If there is one unique trait to define human nature throughout history, it’s our curious nature that makes us want to connect with others.
In more primitive times, banding together would help us survive the harsh elements that the forces of nature would throw at us, while defending the tribe from hostile outsiders looking to take what is ours.
The thirst to discover and grow has led to some innovative methods to keep in touch across long distances and a key milestone bridging the communication gap between old world and new was when the ship the SS Great Eastern constructed a cable across the Atlantic in 1866 to enable telegram messaging.
Satellites helped us evolve from cables, sending signals through space and the rapid growth of the Internet keeps us more connected than ever, leading to this very moment where I am able to share my ideas with you, wherever you are in this world.
Communication technology is so cheap it’s revolutionised the lives of people in some of the poorest parts of the world, and when it comes to fitting in, if you grew up feeling like an outcast because you were the only one in your small town who liked punk music, the world wide web, and then social media brought you closer to people who shared your passion.
The downside is that access to information is much too easy, and we are swarmed with low quality information from mindless small talk to pointless trivia.
…And yet we can’t get enough of it.
Social media is available anywhere you go, just from the touch of a button on your phone you get instant access to billions of content all through a tiny glowing screen.
With it we lose our ability to be mindful, observing and appreciating the small things in life, and always have a lump of plastic on hand to distract us from boredom, an important ingredient that inspires creativity and innovation.
But something is changing, many of us have felt the impact of being overwhelmed by the constant noise. In this post we will explore how social media is impacting your mental health and wellbeing.
The important question to understand the conflict between social media and wellbeing…
I’ve noticed more discussions about people getting burned out by social media and switching off because they feel it’s impacting their mental health.
I’ve felt it too, but with it I ask the question:
“Do I experience mental health issues due to social media, or do I use social media because of mental health issues?”
It’s an interesting predicament. A study looking at social media addiction¹, noted those who were using these tools in a compulsive manner, were more likely to suffer with low self-esteem.
From my own observations I note I always feel down when I over use social media, but I do think other things going on in my life contribute and social media isn’t all to blame.
I guess you could say if you’re feeling low logging into a platform that is full of people over promoting themselves all the time isn’t the best idea.
How social media impacts your mental health and wellbeing
There are various reasons why social media has an impact on your mental health and wellbeing:
- Social media can be addictive and used to fill a void for something else missing in your life.
- Social media is good at stirring up feelings that everyone else is having a better time than you and you’re missing out.
- Social media provides a platform for endless bragging (that isn’t always true).
- Social media introduces you to the worst people in the world that you would overwise never have met.
- Social media is built on algorithms to keep you scrolling.
How are these impacting your mood? Let’s have a look…
Social media addiction
Behavioural addiction, is something that relates to various activities from sex to video games.
There is some debate whether behaviour addiction is real thing, it seems to be an overused buzzword to describe compulsive behaviour from binge watching a Netflix series, to over obsessive fandom.
And the boffins in psychiatry must agree with me, as the only behaviour addiction they recognise in the DSM-5 (a handbook used by clinicians to diagnose psychiatric disorders), is gambling.
What I think is often referred to as “social media addiction” is in most cases, more likely to be used as a substitute to for something else missing in a person’s life to fill a void.
If you are a frequent user, but can go out to dinner without needing to look at your phone before your meal arrives, or can enjoy small moments in life without the need to having a running log of reporting everything you do, it’s safe to say, you’re not addicted.
Despite current thinking, and my own opinions I can’t dismiss the impact over usage is having on people’s wellbeing. Various research has shown people reporting feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and loss of focus from overusing social media.
Social media and FOMO
A 2012 study² showed that Facebook users believed their online friends are happier and more successful than themselves. Although as of writing these results are from a decade ago, there is an argument that could be easily made that these findings are more relevant than ever.
Fear of missing out (FOMO), is a term that has become popular in recent years, and is used in the context when people feel there is something more interesting happening elsewhere – a sensation heightened by social media.
When you see the Kardashians on Instagram pouting for selfies at Coachella, you think “why can’t I be paid to party it up wearing designer gear I get paid to wear”.
Aspirational lifestyles are not a new thing – the term aspirational TV became popular in the 80’s to refer to shows like Dallas because they portrayed a high end lifestyle, which could make some audience members insignificant that they weren’t a handsome billionaire tycoon.
Social media amplifies these feelings because everyone can focus on showing their highlights (whether true or not) and be a “personal brand”.
And all this does is make you feel insignificant –
- Why can’t I start a side hustle that will help me escape my job?
- Why can’t I have a hareem of flexible suitors?
- Why aren’t I ripped?
- Why can’t I have a group of witty kick ass friends?
