to help in their job search.

With social media dominating our everyday lives, it’s no wonder scientists are turning their eyes on the sites that keep Americans fixated every day. The bad news? They’re with Seaton: If you’re not careful, social media can do a number on your mental health.

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How can you keep your head above water? Here’s a look at how to juggle social media and your mental health.

Nothing compares to you.

When Dr. Brian Feinstein and his then-colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook did a deep dive into the effects social networking could have on how people feel about themselves, the experts found something particularly troubling.

I get really, really triggered, feeling like everyone has it better than me, has done better than me, is better than me

Social media friends can provide connections. Then again, the researchers found, they can set us up to feel pretty awful about ourselves.

You know the friend who’s always posting photos of his fabulous vacations to far-flung places or sharing funny anecdotes about her picture-perfect spouse? If you shut down your laptop and you’re still thinking about that beach house that you’ll never be able to afford, it could be a sign of trouble ahead.

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“Some people who compare themselves to others on social media sites struggle to ‘let go’ of these comparisons and, instead of actively coping with their emotions or the problem at hand, they continue to focus on how they compare to others,” Feinstein says.

Sybil Sanchez admits she’s one of those ruminators. A marketing manager who uses social media regularly for her job, Sanchez says she can find it hard to walk away from her personal feed, but too much time online will pull her down into a depression.

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I get really, really triggered, feeling like everyone has it better than me, has done better than me, is better than me,” Sanchez says.

While it may seem like other people are always doing fun and exciting things, it is likely that they are just choosing to share these experiences rather than the more mundane or negative ones.

Clearly she’s not alone. Then again, a handful of studies and surveys indicate that most of our friends’ droolworthy posts and pictures are carefully constructed fakes anyway.

A LearnVest survey, for example, uncovered the fact that at least a third of guys are posting fake vacation shots to Instagram to make it seem like they were staying or eating at someplace a whole lot fancier than their real getaway. Another survey by British marketing firm Custard found that just 18 percent of people think their profiles are an accurate portrayal of their lives…the rest “dress things up a bit” to sound better.

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If you’re stuck on social, Feinstein says to keep all that fakery in mind.

“What others share on social media sites are just snapshots of their lives, and these snapshots tend to focus on their positive experiences and successes,” he says. “While it may seem like other people are always doing fun and exciting things, it is likely that they are just choosing to share these experiences rather than the more mundane or negative ones.”

So take everything with a grain of salt. And if you’re feeling jealous of that beach vacation, remember you’re just seeing the happy moments, not the time their toddler smacked them upside the head with a shovel.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The more time Jody Allard spends on social media, the more she feels depressed.

“I’ve noticed that social media use leaves me depressed, even if I’m not reading anything upsetting, so I try to be very mindful of that impact,” Allard says.

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When Allard, who’s the editor of a Seattle parenting magazine, feels the connection dragging her down, she takes a self-mandated break from social, cutting the amount of time she spends on any one platform. That’s a wise move, according to the scientists who study social media.

Being aware of how social media affects you is important, and so is how much you use it, says Dr. Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at University of Pittsburgh. Primack and a team of researchers looked at social media and isolation and found that the more you used, the more social isolation you felt. Specifically, using social media for more than two hours a day put study subjects at twice the risk of perceived social isolation than that of subjects who spent less than half an hour on the platforms every day.

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“People who were in the top quarter for frequency checking social media—compared with those in the lowest quarter—were about three times as likely to have perceived social isolation,” Primack says.

Primack is the first to say social media is a valuable tool, and he doesn’t advocate cutting all ties. Instead, he suggests his team’s work can be seen as a “cautionary tale” that reminds people to do what Allard does: Monitor their time on social media and the way it makes them feel. If you’re noticing ill effects, cut back!

Can’t Live With You, Can’t Live Without You

Sometimes the social networking problem isn’t what’s going on when you are online. It’s what’s going on when you’re not.

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Ever lost your phone or been unable to access your data plan—even for just a few hours—and gone into full blown panic? Then you’ve probably experienced FOMO, a term psychologists coined to describe the apprehension some people feel when they’re disconnected from social media and missing out on what their friends are up to.

Short for “fear of missing out,” FOMO has become so prevalent that it has even been added to the dictionary. But don’t let the cute nickname fool you: Doctors say FOMO is directly linked to mood issues and lower overall life satisfaction.

FOMO is a tricky beast, because even as the experts tell us we should spend more time away from our social networks, the time offline can be what fuels our anxiety.

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Primack sees this often with people who feel socially isolated already, people who turn to social sites to increase their social circles.

“This ‘self-medication’ doesn’t seem to be working so well,” he says. “On the other hand, it may be that people who use a lot of social media don’t have as much time for more fulfilling direct social experiences. It may also be that people who use social media a lot tend to feel like everyone else is strongly connected to each other. Then, in comparison, they might feel that they themselves are more socially isolated.”

The experts haven’t settled on one easy trick for kicking FOMO, although Feinstein points back to being aware that most of your friends are cultivating an online profile that may sound a whole lot better than the real thing.

His advice? Get out and do some of the activities that your friends post about. It’ll help take your mind off your social network and kick those comparisons you might feel when you’re online.

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Alaina Leary, a social media manager from Boston, offers this trick too: If you’ve got to be on social media, forget connections with the people who make you feel better. Leary has Ehlers–Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, so she’s joined disability-specific communities where she has the freedom she doesn’t always have with non-disabled friends.

“I follow a lot of people who inspire me to be better, to practice self-love, to be radically vulnerable and radically myself. And I like and need that positivity in my life!” Leary says.

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Leary’s idea is similar to the advice Feinstein offers for people who are struggling to find a balance between the benefits of social and a healthy mental space.

“It may be helpful to use social media for specific purposes (e.g., to share an interesting article, to send a message to a friend), while minimizing the amount of time spent reading what other people are doing,” he offers.

In other words? Even the experts know social media is here to stay, and it has its benefits. But like most things, it’s best used in moderation.

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