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Connected, but lonely: How social media harms your mental health

5 minute read
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When we were first introduced to social media, we were in uncharted territory. Our primary communication was once single lane: a person-to-person silo of texts and audio calls, and the closest we came to communal interaction was a reply-all email. Now, it’s a huge part of our lives and it can be hard to differentiate between real life and social media life.

The merging of these worlds is having a negative effect on how we live and feel. But, by better understanding the impact of social media, you can find realistic ways to minimise the negative effects (without having to move to a remote corner of the bush with no reception).

Social media helps us stay connected

For all the well documented criticisms of social media, the main line of praise is ‘it’s the only way I can continue relationships with friends and family I’d otherwise lose touch with’.

And, it’s true. The best part of social media is that we can now easily reach an aunty living halfway across the world, or close friend who has moved interstate. We can share our lives with people en masse and feel connected with very little effort.

However, over time, social media has morphed into something bigger than we could have anticipated and, research has shown, although we are digitally connected in ways we’ve never been before, it’s making us feel more isolated and lonely than ever before.

The higher the use of main social media platforms, the higher the rate of feelings of loneliness and depression.

What are some of social media's negative impacts?

The subject of social media’s downside has been a topic of conversation and concern for quite some time, but it’s only recently that experimental research has been conducted to confirm these concerns. A University of Pennsylvania study found that the higher the use of main social media platforms, the higher the rate of feelings of loneliness and depression.

The main areas of negative impact directly related to social media use cited by the study, were:

  • Social comparisons – Filtered and deliberately curated images make us think our lives aren’t up to par, despite rationally knowing it’s not a realistic representation
  • Fear of missing out – Feeling left out of real life social interactions because they’re being presented on your feed
  • Heightened anxiety – Even without consciously comparing or being envious of other people’s lives, just simply being bombarded with so much information in one hit can heighten anxiety
  • Depression – Although it’s important to recognise that some instances of depressive feelings are pre-existent, social media can be a situational depressant
  • Addiction to instant gratification – The instant access and consistent feed of content can mean you are on social media longer than you should be, or even than you intend to be, exacerbating the risk of experiencing negative effects
  • Procrastination – Social media can be a time sucker, and stop you from doing the things that improve your health and mood

We’ve put together an article that explains the impact that social media has on you: What social media is really doing to your brain.

Man sitting at a cafe writing

Why are young people at a greater risk?

Although research is in its infancy on the effect of social media on teen mental health, there’s evidence to indicate that their developing brain is more susceptible to mood and physical changes. A report published in JAMA Psychiatry found that 12-15-year-olds who spent three plus hours a day on social media were twice as likely to have feelings of anxiety, loneliness, aggression, depression and antisocial tendencies than teens who did not use social media.

A UCLA Brain Mapping Centre study discovered that the reward centre of the teen brain (the nucleus accumbens) activated when they experienced ‘likes’ on a fake social media platform designed for the experiment, making them crave more and more of the activity.

Another study published in the UK’s Journal of Youth Studies, found that of the 900 12-15-year-olds they worked with, one fifth said they woke up through the night to check their social media even though it made them feel tired through the day. If social media is keeping you up at night, check out our article: The evening routine that could improve your sleep quality for some practical tips for overcoming your social media insomnia.

Aside from the personal user-behaviour determining problems, teens are also at greater risk of experiencing online bullying, shaming and feelings of jealousy.

What can you do?

Of course, you could delete your social media accounts and take a permanent social media detox. But, how would you find out what paleo meals your friend Susan from high school is feeding her toddlers?

So, if you’re not keen to switch off entirely, here are some less extreme ways you can protect yourself from adverse social media side effects:

  • Sort out who you follow. Keep it positive and enjoyable. Take note of what accounts trigger negative feelings and unfollow them, and keep or seek out accounts that lift your spirits
  • Set a reminder to restrict your socials time. Some platforms have a time alert function that prompts a notification when you’ve been on the app for a length of time you’ve pre-set
  • Be mindful. Look away from your phone, breathe in for six counts and out for eight 10 times. This will help reset your brain away from the social media black hole
  • Tell your loved ones that you want to restrict your usage. They’ll have no problem reminding you that you’re scrolling again!

If you’re really struggling with depressive feelings, loneliness, jealousy or any other deep negative feelings, speak to your GP about ways you can work toward treating and managing your mental health.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

For more articles on mental health, including tips for managing it, factors that can affect it and programs you can use for support, visit our Mental Health page on The Check Up.

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