Why? Why? Why?
Well, the answer is simple, it’s a deliberate engineered process to feed on your insecurities to make you buy, buy, buy…
Social media and braggers
When writing How To Deal With A Bragger, the post focused on how to deal with obnoxious people in your real life who are always over promoting themselves.
But through my research I realised a lot of content about braggers was telling you how to handle people who brag on social media.
The benefit of social media is you get to present a filtered view, where you only share highlights – no one is posting selfies of themselves trying to clean out a massive dump that’s clogged up the bathroom toilet.
As with braggers in your real life, boasters tend to pick out the highlights, which are often based on exaggerations or telling blatant lies.
As a thirty-something male I get targeted with adverts all the time of drop shipping “entrepreneurs” posing in front of a Lambo with a hot girl on his arm, telling me that for the low price of 397 dollars, I too can learn the secrets that make you rich.
But the truth is the car is rented for the hour, the girl is from a modelling agency, and the only money this schlub has made online is selling his twenty page drop shipping pamphlet to suckers like me.
Bragging online can take various forms, there are some perfectly innocent unintended brags, like announcing a promotion on LinkedIn, but while you are want to celebrate that success, there is someone out there whose gone into a depression because it just reminds them that their career is going nowhere!
As a social media self-promoter you can also put yourself at risk of damaging your own wellbeing, as you put up a constant success of highlights, deep down you feel insecure because you can never live up to the impression you present online.
Social media showing you the worst people in the world
One of the benefits of social media is the endless possibilities of building communities of people who share our values, but this risks isolating us further from reality as you can easily get into a position where “no one in my real life understands me.”
With it you become pulled away from the average as you become indoctrinated. With online communities you can get into “echo chambers” places where people hold similar views, so in discussions your beliefs aren’t challenged, but validated, and you may become more susceptable to developing extreme views.
As you sit in these safe spaces you become sensitive to opposing views, believing that anyone who expresses anything that disagrees with your dogma is a bad person.
On social media you can witness these battles everyday, and you’re left wondering how people have developed such warped and hateful views.
Question – did these people always exist?
My theory is no – going back in human history as part of a small group you were more likely to conform (or be put inline). You could say this means social media isn’t a bad thing because people are free to express themselves, but when done through anonymity this gives people a more hateful persona to how they are in real life.
This is why I take the view that anything you say online, should be views you would be prepared to express to someone’s face.
Social media and the evil algorithms
When it comes to social media, you’ve probably heard people talk about the algorithm, this is usually in a negative light, as an evil tool that is manipulating your mind, and hiding the best information from the freedom fighters here to release you from your cage.
Personally I think there is some truth to it, but I also feel there is also a lot of noise from people trying to make it as brand, bitter that their work isn’t taking off like they planned.
What is the social media algorithm?
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game”
I love this quote from Dan Slee when referring to the social algorithm. It might not seem fair, but you’ve just got to make the best of it and learn the game.
The algorithm on any social media platform is there to help you sort the most relevant content so that you see it first, it will also help look at what you’re engaging with so you get the most appropriate adverts.
So as I like strongman, engaging with this content gives me lots of stuff related to strength training, and I get lots of ads on programmes, gyms and workout supplements.
This sounds good, but there are a few flaws:
- You get put in a box: by getting more of what you want, you get caught in a scrolling trap as you get recommended more stuff that “other people like you enjoyed”.
- It takes ages for it to forget that one thing you did once: like getting embarrassingly drunk at a party, social media algorithms are great at not letting you forget about something you did once – so if you searched to see who won the 2021 USA elections, you get bombarded for months with ever tiny going on in US politics.
- It can make for crappy information as content creators look to hack the algorithm: Social media algorithms can be a harsh judge if you don’t get lots of likes and engagement and will mark your account as “low quality content.” As a blogger I’ve seen other catch onto this, so they focus on stuff that works, but is also boring like asking tedious questions such as “What did you have for breakfast”
- Quantity not quality: because it likes people on the platform the algorithm will also reward you for regular posting and punish you if you dare take a blogging break (and no they don’t like scheduling tools either!)
When it comes to the algorithm for my own wellbeing I’ve given up trying to figure out the secret to “hack it”, I just chose to enjoy social media sites for what they offer and talk like a normal person… imagine that.
Social media isn’t all that bad…
Although this post talks about the negatives of social media, I wanted to balance out how it can be used to help mental health.
In a study looking at the positive and negative effects of social media³, people with mental health issues have found support groups of like-minded people to share their experiences sharing their anxieties.
