Social media and mental health

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and how we use it.  I’ve written recently about the power of social media in outright challenging outdated stereotypes, as well as how it can re-create social norms in more subtle ways.  In fact, I often dismiss nay-sayers who argue that social media drives disconnection, or has other negative effects on society in general, not just because I like to go against the grain when it comes to alarmist social diatribes (although that is pretty true too), but also because I genuinely believe that social media is simply an extension of old ways of communicating.

The problem, I think, is not in the fact that we communicate online as such, but in a shift in our social values away from meaning, belonging, connection, understanding and support – to an emphasis on material belongings, competition, individualism, fame (often at the expense of others) and extrinsic worth based on academic or vocational ‘success’.  I believe that this values shift underlies most of the problems with social media, not the simple fact that we now commonly communicate online.

However, in saying all of this, I’ve begun to notice a bit of a trend amongst the clients that I have been working with lately.  As part of their recovery (from a variety of mental health problems), many clients choose to de-activate or ‘stay away’ from their Facebook and other social media accounts.

There seems to be a number of reasons why people are doing so.  For some, social media almost becomes an addiction and they find they are losing hours a day online trawling through their newsfeeds.  For people who use social media to vent, any supportive comments or ‘likes’ function as a fairly immediate reinforcement, so it makes sense that it would be hard for a person to stop – especially if they are lacking in support or validation elsewhere.

In researching this blog, I found that Facebook addiction is so common that researchers have developed a psychological scale to measure it, called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale.  It includes questions such as “You spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planning how to use it” and “You use Facebook in order to forget about personal problems…You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more.”  It would seem to make sense then, that people with a social media addiction as part of an underlying mental health condition would choose to stay away as part of their recovery.

Other clients have mentioned that they find it difficult to remember that Facebook often functions as a ‘highlights reel’, where people post only the best and most successful aspects of their lives.  So when things are not going so well for someone, they feel embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated or even jealous when they see how well all of their family and friends are, supposedly, doing.

In an article on social media and mental health, Dr. Shannon M. Rauch from Anxiety UK says, “We know that many people on social media sites often present idealized versions of their lives, lending others to make upward social comparisons, which can lead to negative emotions.”  Cyber-bullying is of course another issue, particularly amongst young people, for whom social media has been around their whole lives and, in their worldview, may be seen as an accurate depiction of reality.

So what would I suggest?  Well for a start, I can see no problem at all with taking a ‘Facebook holiday’, particularly if you’ve recognised that looking at the site creates more negative than positive feelings for you.

It’s also important to remember to ‘reality check’ your Facebook feed every time you look at it. Remember that each person is probably only sharing the highlights of their day, week or year; and you never know what problems they may be facing in their ‘real world’ life.

Thirdly, I recommend that you unfriend or unfollow any people who are consistently negative or unsupportive.  After all, you wouldn’t hang out with people like that offline (at least not frequently), so why do it online?

Finally, make a real effort to use your social media for the power of good.  Subscribe to a bunch of inspirational quotes, if that’s your thing, connect with friends who really care about your wellbeing (or start arguments with those who can have a healthy and respectful debate!), share interesting tips, quotes or articles that have meaning for you, or photos or writing that you find inspiring or uplifting.

I don’t suggest that you filter out all bad stuff in life – after all, dealing with the negative is something we all have to do.  But there can be no harm in taking some ownership over your online spaces and making your social media your own, a space where you feel comfortable, and a place that supports (not detracts from) your mental wellbeing.

And of course, everything in moderation, including your Facebook use!

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