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social media and mental health concerns

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The average amount of time spent daily on social media by users worldwide rose from 90 minutes to 144 minutes between 2012 and 2019. We went from scrolling, liking, commenting, and following for about the length of a fun, action-packed blockbuster film to the length of an Oscar-winning drama. That’s pretty amazing, considering it seems our attention span for actual full-length films has decreased. Apparently, people really want to know what their friends are up to. And strangers. And celebrities. And cute dogs with their own accounts.

It’s important to remember that every piece of information we consume impacts us. Some pieces don’t affect us much, like learning about traffic or the weather. But what about those long angry rants posted by that politically-furious friend on Facebook? Or the videos of high-end travel by that one family member? Research has shown that social media has a close connection to our levels of depression and anxiety and even self-esteem. We may not notice the difference in how we feel every time we shut our phones, but the changes are happening slowly over time. Of course, many individuals today must use social media for their careers. Doing without it entirely can be suicide for one’s business. But as with many things, social media requires a balanced approach if we’re going to keep a healthy relationship with it. If you’ve been wondering whether or not social media has been impacting your mental health, we have some answers. We consulted self-image empowerment specialist Dr. Melanie Hussain (IG: @meltuition), pictured below, about this very issue.

Dr. Melanie Hussain

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Talking negatively about yourself

While the occasional self-deprecating joke can be pretty common, and even funny, if you notice your words about yourself trending more and more in that direction, that could be a bad sign, says Hussain, adding she notices for those who spend a lot of time online, “There is more negative self-talk. A person will start to feel badly about who they are and themselves. The way they talk to themselves and about themselves comes from a place of shame and not liking who they are as individuals.” Ideally, the content you consume should make you feel encouraged and give you a positive outlook. But when social media takes a bad turn, Hussain says, “Rather than feeling inspired, it actually does the opposite and makes one feel trapped within themselves.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Losing confidence in your goals

Think of the way you felt about goals and dreams when you were a kid. It was straightforward, simple, and beautiful. You just thought, “I want to do that” and your brain didn’t start pitching you all the reasons you couldn’t do it, the way it does as we age. Social media can make that trend even stronger, unfortunately. Hussain says those who spend a lot of time on it, “They experience a lot of self-doubts, questioning who they are and what they are doing in life. They may ask questions like: Can I really make it? Am I enough? Who am I to think I can do this?”

social media and mental health concerns

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You give your power away

The moment we let others dictate how we feel about ourselves, we embark on a surefire path to misery. It’s a lifelong job to prevent that from happening, but social media makes it even more difficult to do. When social media impacts one’s mental health, you constantly compare your life to the lives of others. “There is a significant amount of influence on the way they view themselves — internally and externally,” says Hussain. “Their self-image and self-value decreases as they don’t feel like they ‘look good’ compared to another person. And they may feel intimidated by others, even those they may not even know. They also may tend to body-shame and not feel pretty enough.”

social media and mental health concerns

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“That will never be me”

While there is some value in witnessing examples of goals we hope to achieve one day, there can also be such a thing as drowning ourselves in images of those “doing better than us,” and feeling stuck beneath that perceived weight. “Depression is common for those who become heavily consumed with social media. With the amount of social media accounts they may follow or even the type of social media they use, it can easily make someone feel sad, bringing emotional heaviness, and the feelings of being stuck and stagnant. There is also a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness as well,” says Hussain.

social media and mental health concerns

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Trolling for triggers

Even though you curate your follow list and friend certain people/accounts because you like what they generally post, you can never fully control what you’ll see when you log into social media. And some of that unpredictability might play on your psyche in unexpected ways. “Anxiety is a common theme in social media consumption. When someone feels anxious, they are quick to go to their phones to either look something up or even enter another reality,” Hussain says. “The anxiety one experiences can also stem from the constant investment of time on social media. Looking at one post can trigger things from the past, trauma, relationship concerns, and even guilt. This can heighten one’s anxiety and cause fear as well.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Putting it all on the backburner

If you tend to avoid difficult things happening in your life (which many people do), then social media can really enable you to do more of that. It’s a welcome distraction, any time you want one, and even gives one the chance to live vicariously through others – all at your fingertips. “Distraction from one’s own life is also a major component. Social media becomes an unhealthy way to cope with one’s life and what they are actually experiencing,” Hussain says. “It’s easier to get lost in someone else’s story and life rather than facing one’s own life’s experiences and personal concerns.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Not all connection is good

“It is very important for us to realize what brings us comfort and support, especially during this time. Now more than ever people are craving human connection and, fortunately, and unfortunately, we have the Internet to rely on to provide that,” Hussain states. And just because something draws us in doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial to our psyche. In fact, much of the content online probably leaves you feeling worse than you did before you saw it. “It is very important to differentiate between when we feel like we are being educated and informed versus feeling overwhelmed and anxious.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Do a gut check before following that post

