By Wesley Gallagher

Social media. It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when it didn’t pervade almost every aspect of our lives. Personal, professional and everything in between, social media is here to stay, so we’d better find a way to live with it. The question is, how do we master our use of social media, rather than letting it master us?

The truth is, social media has taken over our culture in ways that no one, not even its creators, could have ever predicted. It has made us more connected than we’ve ever been, allowing people to communicate with more people more often than any other generation. And yet, with all that connectedness, rates of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders are on the rise. What gives?

Not-So-Social Media

If connecting with other people makes us less lonely and helps alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, why wouldn’t social media, the most connective tool of all, improve our mental health? Unfortunately, when it comes to connecting with others, not all connections are created equal.

Humans are naturally social creatures — love and belonging are actually listed just above the most basic needs of sustenance and safety in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. For centuries, humans have connected in person, face-to-face, most often in smaller, more intimate settings. This historical way of connecting allows for us to see each other as we truly are, to sit with another person and let our guard down, and the more time we spend in close proximity to another person, the more vulnerable we can be with them.

Social media, on the other hand, allows for — calls for, even — a curation of our lives. Well-crafted profiles, editing tools and filters, and cleverly-written status updates are par for the course in our online identities. There’s little room for reality or vulnerability online, and the comparison game is an endless one that no one will ever win.

Claudia Black, PhD, says that the social media comparison game is especially harmful for people who are already in an emotionally vulnerable state. “It fuels a sense of inadequacy,” Dr. Black explains, “that somehow I’m supposed to be different than who I am.” This is a dangerous thing for anyone to believe, but for someone who already struggles with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, the expectation can be crippling. To make things worse, people often receive positive feedback on the false persona they’ve created, which only adds to the feeling that who they truly are is not enough.

Social Media and Mental Health

According to Healthline.com, a recent study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found a causal link between the use of social media and negative effects on wellbeing, particularly depression and loneliness.

The study split 143 students into two groups, one that continued their regular use of social media and one that reduced their usage to no more than 30 minutes a day. The group with limited access had better mental health outcomes, with the largest decrease in loneliness and depressive symptoms. Interestingly, both groups saw a decline in levels of anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out, and yes, it’s an actual thing that researchers measure), which researchers think probably came from increased awareness of social media usage because of the study.

Although the reasons behind this link are still unknown, researchers believe it likely stems from the comparison game mentioned earlier. “Upward social comparison,” the comparison of ourselves to the curated content other people present on social media, is likely one of the biggest culprits for negative mental health outcomes in social media usage.

FOMO is another aspect of social media usage that can cause real emotional anguish. As creatures who crave connectedness, seeing our friends doing things without us on social media can actually harm our sense of belonging. So our need for connectedness is not only not being met through social media, it may in fact be actively harmed by it.

Using Social Media Wisely

Often when people come to The Claudia Black Center for treatment of depression, she finds that a social media or gaming addiction is hiding behind those symptoms. Online addictions actually behave similarly to substance addictions, and they can be just as dangerous. It’s not surprising, based on the fact that, according to a blog post on Harvard University’s website, the same feel-good hormone dopamine that cocaine and slot machines produce is released with regular social media usage. The danger of addiction is real.

So how can you make sure you’re using social media in a way that helps, rather than hurts, your mental health, and wellbeing? While it will look different for each person based on your specific situation and tendencies, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Assess yourselfMany studies on social media usage, including the one mentioned above, have shown stronger correlations between social media and mental health outcomes among people who already struggle with mental health issues. If you know you are prone to depression or anxiety, it’s likely that social media usage could be worsening your symptoms. Know your tendencies and curb your usage accordingly.
  • Check yourselfEven if you don’t struggle with a specific mental health issue, it’s wise to keep track of not only the amount of time you spend on social media but also the quality of your time. Do you go to social media when you’re looking to escape from other problems? Do you find yourself unable to stop checking social media or spending way more time on there than you would like? Do you come away from your time online more depressed or lonely than you were before? If the answer to any of these is yes, it might be time to rethink your usage.
  • Curb yourselfWhatever you think your relationship to social media is, based on the research we have so far, it’s probably a good idea to limit your time on these sites. While it’s not all bad, and there are even benefits to social media, all signs point to the need for moderation.

In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether your relationship with social media is healthy, and you have the power to change your habits if necessary. If you find yourself unable to change your habits, or if you feel like your usage is contributing to real negative mental health disturbances, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Social media was made for our benefit, and we need to make sure we put it back in its rightful place. In the meantime, grab a real cup of coffee with a real live friend! We could all use a little more of that.