How often do you reach for your phone to check something, only to realise you’ve ended up on Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook without even meaning to? Social media is an incredible thing, but if you feel like it’s starting to have a negative impact on your life, it’s time to take action.
There’s a reason social media is so popular; a few in fact: it can provide you with a sense of belonging, prevent you from feeling isolated, help you to keep in touch with those who live far away, enable you to share things that matter to you and even, in a sense, allow you to redefine your life. On top of all that, some people find it far easier to open up to others online.
If you or someone you know is checking their phone a bit too much, however, you’ll already be familiar with some of the more annoying side effects. These can range from social no-nos (such as scrolling whilst talking to a friend, eating with others, or watching a movie) to the downright dangerous (social media and cycling are not a good combo!).
These habits are pretty common and all of us are guilty of them occasionally, but studies have shown that heavy use of social media is associated with poorer mental health.
When it’s more serious
A recent University of Pittsburgh study of young adults suggested that heavy social media users were three times more likely to be depressed than occasional users, a review of psychological literature found that it’s associated with a negative impact on real-life relationships and academic achievement, and a 2017 paper 'Social Networking Sites and Addiction: Ten Lessons Learned' found that it’s been linked to a number of psychological problems including anxiety, loneliness, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
So how can social media present such a serious risk to our mental health? The research points to three main reasons:
1. It’s no good for sleep
Studies have linked sleep difficulties to screen time, as the ‘blue’ light affects the amount of shuteye you get and the quality of the sleep itself. This might sound relatively harmless, but sleep is crucial for the developing adolescent brain, and lack of sleep has been linked to mental health issues such as a lower mood and depression.
2. Comparison is the thief of joy
Your feed is probably littered with filtered, staged photos of immaculate haircuts, flawless makeup, mouthwatering food, perfectly-positioned cocktails, and people checking into the airport to fly to exotic destinations. Unless you have some seriously down-to-earth friends, you’re not going to see them posting candid photos of themselves on an average morning or checking into their corner shop.
These idealized, inaccurate portrayals of life can threaten our self-worth because we’ll inevitably measure ourselves against them, and this can make us feel incredibly inadequate. Studies including this one - 'Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being' published in the Journal of Experimental Psycholog in 2015 - have shown that there’s been a recent increase in the ‘passive use’ of social media (where we use it to observe our peers, rather than actively engage with them), and that this form of social media use is linked to low life satisfaction. According to psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, this is a ‘particular issue for young people, who are socialized through the school system to ‘grade’ themselves in relation to their peers.’
3. Chasing approval
And the fun doesn't stop there. Being too active on social media has also been linked to anxiety and poor body image. Getting a bunch of likes on a picture will feel great for anyone, but if you get too used to that feeling and it gives you a bit of a buzz, it’s easy to grow dependent on that validation for your self-worth. Conversely, continuously putting yourself up for approval can open you up to criticism from yourself and others (sometimes in the form of cyberbullying), potentially leading you to become overly anxious about how you’re seen by others.
How to tell if you’re addicted
Dr. Mark D. Griffiths, who’s done quite a bit of research on social media addiction, suggests that you can check whether you’re developing a social media addiction by asking yourself these six simple questions:
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
- Do you feel urges to use social media more and more?
- Do you use social media to forget about personal problems?
- Do you often try to reduce your use of social media without success?
- Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?
- Do you use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job or studies?
If the answer to all six of these questions is ‘yes’, Dr. Griffiths suggests getting diagnosed by a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist (your doctor will be able to refer you) to see whether you have an addiction. You may then be able to reduce your dependency through counselling or therapy.
If you only answered ‘yes’ to a few, it’s more likely that you’re a ‘habitual social media user’ and you could try using ‘digital detox’ strategies to help you to reduce your dependency, such as:
- turning off sound notifications and only allowing yourself to check your phone every 30 minutes or once an hour
- setting aside periods in the day for non-screen time (such as during meal times)
- leaving your phone in a separate room from where you sleep so you don’t get the urge to check social media before bedtime
- taking part in activities where it’s impossible to check your phone, such as running, swimming, mindfulness or group sports
- telling your friends you’re going on a digital detox, and asking them to support you
- suspending your social media accounts - start off small and aim for a weekend, and then gradually increase this
- getting an analogue watch and alarm clock (the ones from the stone age that don't need the internet to work) – checking your phone for the time can often lead to blocks of lost time scrolling through feeds
- Using an app blocker or smartphone monitor app such as App Detox, Space or Tracky (yes, we see the irony…)
As with any addiction, it can be difficult to change your habits without help from others. Make sure you talk to friends and family about what you’re going through – as well as providing you with compassion and understanding, it’s very likely that they’ll be able to support you in taking these steps.