Social media is still a relatively new addition to our daily lives, so the disadvantages and advantages concerning mental health are still being discovered. As with nutrition, there are also healthy and junk uses of tech. This is especially true of social media use. Determining if something is junk, toxic, or healthy depends on HOW you use social platforms. The trick is knowing when healthy online support becomes compulsive oversharing, when keeping informed becomes an obsession, and when the helpful algorithm becomes extremism.
Here are some of the benefits and risks of social media use and how you can recognize when things become risky.
A study done by PEW found that more than 80% of teenagers felt that social media gave them a feeling of connection, introduced them to a more diverse network of people, and helped to provide a feeling of support in difficult times. It’s true that social media can help us to socially connect and release those healthy hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin. The trick to determining if your social connections are providing your body with healthy hormones or harmful chemicals is looking at who is in your social network.
When your followers and the members of your online community are people you know, the connection can help you to feel supported. For example, are the people liking your Instagram photos people you know, or is your account public so that you can collect as many likes as possible? If you’re “like counting,” your relationship with social media is likely not positive and is fueled by a dopamine addiction similar to sugar, or junk food, addiction.
The addiction to social media and collecting likes and comments is biological. When you get a like on a photo, your brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is a key component of motivation and pleasure. It can be a powerful tool for positive change, but it can also be highly addictive and lead us to post things online to get that surge of dopamine that we otherwise wouldn’t share. This phenomenon is called oversharing.
Something that seems appropriate to post at the moment may become a significant regret later. Often, when we have an unhealthy relationship with social media, we post to the platform without thinking, without considering the public, and the forever nature of the internet. Unfortunately, stories of people losing jobs due to something posted online in the heat of the moment are all too commonplace now. Before you hit publish, consider if this is something you would share with a stranger or how you would feel if it ended up in the local paper.
Social media was crucial during the pandemic. These platforms allowed us to stay in touch with loved ones and get the latest news from our public health authority. This is the first time in history when families and friends from across the globe can stay in touch in real-time rather than relying on sending letters.
The unfortunate side-effect of social media's "always-on" nature is when it becomes an obsession or compulsion. Obsession can manifest in various ways on social platforms. One way obsession can be seen in social media use is in Social Media OCD. This could be the compulsive need to check social media for fear of missing out (FOMO) on something.
Another way that obsessive behaviour can be witnessed on social media is by compulsively keeping tabs on a specific person that is not healthy to watch this closely. An example of this is if a teenager breaks up with a partner and then compulsively checks their social media profiles. This obsessive behaviour makes it difficult for them to move on and makes an individual seem more important due to the amount of time spent focusing on them.
Social media algorithms are designed to keep you on the platforms for longer. This means they try to serve up information and content that your other interests suggest you might find interesting. This can be helpful in some situations if, for example, you find out about your favourite comic visiting town or you’re introduced to a new professional connection that could help your business.
However, the algorithm isn’t sophisticated enough to keep you safe and only provide moral and accurate information and news. Extremism on social media is scary. A European study found that many right-wing and Islamist extremist posts and groups on Twitter were going undetected by law enforcement or the platform's standards to remove such content.
Algorithms can easily influence users through rabbit holes of propaganda, extremist views, and conspiracy theories. The speed with which extremist and hateful content can spread on social media is a terrifying reality.
Unhealthy relationships with social media can look like a variety of things. If you have to stop using the internet or social media, your anxiety may increase, and you may experience withdrawal. This is a sign of an unhealthy relationship with tech. Another red flag is when social media use negatively impacts your ability to connect with close loved ones or if you experience cravings and compulsively check your phone.
The best thing you can do to keep your relationship with social media healthy is to create clear boundaries and rules for yourself. Use technology for good and set limits for how long you can be on an app daily. Make sure that the people following you are people you know that make you feel good about yourself and make your accounts private.
If you want more tips on how to build a healthy relationship with technology in the modern world, pick up a copy of The Tech Solution and try out the tech diet in the book.