Written by: Kirstin Schafer, Psy.D., Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.
Almost all experts agree that spending time on social media impacts our mental health. Many studies have found links between social media use and mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. With the average American spending several hours on their phone each day, it is important to examine our own relationships with social media.
Researchers at Harvard University found that receiving a notification on social media causes the brain to release a chemical called dopamine, which makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat a certain behavior. Dopamine is the same chemical associated with food, exercise, and drugs. The release of dopamine that occurs when receiving a notification actually motivates us to spend even more time online, which can be risky for our mental health.
Social media sites allow us to scroll through seemingly endless photos of friends, family, models, lifestyle bloggers, and more. Constantly seeing photos of others often leads to self-comparison, which can negatively impact even those with a positive body image. Additionally, seeing photos of friends or family members having fun without us can make us feel lonely or disconnected, and trigger a Fear of Missing Out.
Furthermore, this is a difficult and contentious time both politically and socially. News can contain not only upsetting content, but also emotional and inflammatory language. Some people experience sadness, frustration, anger, and even fear after viewing such content.
Knowing the consequences of social media, it is important to be cognizant of how and when we engage. Our own perspectives filter our experiences of reality. On bad days, when we may be feeling lonely or discouraged, we are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of social media.
To be clear, it is not necessary to avoid social media altogether. In fact, engaging in our political and social spheres is vital for mental health. However, it is important to be selective of how and when we choose to engage, and ensure that we are not prioritizing virtual interaction over face-to-face interaction. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that individuals who limited their exposure to social media reported feeling less lonely and depressed than those with no social media limitations.
Like all relationships, fostering a healthy relationship with social media requires work and reflection. Consider how you spend your time online and decide if you need to make any changes. Social media can be a great way to connect with others and keep in touch, especially during the current pandemic. Just remember to be intentional, set healthy boundaries, and prioritize your well-being.