Sometimes, the most intoxicating material can also be the most negative. It’s human nature to be curious about conflict, gossip, and tragedy. So it’s important to notice why exactly you’re following a person or page. “Each person is different in the way they respond to social media,” Hussain says. “It might be healthy to keep up with the news, political content, health content, and even mindfulness material, but when we feel pulled and emotionally reactive to a specific topic or content, that’s when we have to self-reflect to see if this is healthy for our own mental health. We have to find a way to check in with ourselves when we are reading certain material.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Social media follows you back

What we consume on social media can make its way into our subconscious, coloring the way we see life, long after we’ve shut our phones or laptops. But, not everyone notices that impact. You may just think you’re in a bad mood…just because…and not relating it to what you saw online that morning. “The types of social media behavior that can really drag down our mental health incudes those that have shaming attributes, toxicity, bullying comments, and negative comments, and especially those behaviors that are socially destructive,” Hussain says. “When we are constantly faced with content that is sad, instigates anger, makes us feel frustrated or even confused it sets the tone for our day and can drag us down. It can also make us feel mentally, emotionally, and physically depleted where we just need a little break from it all.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Putting life on pause for the screen

We asked Hussain what trends she sees in clients as a mental health professional when it comes to extended social media use – particularly the long-term effects of scrolling for a long time, every day. While she noted some of her clients use social media for good – like for staying connected with friends or mental health accounts – she did add, “There are some that are finding themselves so entrenched in social media that they are unable to perform their daily tasks of staying focused with work, remaining present in their own life, consumed with the news and the political climate, and also truly comparing themselves to others. The comparison piece has been the most common, especially with my female population.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Teens and moms in particular suffer

When it comes to which groups fall the most victim to the comparison mentality, and who are the most vulnerable to having social media content influence their feelings of self-worth, Hussain said teens and moms are greatly at risk. “There are mothers who feel as if they aren’t doing enough, they aren’t as composed as the mom’s online, or I have women who don’t feel like they compare to the other women that they see with the way they look and feel,” she says. “Also, especially in the teenage population, there is more competition and bullying happen as social media has become a source of their wellbeing and what they rely on to remain connected. This is unhealthy and detrimental to the way they view themselves.”

social media and mental health concerns

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What are the benefits of a cleanse?

We asked Hussain what positive changes she notices in clients when they take a break from social media. “I have noticed that when one limits their time on social media and takes a break from it, they remain more present with themselves and they ground themselves on the things that bring them self-fulfillment,” she says. “When they feel happy or sad, they go to a place of self-connection. Whether it is listening to music, reading new books, trying a new coffee shop, or going into nature to gain solitude, they find a way to release in a way that sits well for them. It also allows them to connect more with their family, friends, and even partner. This is a healthier way to build connection in a meaningful way.”

social media and mental health concerns

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Moving forward, consciously consume

Hussain gave some tips on how to have a healthier relationship with social media – since staying away from it entirely seems nearly impossible today. Being conscious and selective about what you follow and how it impacts you is important, she says. “Find people or accounts that inspire, motivate, and uplift you. When our news feed is filled with people who are inspirational and we can relate to their story, it allows one to feel connected and perhaps motivated themselves to also do similar things as that person: volunteering, donating, or even reaching out,” she says. “Notice your self-talk when you are looking at certain accounts. What are you saying about yourself? How does it make you view yourself? Does this bring you fulfillment?”

social media and mental health concerns

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Set limits

If we don’t set limits around what times we look at social media, or how long we look at it, it’s easy to quickly waste away hours on there. It’s always available to us – it’s on the very devices we’re already using to do everything else – so it constantly beckons to us. But Hussain says, “Set a time limit for yourself on the amount of time you spend online. Let’s say you want to check social media in the morning, mid-day, or afternoon, allow yourself to do so but then give it a time frame. That way, you won’t be as consumed with what’s happening online so you can focus on your daily routine tasks.” She also suggests putting your phone on Do Not Disturb during times you shouldn’t be checking social media, so notifications don’t draw you back in.

social media and mental health concerns

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Trust your emotions

Not all content is evil, and Hussain even mentions the many mental health experts who are putting on live social media events and creating platforms to uplift followers, promoting better emotional wellbeing. She just strongly encourages us to pay attention to how content makes us feel, and pivot when necessary. “Lean into your feelings. If you are finding content to be comforting, allow yourself to do so,” she says. “Sometimes it helps looking at social media and coping on our own. If you realize you are getting more trapped and lost, then step away and perhaps take time to self-care, call a friend, or even rest/meditate.”

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