Social media has altered how almost everyone communicates with their family, friends, and community. While some of these changes have been positive, such as keeping us connected, many of these changes have had negative impacts on our collective mental health.
We will discuss three critical ways social media negatively impacts mental health and some tips for staying mentally healthy in a world dominated by digitized communication.
Social Media Hacks Your Dopamine
Do you ever catch yourself mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook? Have you ever snapped out of a daze, not realizing you just spent several minutes (or hours) consuming content without realizing it? This may seem like an innocent enough boredom killer, but it’s a bit darker than that. Without realizing it, many of us are being socially engineered by companies who profit from your attention (and data).
Creators and businesses can manipulate the social media algorithm using various tactics, and one particularly insidious form of addictive social media is called “rage bait,” which is intentionally inflammatory and emotionally charged content intended to get you angry or upset enough to comment or repost. The angrier you are, the more likely you are to engage in the content, which amplifies it and spreads it even further.
Content creators use this “rage bait” marketing strategy to increase their following, which is shockingly effective. But just because it is effective doesn’t mean it is a healthy or productive use of your time. Engaging in negative, emotionally charged content, arguments, and discourse online is a massive drain on people’s mental health and ability to empathize with others.
Social Media Locks You In Toxic Echo Chambers
As mentioned, social media applications are invested in keeping their users on the platforms (to sell ads and mine data). To do this, they use potent algorithms that show you things they think you’ll be interested in, but not necessarily things that are good for you (or anyone).
Keeping you engaged often means that social media apps are blasting you with content you interact with, even if that content is increasingly toxic, politically polarizing, or emotionally charged. This is why people often become significantly more extremist in their beliefs after too much time on social media. The algorithms amplify and exacerbate a person’s views until they’re funhouse mirror distortions of reality and completely lack nuance or critical thought.
How does this affect mental health? It’s unhealthy to be completely locked into one ideological mindset with no opposing viewpoints. This results in people whose worldview is entirely skewed and their capacity for understanding other ways of thinking is diminished. This can increase feelings of isolation and even cause strain on families and real-life relationships.
Social Media Gives You Unrealistic Expectations
Social media is not reflective of real life. Between filtered pictures and heavily curated “reality,” what you see online often exaggerates the truth. Very few people intentionally paint themselves in a bad, or even moderate, light on social media. Whether this is because of fear of criticism, ego, or many other reasons, the reality is that what you see on social media is usually only a tiny part of what happens behind the scenes in someone’s life.
However, as connections go increasingly digital with the creation and proliferation of online spaces, communities, and relationships, this distortion between social media presence and real-life reality only becomes more unhealthy to consume in large doses. And it’s safe to say that most of us are experiencing social media and way too large of doses, as studies estimate that the average user spends almost 7 hours per day on the internet.
How To Develop Healthy Boundaries With Social Media
- Be picky about which social media you have and use. Remember the iconic quote, “If you’re not paying to use social media, then you’re the product.” Many social media companies are invested in you staying on their application as long as possible to collect data from you and billions of others to sell it to the highest bidder. Recapturing your time and attention is not only good for your mental health, but it can also be good for your privacy, security, and peace of mind.
- Intentionally curate your feed. Do you constantly compare yourself to those you scroll past on social media? Practicing intentionality about your social feed is integral to practicing good online mental hygiene. Unfollow and unsubscribe from people, creators, and businesses that intentionally (or unintentionally) make you feel negative about yourself or life in general.
- Consume with a critical eye. Not everything on social media should be taken at face value. Misinformation and the dissemination of inaccurate content are at an all-time high. Before you engage with social media content, or even believe something that you read online, ask yourself:
- What’s the source?
- How does the company/individual profit from posting this?
- Who benefits from my time when I engage with this post?
- Is there a clear bias or attempt at emotional manipulation at play here?
- Get offline. As more and more communication becomes digital, it can give us an entirely skewed perception of reality. We can think the world is darker, more polarized, and scarier than it is. Logging off, deleting apps, getting outside, and interacting with real people is one of the best things anyone can do for their mental health.
Many social media outlets are engineered to be addictive and mentally draining, but they don’t have to be. Practicing good boundaries with your digital communication, curating your online spaces, and focusing on positive and uplifting relationships and activities in the real world will help keep you thriving.
If you struggle to maintain balance with your online media consumption, you may be suffering from problematic social media use (sometimes called “social media addiction”). If you’d like further support or resources, reach out to a mental health counselor today to discuss recapturing your life from social media.
About the Author
Scott H. Silverman is a high-profile expert on addiction and recovery, making frequent public and media appearances for the last 40 years. He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic, and the Founder and CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego substance abuse treatment center that specializes in helping Veterans and First Responders get and stay sober.