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How hours spent on social media can affect your mental health

Be a mindful browser on social media. Picture: Pexels / Mikotoraw Photographer

Be a mindful browser on social media. Picture: Pexels / Mikotoraw Photographer

Published Sep 6, 2021


Social media platforms are designed to snare your attention, keep you online, and have you repeatedly checking your screen for updates.

But, much like a gambling compulsion or an addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs, social media use can create psychological and mental health problems.

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There’s little research to establish the long-term consequences, good or bad, of social media use. However, multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

With many people spending time at home in isolation, screen time has increased. More celebrities and influencers are now partnering with brands and dominating social feeds selling products. Should you be following such people?

Professor Renata Schoeman, a member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists, said there is a positive to following such people on social media.

“There is evidence in the literature that supports the need for both negative and positive role models in our lives, which can be available on social media. An advantage can be helping people build resilience. Positive role models refer to people who you aspire to be. With how they interact with people and how they live their lives. Negative role models may refer to people who don’t treat people the way you want to treat them. Or you don’t want to struggle like they do or behave a certain way.”

However,  if you only follow people with a certain lifestyle and luxurious lifestyle on social platforms, your mental health may suffer.

“You only see isolated incidents in people's lives and not their whole lives. Some of the people who always have perfect-looking hair and looks have personal stylists and people to make them look like that. They don’t look like that all the time.

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Luxury living on social media is not the true representation of the majority of the population’s income. It’s only a few who can afford that life.”

Some researchers found that social media may also be linked to feelings of inadequacy about your life or appearance. Even if you know that images you’re viewing on social media are manipulated, they can still make you feel insecure about how you look or what’s going on in your own life.

Similarly, we’re all aware that other people tend to share just the highlights of their lives, rarely the low points that everyone experiences. But that doesn’t lessen those feelings of envy and dissatisfaction when you’re scrolling through a friend’s airbrushed photos of their tropical beach holiday.

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In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests from patients who want to look like their filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos. A New York Times article that ran in June 2018 features a newly-wed couple who nearly separated after their honeymoon. The reason: the wife spent more time on the trip planning and posting selfies than she spent with her husband.

Schoeman agrees on how social media impacts how you see yourself and adds that excessive use of the platforms may start making you feeling discontent with your own life.

“It can also negatively impact your self-esteem, and some people develop abnormal body standards or eating disorders, where other people’s image is what inspires them, even if it’s unnatural or not the norm.

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“It’s important to have a balance on how you manage your time on social media and not spend excessive time scrolling on social media.

But what makes users come back for more even when it doesn't make you feel good or view themselves in a different light?

Part of the unhealthy cycle is that we keep coming back to social media, even though it doesn’t make us feel very good. Experts say this is because of what’s known as a forecasting error: Like a drug, we think getting a fix will help, but it actually makes us feel worse, which comes down to an error in our ability to predict our own response.

A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study suggests that such self-monitoring can change one’s perception of social media.

The study’s researchers looked at 143 undergraduates randomly assigned to two groups. The first set was asked to limit Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to ten minutes per platform per day, while the second was asked to continue to use their social media as usual for three weeks. The limited group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression during those three weeks over the group that continued using social media.

Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out compared to where they were at the study’s beginning.

Over the years, social media platforms have also tried to manage the effects of social media.  Instagram also suppressed likes in an effort to curb the comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content.

Odwa Gogo, a clinical psychologist, says when dealing with social media, you need to always remember that what you feed your mind with is what your mind will focus on and think about. “If you follow more motivational speakers, spirituality or lifestyle, they will impact your perspective of life and what you make of your life.”

“When you predominantly follow people who flaunt their wealth, are out of touch with reality, or people who live a life that you can't attain, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

Many times you don't get to see the process to attain these things. All you see is the buying process. Be intentional about not putting pressure on yourself to attain everything you see on social media,” says Gogo.

Instead, she says, use some of the people with the life you aspire to equip yourself to attain these things.

“In doing that, you have to be mindful and conscious of the people you follow and what you pay attention to. And understand your capabilities and capacity to avoid putting pressure on yourself and falling into depression or impulsive disorder. Some of the mental health problems can be a result of what is allowed in your mind and your feed. Be a mindful browser,” concludes Gogo.

If you are trying to manage your social media feed for your mental health, Schoeman says, it’s important to search different people, industries or even follow a variety of people on social media.

“Algorithms are built into all these platforms and what you search on the internet. Now and again, at least once a week, search your academic role model, a different country, or something different from what you normally search so that you can get a well-balanced feed. Otherwise, your world view can narrow completely.”

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