HOW TO HAVE A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media has become an integral part of our lives in the 21st century. Rapid technological development has enabled us to connect with people across the globe, share our thoughts and opinions, access information and entertainment, express our creativity, and explore identity.
The first instance of social media can be traced back to 1997, when a website called Six Degrees allowed users to create profiles and make friends with other users. The concept reflects the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who theorized that everyone on the planet is connected by as few as six intermediaries. This idea has contributed substantially to our understanding of social connection and networking today and can even be seen in the way social media has quickly become a central focus in the way we conduct our affairs. In just over 20 years, social media has evolved into a diverse and dynamic phenomenon, with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and many more.
Social media has both positives and negatives, depending on how we use it and how it affects us. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of social media and how to make the most of it while minimizing the negatives. We will also provide some tips and suggestions on how to build a healthy relationship with social media so that it does not affect our mental health or productivity.
Key Benefits of Social Media
Social media has many benefits that can enhance our personal and professional lives. Some of the benefits of social media are:
- Social connection: Social media allows us to stay in touch with our friends and family, meet new people who share our interests, join online communities and groups, and participate in social events and activities.
- Information and education: We can get access to news and knowledge on various topics, such as politics, culture, science, health, etc. We can also learn new skills and hobbies, take online courses, watch tutorials and documentaries, and follow experts and influencers.
- Entertainment and fun: Extensions to social media offer us entertainment, such as sharing and watching videos, listening to music, playing games, browsing memes, sharing photos, reading stories and blogs, and more.
- Creativity and self-expression: We can use social media to explore and showcase our creativity and talent, express our opinions and emotions, share our experiences and perspectives, and build our personal brand and identity.
- Opportunities and empowerment: Social media can open up new opportunities and possibilities for us in terms of career, business, education, activism, etc. We can also use social media to support causes we care about, raise awareness about issues we face, advocate for the change we want to see, and empower ourselves and others.
Without social media, crowdfunding, e-commerce, and modern social movements would not have gained as much traction and would not be possible to the degree that they are today. Public opinions are also a lot easier to track through social media, making it far simpler to institute positive changes that benefit everyone societally.
The Dangers of Social Media
The cons of social media might outweigh the pros, especially for children and teens who are unaware of how it might affect their development. To understand, one needs to realize the effects of social media on the brain and body and how this can change our perceptions and overall well-being if not kept in check.
How Does Social Media Affect the Brain?
Social media and the use of digital devices, in general, are now known to promote changes to the way our brains function. When we use these devices, our attention shifts from our physical senses and diverts toward different aspects of our minds. With respect to social media, this often engages brain areas revolving around socialization, language processing, and reward.
Socializing is a naturally motivating activity that sparks dopamine release in the brain. In ordinary settings, this is usually a healthy, rewarding activity that strengthens our ties with friends, family, and our community while alleviating stress and improving mental well-being. With social media, the physical component is removed, selective emphasis is placed mostly on oneself, sometimes another, and the rewarding component is intensified with likes, views, shares, followers, etc. These all release more dopamine than ordinary socializing, which may reinforce a number of behaviors, including social withdrawal, sedentary living, and portrayal of the self in an exaggerated light.
The combo of dopamine from social media, focus on the self, and a lack of sensory awareness also promotes brain changes that can impact the following:
- Attention span
- Emotional regulation
- Decision making
- Impulse control and self-regulation
These can lead to frequent boredom, poor judgment, impulsivity, reduced empathy, and outright social media addiction. Studies suggest that these changes are not as pervasive or all-consuming as those seen in other types of addictions, such as gambling or substance abuse, and that they may take longer to reach the same degree of intensity.
Across studies, social media is also associated with increasing the risk for depression and anxiety. Over the course of a lifetime, social media-related brain changes may also increase the risk for mental health and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Social Media Addiction
As explained above, social media is addictive.
Social media addiction is a condition where a person becomes excessively dependent on or obsessed with social media to the point where it interferes with their normal functioning, such as work, school, family, or health.
It is estimated that as much as 20-30% of the world’s population suffers from social media addiction, with statistics about social media addiction even reaching as much as 50-70% for select populations. Teenagers and young adults appear to be at the most risk.
Three of the most compelling factors related to social media addiction include social skills, personal resiliency, and problem-solving. Individuals lacking these factors may be susceptible, which can also explain why teens and young adults might struggle more than older adults with social media addiction. Using social media may affect one’s psychosocial development by further detracting from these skills.