Also, when used correctly social media can connect you with people who will inspire you to live a more fulfilling and successful life. Using the Twitter fitness community, I’ve exceled in my strength goals – this was all thanks to the advice and seeing pretty average people pulling 250kg deadlifts in their garage, which made me realise to achieve these feats weren’t all down to genetics and performance enhancers.
This post has focused on wellbeing, but there are loads of benefits to social media – it’s enabled people to work for themselves, get free education and make new life long connections online and off.
Returning to the question – “Do I experience mental health issues due to social media, or do I use social media because of mental health issues?”
You can see from this post how social media is working, so it might not always be the best place to turn if you are looking to improve your mood.
This article has highlighted a few complaints people associate with social media impacting their mental health, this is not a definitive list and these issues don’t sit separately and will often be interlinked.
To answer the question “Is social media bad for your wellbeing and mental health”, sorry to disappoint, but I fell the answer is inconclusive.
Through my research I found content talking about how social media has made people feel socially isolated, but then I would read something else that would contradict this and say it opens up the opportunity to increase social opportunities!
From this I conclude that whether social media impacts your wellbeing depends on:
- The individual (are you more sensitive to this content or do you get energised?)
- The type of content you consume (are you using it for polarising topics like politics which are rife with disagreement and hatred?)
Steps to help your wellbeing using social media
There are a few things you can do to help your wellbeing when using social media:
- Stick with communities that are supportive and inspire positivity.
- Limit your usage – cut down on your accounts, and the number of platforms you use, and discipline yourself with a couple of set times of the day where you will explore for 10 minutes maximum.
- Mute and block negative sources.
- Avoid engaging in “outrage of the day” content that is featured in the trending section of various apps like Twitter.
- Avoid news media content.
- Look into functions like “mute words” to hide content that you don’t want to hear about.
- Aim to build positive relationships online – treat others how you would like to be treated.
- Act like a normal person – it’s a community so take part in constructive conversations and give without expecting anything in return.
Thank you for reading,
Wishing you the best in your success,
James @Perfect Manifesto
Copyright © 2023 James M.Lane perfectmanifesto.com
Along with the references linked, the following supported the discussion in this article:
(1) Hou, Y., Xiong, D., Jiang, T., Song, L., & Wang, Q. (2019) Social media addictions: Its impact, mediation, and intervention. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 13(1).
(2) Chou, H.-T. G., & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: The impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(2).
(3) Akram, W., & Kumar, R. (2018) A Study on Positive and Negative Effects of Social Media on Society. International Journal of Computer Sciences and Engineering, 5(10).
7 thoughts on “Feeling Down? How Social Media Is Killing Your Wellbeing”
I see some people everywhere on certain social media platforms. They seem to tweet something every minute, yet I never see them engage anywhere.
Pleased to say that I’m not addicted to social media. After cutting down on the number of sites I was on, I switched it off at certain times of the day and never went on it after 5 pm.
As Paul mentioned, your post is nicely balanced, James. I’ve had my fair share of positives and negatives from social media, the latter when I was checking my phone every minute right up to bedtime. I didn’t want to miss anything, but I didn’t want to lose touch with the world outside of social media. The world outside is too valuable to miss, especially for mental wellbeing.
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I’m glad to hear you don’t find it addictive Hugh – I think for me I’m more a fidgeter so if I wasn’t reaching for my phone I’d be checking my wallet and keys. So hiding the phone away is always a good way to help me stop.
The rush from feeling part of the action keeps you checking, but it’s good to be aware of keeping an eye on the outside world.
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I’ll always prioritise the outside world over social media, James. I’m glad I don’t spend a lot of time on social media, although I do sometimes catch myself wasting time there. That’s not good.
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I used to find social media disheartening at times, but saying that, there have been times when some groups have helped me.
I try to ensure that I keep positive stuff in my feed and block anything that upsets/annoys me.
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That’s the right approach Rachel, through my own learning I’ve come to realise what impacts your wellbeing is the type of people on there you choose to surround yourself with. Good groups online can change your life.
Thanks for commenting!
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A nicely balanced view James. When I saw this coming up in my inbox I presumed, especially with your current 31 day social media blackout, that it would be disparaging but you’ve given food for thought. Lately I’ve been off work with a trapped nerve in my neck and social media has helped me feel connected but I’ve had to check myself a few times and make sure I get out in the sunlight, which there is plenty off at the moment.
I like to think I get the balance right, but it’s always worth taking stock periodically.
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Thanks Paul, it was probably meant to be more disparaging when I came up with the idea, but taking the time to research help me really reflect on the subject and thought it would only be fair some of the questions and counter arguments that we can’t just blame it all on social media.
Your personal situation is a good example of the accessibility social media gives, during covid lockdown it was always good having conversations with people on WordPress.
Thanks for your comment Paul.
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