How social media can negatively impact your mental health… and what you can do about it

If you’re scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feed, filled with smiling selfies, declarations of love, and all that  #foodporn, you might find it hard to believe that 1 in 5 of your friends are living with a mental health issue. You might even start to notice that these ‘picture perfect’ snapshots of “real life” may lead to feelings of not measuring up, envy and even depression.

You aren’t alone. Studies show that those who spend a good chunk of their time on various social media platforms are at a higher risk of depression and anxiety. One such study asked approximately 2,000 adults about their social media habits, and then utilized an assessment tool to determine whether or not there was a connection between social media use and depression. There was.

 

Why would heavy social media usage cause depression? The exposure to “highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives,” is the study’s conclusion.

 

Always remember, what you see is not necessarily what you get.


Case in point: The other day, I was browsing through the photos on my friend’s phone, when I came across about a dozen identical photos of some nicely arranged flowers, a bottle of wine and a romantic card. Upon closer inspection, there were subtle differences: the background was less visible in one, the words on the card were blurry on the other, the angles were different. And then it hit me: I’d seen a version of these photos online just the other day. Clearly, she wanted to get the pic just rightbefore posting it online, of courseto give the world a glimpse into her “perfect” relationship. The irony? She had been venting to me about her partner throughout our entire lunch.

 

I get it. As a society, we don’t like to admit we have bad hair days, fights with our spouse, or kids who misbehave. To share the negative stuff publicly is to acknowledge we have some really terrible days along with the good ones. So we consciously choose not to share the bad—and conveniently forget that everyone else is doing the same. So when we see how well-travelled, or in love, orhellfertile the (virtual) Joneses are, we can’t help but feel a need to keep up. And if we can’t? Feelings of depression may ensue.

 

But can you imagine what a different world we would live in if people’s posts were a bit more true to life? Perhaps there would be a lot less shame, a little more compassion, and maybejust maybethe stigma of asking for help would all but be erased.

 

While I realize this is just a pipe dream, there are a few things we can actively do to help foster a mentally healthy society.

 

  1. Unleash your inner skeptic. At the end of the day, I can’t help but stress how important it is to take what you see on social media with a grain of salt. Similar to the way you watch reality TV, you may want to be extra incredulous when scrolling through your feed. Remind yourself that nobody’s life is perfect, and that you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. A good test? Monitor what you post over the next few days and see if it’s in line with what you’re actually feeling. You may be surprised at what you learn!
  2. Do not underestimate the kindness of real life* friends. (*not Facebook friends). If you’re feeling down, blue, or hopeless, reach out to trusted friends and let them know that you need them. In a world where the most common response to “how are you?” is “busy,” make sure your friends understand that this is serious business. Explain that you’re having a hard time and that you really need to talk to someone who cares. You’ll quickly realize who your real friends are based on who is still “too busy” and who will happily lend you their time and a shoulder to cry on. And if this doesn’t work, it may be time to seek professional help.
  3. Expand your definition of self-care. There’s no shame in going to an RMT to help ease our muscle pain, but due to the associated stigma, many of us are hesitant (or embarrassed) to speak with a professional to ease our mental load. Try this: Think of therapy as just another way to practice self-care, like getting a pedicure or going for a coffee with a friend. Change anything? Or, tell yourself that talk therapy lifts a weight off your shoulders similar to the way massage therapy reduces the tension in your neck and back. So maybe the two aren’t all that different. (This may sound silly, but it’s a good exercise in changing the way you think.)

 

Here’s the thing, when it comes to social media, people only like to share the good stuff. In fact, in this brave new world of personal brands and over-sharing, many individuals are actively creating and curating moments to ensure what they are presenting to their followers is only the best of the best. It’s what I like to call the photoshopping of real life.

But instead of doing everything we can to make our lives look good, it may be time to turn off technology and start living life for yourself again. You may realize that you enjoy living in the moment more than you enjoy getting another like.

 

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