It is probably pretty hard for you to imagine a world with no social media – without Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook or any other kind of social app. And it’s probably even harder to imagine a world with no texting, YouTube or computers. It is pretty common when new technology emerges, for older people to suggest that it will be terrible. You may be expecting us to tell you that social media is bad for you – but we are not going to say that. It’s both good and bad. Like any technology, it can be used in helpful ways and less than helpful ways.
The good news
Social media makes it possible for people to stay in touch easily with multiple friends (and relatives) easily, quickly and inexpensively (long distance and international phone calls used to be very expensive and “snail mail” as its name implies, is much slower than email or posting on social media sites). Social media also can put a tremendous amount of information at your fingertips quickly and efficiently. It’s allowed for groups to work on things together even at great distances. So, there are quite a few positive uses for social media that can help people feel more connected to and supported by others. And for some young people who may have difficulty connecting to others in person, social media might help with relationship building. There are even opportunities to get mental health support and care online (although you need to be careful that this is on a reliable professional format/platform).
The not as good news
While social media can be an excellent format for people to keep in touch or communicate easily there are some ways it can become problematic too. The three main areas of trouble are:
- the overuse or over-reliance on social media for personal connections
- the anonymity of social media leading to people doing/saying things that they otherwise might not in a face-to-face interaction
- The public and permanent nature of social media making it possible to bring things to large numbers of people that otherwise would not and make it very difficult to remove something once it has been put out into the virtual world
We’d like to focus here on the mental health impacts of these issues. Read on to learn more.
It's easy to compare
When we see what other people are posting online it’s easy to make assumptions about what someone’s entire life is like. It might seem incredibly exciting, social, adventurous, and happy. But do we really know what someone’s entire life experience is like by viewing their periodic photos and posts online? Probably not. It’s easy to convey an exaggerated version of your life in pictures and videos – they are small snippets of the whole story. Some people are good at posting about the good AND the bad in their day to day. But many people focus on depicting the great!
What’s problematic about looking at all the positive posts is that we can easily find ourselves comparing our own reality to the exciting photos that we see online. This somewhat false sense of inferiority (which is very common) can lead people to question themselves and feel insecure anxious, and depressed. Be careful not to compare. You’re probably selective about what you put online (posting your best angle or finding the best lighting), try to remember that others are likely doing the same thing!
Mental health impact
The over-reliance on social media for connections might get in the way of time spent in real face to face conversation and interaction with other people. Obviously while keeping connected virtually is easy and convenient, it does not have the same intensity and closeness as real conversation. And virtual connections don’t support your learning all the kinds of social interactions and skills we’ve discussed in other parts of this section. So over-reliance on social media for connections can actually wind up limiting your connections to others. In fact, it appears that people who spend lots of time on social media are more likely to suffer from depression than other young people and it may just be that in fact, these people wind up feeling lonely and disconnected.
You probably know of incidents in which friends or people you know have said or posted things to or about other people that they would never say to each other directly. There seems to be something about “virtual” online connections that makes them feel less real and therefore less hurtful. But things said in the seeming “safety” of social media can still be very hurtful or have a big impact on peoples’ feelings. High drama on social media can leave people stressed and unhappy.
Remember too that it is hard to erase things that have been posted. So again, careless use of social media can leave people in conflict with each other and lead to social and sometimes legal problems that can contribute to stress and other challenges.
So for your own health and wellness, it makes sense to be a thoughtful and positive user of social media.