As technology has grown over the last decade, an entirely new medium for social interaction has emerged, allowing us to be more connected than ever before: social media. With platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is forecasted that by 2021 there will be 3 billion active monthly users of social media.

It is clear that social media in today’s world is an unavoidable and integral part of our daily lives. However, research has shown that our reliance on social media can be extremely detrimental to our mental health. While social media lends us many benefits and opportunities, using it too frequently can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety.

At Brain Forest Centers, we are dedicated to educating our clients about the ways social media can potentially harm their mental health and distort their self-image, and what they can do to protect themselves.

Instant Gratification

The most common way social media can damage your mental health is through rewiring your brain with instant gratification, or the physiological need to experience fast, short-term pleasure. This happens through the production of dopamine, a chemical in your brain that’s associated with pleasure and reward systems. When you first start getting social media notifications, your brain provides a “hit” of dopamine that makes you feel really good. With the pace of social media, these hits come fast and they usually come back-to-back. This trains your brain to expect instant gratification from notifications.

Over time, however, the desire for another hit paired with a failure to get that instant gratification may trap you in a cycle of constantly refreshing your social media. This can also cause you to believe that you’re not getting likes because you’re unpopular, not funny, or even ugly. This may not be how people actually see you, but this vicious cycle can contribute to feelings of anxiety and loneliness, common symptoms of mental health issues.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Most social media users have experienced the heightened anxiety that accompanies the ability to stay up-to-date with the happenings of their social circles. FOMO refers to “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” and is “characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”

Some studies propose that FOMO is the biggest driver of social media usage while also being associated with lower life and mood satisfaction. Social media makes us more aware of what we’re missing out on, but being constantly in tune with that can spur feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and anxiety. These feelings can force us into a social media cycle as it gives us a false sense of being involved.

American Journal of Epidemiology found that overall, regular use of Facebook had a negative impact on an individual’s wellbeing. We, as humans, are social creatures, desiring validation and group interaction. Because of these human desires and needs, perceived exclusion can be extremely damaging to our mental health.

Self-Perception

Social media can also be harmful to our mental health by distorting how we see ourselves or the people around us. Social media can make us feel isolated, even when we’re not, by creating scenarios in which we compare ourselves to other people’s online lives. We compare ourselves and make judgments about how we measure up as we scroll through our feeds, lowering our self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. We can become depressed when we feel like others are accomplishing more than us when comparing perfect, online worlds with our plain realities. This sensation can cause symptoms of mental illness.

Studies have shown that humans rely on social contact to define ourselves and figure out who we are. As social media has become more and more popular, this experience has shifted into the virtual world. Because of this, we often use social media to present a false self, someone we think will be more well-liked by our peers. Oftentimes, these false selves are built on social media constructs, what we’ve been told online is desirable or attractive.

When it comes to our online lives, we’ve been taught to portray our best selves, no matter how unrealistic they may be. We all have our own general persona that we put out on social media based on the person we want to be seen as. So what happens to our true selves? In most cases, we reject any part of our true selves that does not conform with this idealized self we display on social media.

Research has proven that a main contributor to the high rates of depression in social media users is the disparity they feel between their ideal online self and their self-image. Sometimes, when it comes to social media, we are not upset by how we compare to other people, but how we stack up against our own expectations of ourselves. The number of likes we receive has begun to define our self-worth, teaching us to be silent about our problems. This, like many other experiences with social media, can become a vicious cycle that leads to depression and anxiety.

Social Media Purges

We all know that what we see on social media is only a small slice of reality, a falsified image of what each individual wants to portray to others. It can be helpful to take a break from your online worlds to gain perspective. What we see and feel online is not the final truth of life, and we need to remember that there is a lot more to life than social media. “Taking a break from anything can provide time for critical reflection. We can enhance our lives and learning through real-world experiences, and by taking the time to think and reflect on our feelings,” says Dr. Jeremy Rezmovitz, a family physician with Sunnybrook Research Institute at the University of Toronto.

Taking time away from social media can not only give you a much-needed reality check but can also help you forge stronger connections with people face-to-face. For many people, social media is often an anxiety-inducing experience, so making the decision to turn it off can provide us valuable quiet time. Shutting off the noise of social media is an important boundary to set for yourself. Social media purges can also help you stay focused on your goals, as it keeps your eyes on your prize rather than getting distracted by what’s going on in other people’s lives.

We here at Brain Forest Centers fully believe in the power you have to take back control of your life from the clutches of social media. For more information on how to heal from the mental health detriments of social media, visit our website!