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How Does Social Media Impact Mental Health?

Mary-Lauren O’Crowley, MA, NCC 

Just last year, Instagram made headlines for announcing its Likes Suppression policy in an effort to mitigate distress caused by the act of liking, or approving of, someone’s photo. But do these efforts actually make a difference for the millions of vulnerable adolescents and adults utilizing these platforms or is it merely placation? 

Social media has often been referred to as addictive, namely because of people’s recurrent and ongoing need to engage with it, often finding themselves scrolling mindlessly. This can be explained by the fact that utilizing social media activates the brain center that is responsible for releasing dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Research shows that roughly 70% of adults and 81% of teenagers use social media in the US alone. This does not even account for how often and for how long these individuals are using social media, but it does give us some insight into the reach of these platforms and the potential impact they may have on users. 

Social media thrives on the human tendency to compare, or “keep up with the Jones.” Since you never know how many likes your post might garner, who will like it, or when they will like it, you are likely to keep checking.  The prospect of a positive result can keep the users engaged with the platforms. In the long run, however, this can promote feelings of inadequacy, isolation, diminished self-esteem, and even anxiety or depression. When we are constantly able to see what others are doing, who they are with, what they are wearing, and all of the other elements of their lives, we may very well find ourselves wondering why we do not have the same. 

Another important problem in regards to social media and its impact on mental health is the idea of “FOMO”, or the fear of missing out. When others scroll through social media pages and see snippets of other’s lives, like vacations, clubbing, shopping, and other seemingly fun activities, they may begin to view their own lives as inadequate. The reality is, however, that these social media posts are just that: snippets. We have no way of knowing what someone’s life is really like outside of our perception. 

Another study in the UK made a connection between social media usage and poor sleep. Poor sleep can lead to memory loss and poor academic performance. Their physical health is compromised too. Researchers know the connection that is why they attach it to fatigue, muscle tension, and nausea. 

In addition to the access that social media provides its users, there is also a consistent distortion that makes its users all the more vulnerable. Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook have allowed for the sharing of digitally altered images with the invention of filters. Using countless apps, anyone can create flawless, filtered, and modified images with just the tap of a finger.  These images are often so realistic that people find it difficult to decipher whether or not they have in fact been re-touched. This lack of differentiation is crucial for teens, namely because they are in the midst of development, a time marked by heightened emotions and ever-changing bodies. The adolescent brain is vulnerable and thereby more susceptible to the effects of psychological and physiological stress that comes with low self-esteem. Social media coupled with societal expectations and social norms has the power to shape the way the user views themselves, others, and the world around them, making it a potentially dangerous tool. 

While social media can yield unhealthy comparison and fuel diminished self-esteem, it has proven itself worthy in at least one area: creating a sense of community during the pandemic. During a time of social isolation, people can turn to social media to update loved ones on their lives while also catching glimpses of the lives of their loved ones. At a time when being physically close is near-impossible, social media has helped bridge the gap. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with a social media addiction or simply feels socially isolated, please reach out to the intake specialists at Symmetry Counseling today. They can match you with a licensed counselor for mental health support.

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