By Ema Sichmanova.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? For many of you, I guarantee that the answer is that you check your phone. After all, looking at our social media has become an inevitable part of our daily routine. Our attachment to these devices is undeniable: according to the U.S. edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey published by Deloitte, American consumers check their phone around 52 times a day on average. Furthermore, a Communications Market Report conducted by Ofcom in 2018 claims that the average person in the UK checks their smartphone every 12 minutes and overall spends one day out of a week online. More and more each day, we are slipping into the digital world. As a result of this excessive dependency on social media, an increasing number of studies have been conducted focusing on how social media can have a tangible effect on people and their mental health.
Why do we spend so much time on social media? Studies have shown that the reason for this is dopamine. When we are browsing social media and we get a notification for a ‘like’, ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ our bodies experience a little rush. This feeling is caused by dopamine, a chemical in our brain responsible for the feeling of pleasure. Dopamine does not only make us feel pleasure, but it also makes us crave it and seek more of it. This is what makes staying off social media so difficult. A study conducted by UCLA’s Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Centre monitored the brain activity of 32 teenagers while showing them photos from social media. The study found that when the teenagers were shown posts with high number of ‘likes’, they would experience the same feeling as if eating chocolate or winning money. It is not surprising that some teenagers then become obsessed with social media. Obsessive use can ultimately lead to a so-called ‘social media addiction’. Addiction Centre states that such addiction is categorized as a behavioural addiction, and its symptoms can be demonstrated by this obsessive usage of social media, the need to be constantly online and putting social media above anything else as the most important part of life.
Social media has also been proven to cause negative feelings that can lead to stress, anxiety, low self-esteem or even depression. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland conducted a research which found that teenagers who use social media for more than three hours a day have double the risk of mental health problems than those avoiding social media. For example, users can experience what is known as FOMO, the fear of missing out. Social media can lead to comparing our lives with people we see online. Seeing someone on a holiday having a good time, hanging out with friends, getting a new house or a new job can lead to negative feelings as if we are missing out on something. The ‘fear of missing out’ has also been linked with lower life satisfaction, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, loneliness and inadequacy. This feeling can then develop even further into ‘Facebook envy’. If these feelings of envy transpire, one may feel envious of everyone they follow online and be stuck in a constant state of comparison, feeling unable to appreciate and be grateful what they have. This poses a very dangerous mindset, in which people can compare everything from looks, money, jobs, or even the numbers of friends they have. In 2015 the University of Missouri conducted a study which found that these envious feelings can subsequently even lead to symptoms of depression.
Another possibly harmful influence of social media that is often the topic of discussion, is its negative effect on our self-esteem and body image. Danielle Leigh Wagstaff, a psychology professor at Federation University of Australia, says that it is natural for people to compare themselves with others, as this helps us to figure out where we stand in the society. However, Professor Wagstaff claims that Instagram and similar social platforms do not help us figure out where we stand but instead confuse us, as they make us constantly question our standing and push us to continuously compare ourselves with others. This unhealthy comparison is detrimental to the way we see ourselves. Social media filled with overly edited photos give people unrealistic expectations on how to look and behave. This is especially harmful to young girls who use social media as the standard for what they should look like. According to the Royal Society of Public Health, 9 out of 10 young females say that they are unhappy with the way they look.
To shed more light on this issue, photographer Rankin Waddell, known professionally as Rankin, initiated a social experiment called ‘Selfie Harm’. Rankin asked 15 teenagers to edit their picture until they believe it to be social media-ready. The results were shocking but represented the issue of today’s society. The original pictures showed naturally beautiful people, while the edited ones were overly retouched, with bigger lips, unnaturally perfect and glowing skin, tiny nose and big eyes giving the impression of a doll rather than a human. To comment on the experiment Rankin stated, “it’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image. It’s just another reason why we are living in a world of FOMO, sadness, increased anxiety, and Snapchat dysmorphia.”
It is evident that social media can have many negative impacts on mental health. Since social media play a large role in our lives, it is time to acknowledge its detrimental effects and speak out more about these issues. Especially, to younger more vulnerable people who are just trying to figure out where they stand. If you are feeling that social media may be negatively affecting your life, research by the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology recommends limiting social media activity to 30 minutes a day, as participants of this study claimed to feel better after doing so, reporting feeling less depressed, anxious and lonely.