Some common social media addiction symptoms include:
- Spending too much time on social media, often neglecting other activities or responsibilities.
- Feeling restless, anxious, or irritable when not able to access social media.
- Having a constant urge or need to check or update social media.
- Using social media as a means to escape from reality or cope with stress.
- Neglecting personal hygiene, sleep, or nutrition because of social media use.
- Experiencing negative consequences due to social media use, such as low self-esteem, depression, isolation, conflict, or poor performance.
- Continued use of social media in spite of problems, consequences, or impairments.
- Unsuccessful attempts at stopping or cutting back on social media usage.
Psychology of Social Media: Appearance and Perception
Social media affects mental health in many more ways than just promoting addiction and changing brain structure. It also has a psychological impact. Social media allows us to present ourselves in the way we want to be seen by others and to manage the impressions we make on them. We can choose what to share, how to share it, and who to share it with. We can also edit, filter, or delete our posts, comments, or profiles. This can create pressure to conform to social norms, expectations, or ideals.
It can also lead to self-enhancement, self-promotion, or self-deception. Some studies have found that some people take to presenting themselves more positively or favorably on social media than in real life, occasionally even creating an entirely fake online persona. This can affect how we perceive ourselves and others and how we relate to them. In our physical interactions with others, managing how we present ourselves and what others think of us borders on mental health problems like narcissism. Social media may encourage these qualities in susceptible individuals by providing rewards for this kind of behavior.
Body Image, Self-Esteem and Identity
Following on from managing how we appear to others and being rewarded for that, the often unrealistic reflections we receive from others on social media can affect how we perceive ourselves and our bodies as well.
Only seeing people in an attractive light promotes idealistic and unrealistic standards of beauty and attractiveness. When we look at others’ posts, we might feel inclined to portray our lives in similar (unrealistic) ways, or we might feel upset if we can’t. It is important to keep in mind that these ideas lead to the objectification of the self and others, which encourages comparison, competitive thinking, scrutiny, dissatisfaction and insecurity. It can make one highlight or even exaggerate their own flaws privately and conceal them more publicly, creating undue pressure. In some cases, this can cause people to develop eating disorders or body dysmorphia, such as anorexia.
Body image and self-esteem are closely tied to one’s sense of identity and belonging. These points are especially pertinent for children, teens, and young adults whose sense of self is still developing. The youth may feel bound by an image they create online as well as what others think of that image, which may foster problems pertaining to self and body image from early on. It also leaves them vulnerable to cyberbullying. Parents and young adults ought to be aware of these problems and make efforts to protect their children or themselves from damage that can arise from identifying too strongly with one’s image on social media.
Impact on Mental Health
Naturally, the impact of social media on our brains, perceptions, and ability to relate to the self and others can all conspire to affect mental health in various positive and negative ways.
From a positive perspective, it can provide a continuous source of social connectedness, lower loneliness, improve mood, further motivation and inspiration, and boost confidence.
The negatives have been well described above, and include:
- Causing stress and anxiety
- Inducing fear of missing out (FOMO) or envy
- Triggering comparison and dissatisfaction
- Exposure to cyberbullying or harassment
- Distortion of reality and unreal expectations
The ultimate effect social media has on our mental well-being depends upon our awareness of what it does, how we choose to use it and portray ourselves, what we choose to use it for, and who or what we choose to follow.
How Social Media Affects Physical Health
Over and above what it does to our minds, there are a few physical effects of social media that are related to electronic device use. These include:
Inflammation and Health Complaints
Researchers have found a connection between social media use and chronic inflammation, an unbalanced immune response that contributes to many diseases and disorders. A study found that higher social media use was correlated with higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation in the blood. In addition to elevated CRP levels, results suggest higher social media use was also associated with somatic symptoms, such as headaches, chest and back pains, and more frequent doctor visits due to illness.
Social media use can also interfere with our sleep quality and quantity, which can have negative consequences for our physical and mental health. Using social media before bed can disrupt our circadian rhythm, the natural cycle that regulates our sleep and wakefulness. This can be due to the blue light emitted by the screens, which can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep. Social media use can also keep us awake by stimulating our brain activity via dopamine release, arousing our emotions, or creating anxiety.
