Social media is no stranger in our daily routine. The average person spends seven hours online each day, and around two-and-a-half hours of that using social media. You probably checked it prior to reading this and will again after.
That’s not said to be critical; our frequent use of social media is understandable. After all, it allows us to easily connect with people around the world, regardless of the distance. This convenience came in handy during the months of isolation that the pandemic subjected us to. Our lives became virtual, and we had to depend on social media to retain some sense of coherence. Whether we were tapping through Instagram stories, sending Snapchats to our friends, scrolling endlessly on TikTok, or keeping updated through Facebook, the number of global social media users jumped by more than half a billion between July 2020 and 2021.1
Although the convenience of social media can’t be undermined, it’s the influence it can have on mental health that poses a concern. The relationship between social media and mental health is not a new conversation; previous research has highlighted the link between social media usage to an increased risk in anxiety, stress, loneliness, and depression, as well as having negative impacts on dietary habits, sleep, and cognitive functioning, such as learning and concentration.2 Past studies have also explored the effect social media can have on how people view themselves—often in comparison to others—and how this reaction could in turn trigger negative attitudes towards oneself or towards society.
It isn’t difficult to see why this would happen; with increasing social media use, certain platforms like Instagram have become akin to an online portfolio, where the types of photos or content we post shapes the first impressions others form of us. We may find ourselves pressured to post only “good” photos where we look the best at certain angles or lighting, posed in front of the perfect background with the perfect filter, before seeking validation for our efforts through likes, comments, views, or the followers we subsequently gain. Suddenly, these numbers that give us instant gratification becomes a determiner of self-value: the more likes and notifications we get, the higher our self-worth is. Our flawless, intricately crafted online identity becomes something we feel we must maintain, no matter how different it is to our real self. Instagram influencers, who often post content portraying unrealistic lifestyles or standards, further perpetuate this warped sense of self-perception, which is especially harmful to those who suffer from disorders like body dysmorphia.
What has fuelled more concern is the impact this might have on young impressionable teens. TikTok (used in the US mainly by those in the 10-19 age group3) is a new app, and yet another platform containing content that promotes unrealistic standards of beauty. Not only do certain trends or beauty filters that “fix” our features reinforce the idea of what’s considered ideal, influencers who fit these standards are also often the ones who gain popularity easily. Teens who then are constantly exposed to these so-called “ideals” through various social platforms could then start to compare themselves, forming their own self-value based on how closely they match them. This can lead to a harmful mindset that begins at a young age, triggering a vicious cycle of constant comparison and an insatiable need for validation.
If social media has such a damaging effect on mental health, why should we continue using it? One thing to keep in mind is that as we become more reliant on the online world to keep us connected, the number of global digital users will only continue to grow, as will the number of platforms to meet this demand for connection.
Social media doesn’t have to be harmful. While prolonged—and frequent—usage of some platforms can be detrimental to mental health, there are certain aspects of social media that can be beneficial, especially when used in moderation and with mindfulness. It can even be a safe place to express ourselves, and to find comfort that there are others like us who are going through the same difficulties and stages in life. Actively using social media such as posting, liking, or commenting, is also better than passive use, like reading or scrolling through posts without interacting.4 An important thing to remember is to pull back occasionally and to not let what we see online control the way we think or feel about ourselves, or how we perceive the world around us.
Social media will continue to stay prevalent in our daily lives. It can pave an easy way to connect with our friends and family or trap us into an alternate, seemingly perfect reality that can often magnify our insecurities. At the end of the day, how we choose to use social media and remembering to differentiate between the realities existing behind the screen and off-screen can help keep our mental health in check.
1 “Digital 2021 July Global Statshot Report,” DataReportal, last modified July 21, 2021, datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-july-global-statshot.
2 Goodyear, Victoria A., et al. “Social media use informing behaviours related to physical activity, diet and quality of life during COVID-19: a mixed methods study.” BMC Public Health 21, no. 1 (July 2021): 1-14. doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11398-0
3 “Distribution of TikTok users in the United States as of March 2021, by age group,” Statista Research Department, last modified April 15, 2021, statista.com/statistics/1095186/tiktok-us-users-age/.
4 Escobar-Viera, César G., et al. “Passive and Active Social Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among United States Adults.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 21, no. 7 (July 2018): 437-443. doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2017.0668