Social Media’s Impact on Society
True to the concept that founded Six Degrees, social media has impacted society and the way we interact with others. The role of technology and social media in our lives has enhanced our ability to communicate and collaborate over long distances. Social media influence has improved global awareness, education, inclusion, participation, activism, and transparency. With social media, people have managed to communicate group opinions more effectively and effect mass change in a much shorter span of time.
However, social media can also have some negative impacts on our society that often contradict its benefits, such as:
- Creating polarized groups of people and related divisive thinking
- Spreading misinformation and propaganda
- Eroding privacy and security
- Reducing empathy and civility
- Undermining authority and credibility
Whether social media will ultimately contribute towards mass cohesion and positive outcomes or division and negative outcomes depends on how people decide to use it.
How to Build a Healthy Relationship with Social Media
Social media is not inherently good or bad but rather a tool that we can use for various purposes and outcomes. The key is to use social media in a way that benefits us and others without compromising our well-being, relationships, or values. This requires a mindful approach, an informed point of view, selective support, and an emphasis on leading a healthier lifestyle.
Below are some tips and suggestions on how to build a healthy relationship with social media.
Using Social Media Positively and Constructively
Social media can be a profoundly beneficial tool for ourselves and our communities. If used responsibly by everyone, it can help us improve our mental well-being, remain informed and entertained, and help foster positive societal qualities.
Positive and constructive purposes social media can be used for include:
- Connecting with people who matter to us
- Learning new things or developing new skills
- Expressing ourselves or sharing our passions
- Supporting causes or issues we care about
- Seeking help or offering help to others
To use social media beneficially, we can:
- Follow accounts or pages that inspire us, educate us, or make us happy
- Engage in meaningful conversations or interactions with others
- Share content that reflects our authentic selves or values, yet avoid sharing personal content that might place one at risk of harassment or peer pressure
- Avoid using social media to harm ourselves or others, which requires for one to think before acting
- Give positive feedback or compliments to others
- Seek constructive feedback or advice from others
Cultivating a Healthy Relationship with Social Media
Even if one abides by making positive and constructive use of social media, spending too much time on it can still promote addiction and other unwarranted health effects. It is important to cultivate a healthy relationship with social media such that it is properly incorporated into life and not a defining feature.
Here are some tips to forge a healthy relationship with social media:
- Prioritise offline activities more than online activities to achieve an optimal balance
- Schedule regular face-to-face social activities devoid of electronic devices
- Make sure to get enough physical stimulation and activity
- Set boundaries and limits on how much time is spent on social media
- Turn off notifications or mute accounts that distract or stress you out
- Take breaks from social media regularly or periodically
- Practice mindfulness or gratitude when using social media
Dealing with Social Media Addiction
Social media addiction can be a grave concern that requires professional help.
If you notice any signs or symptoms of social media addiction or simply realize it’s taking over your life too much, consider the following:
- Admitting to the problem and committing to curbing your need for social media
- Identifying triggers or reasons for using social media excessively
- Finding healthier alternatives to cope with stress, boredom, loneliness, or other emotions
- Filling your time with more productive hobbies
- Limiting time spent on social media for impractical reasons
- Deleting or deactivating accounts you no longer need or use
- Using apps or tools that monitor or limit social media use
- Putting your phone, tablet or computer away for a set time every day
If you find yourself battling with social media addiction and cannot take steps to curb your addiction, then it might be time to seek professional help from a therapist, counselor, or doctor. They can help you implement more effective strategies for managing addiction and claiming your life back.
Social media is a powerful and pervasive phenomenon that has both pros and cons. It can enrich our lives in as many ways as it can harm our well-being. The key is to use social media wisely and responsibly and to find a balance that works for us and others. Building a healthy relationship with social media demands building a healthy lifestyle that can integrate its use responsibly, as opposed to leading your life around social media. If you find yourself wasting lots of time on social media and that it is starting to affect your mental well-being, you may wish to seek professional advice, especially if you struggle to stop.
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-  https://hbr.org/2003/02/the-science-behind-six-degrees
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5362930/
-  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26783723/
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8170001/
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542170/
-  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33550200/
-  https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/research/social-media-addiction-statistics
-  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34250109/
-  https://online.king.edu/news/psychology-of-social-media/
-  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evidence-based-living/202110/the-pros-and-cons-social-media-youth
-  https://www.buffalo.edu/ubnow/stories/2022/01/social-media-physical-health.html
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