Most of us have found ourselves scrolling through Facebook, swiping nonstop on Instagram Stories, or immersed in our Twitter feed without even being completely aware that we opened up the app. Checking social media has become as reflexive as checking your wrist for the time once was, but it’s not without negative impact: A recent study indicates that the most active social media users carry an increased risk of anxiety and depression. Merriam Webster has actually noted a new phrase they’re tracking: doomscrolling, known as “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.”
Although we often associate social media usage and mental health with young adults, the effects are more universal than we often assume, especially as we navigate COVID-19 and racial inequality on social networking sites.
Social media and mental health
Social media can stoke anxiety because it can lead to us comparing our lives to others and because it’s often a one-way street of information at an astounding rate, which can easily be overstimulating.
“Social media can contribute to feelings of depression, especially when content on social media is used to compare yourself with others or used as a tool to examine and judge your past,” says Maria Mouratidis, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt.
Social media does a lot of work in terms of communicating societal messages such as how we should look and even what personal and professional success looks like. Whether feeling as though someone else’s career trajectory is outpacing yours, feeling behind in the pace at which you find a significant other and start a family or simply feeling envious when friends are on vacation without you, the comparative nature of social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
“I like to say that comparison is a game we almost always lose, and social media typically is curated to make comparison almost a requirement,” says Matt Estey, LCSW, a program director of Menninger 360.
Take, for instance, the “Instagram vs. Reality” posts that aim to remind audiences that users are often posting a curated, polished version of their life rather than taking selfies while looking their worst or talking about feeling sad, depressed, lonely, jealous, or envious. It’s very natural to believe that we’re the only ones experiencing what we’re feeling when we’re only seeing the best version of other people on social media.
This phenomenon can be even tougher for teens and young adults to navigate: “Young people are easily influenced by what they perceive society is suggesting they should look, what they should have, and how they should feel, especially as their sense of self is developing,” Mouratidis says. The discrepancies between how they may feel and look and what social media is portraying, including body image suggestions, can lead to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and self-doubt. When things like cyberbullying are introduced, the impact of social media can be even more detrimental.
Another issue is that social media has in many cases shifted from a way to stay connected with those we don’t engage with as often to a one-way dialogue and information intake. Social media inherently produces a lot of stimulation to the brain. There is a lot of information and a lot of emotional content that the brain processes when engaging with social media, meaning that “checking out” to scroll your feed is likely more emotionally taxing than you realize.
Finally, use of social media and anxiety can also feed each other, according to Mouratidis. People experiencing anxiety may use social media more in an effort to relieve anxiety; however using social media excessively may reinforce or cause more anxiety.
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Social media in the time of COVID-19
When we experience uncertainty, Mouratidis explains, our brains err on the side of caution by assuming threat, a survival instinct that prevents us from missing or overlooking real danger. For someone who is prone to anxiety, it’s all the more difficult to override that natural tendency to perceive all potential threats as real. COVID-19 updates on social media often raise more questions than they answer: We don’t know how bad the pandemic could get or when it’s going to get better, so this piques our natural instinct to assume threat and enter an anxiety state.
“Social media is no longer that peaceful, playful raft we can lie on. It’s rapid-fire in its succession of anger and bad news,” says Peter Turco, LCSW-R, a psychotherapist practicing in New York City. In a time when we can’t even hug each other, and we’re looking for connection while we’re isolated and distanced, social media has taken on more of a burden for many in their quest for connection.
Turco finds similarities in COVID-19 information intake to 9/11: “People were traumatized even if they were not in New York because they were seeing planes hit buildings over and over again on CNN.” COVID-19 is a progressive event, so we’re seeing numbers go up every day on social media or the news and not knowing what the resolution is going to be. He explains that we’re naturally drawn to consuming information about COVID-19 because we’re hoping for something positive or uplifting to appear. Instead, it’s often something new and threatening.
Our intake is a matter of frequency and saturation, adds Estey. “Watching CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News for six to eight hours at a time is likely just as deleterious to your mental health as scrolling through “curated” social media news feeds for the same amount of time,” he says.
Social media activism
Social media has become a central platform for social movements, which has amplified many important voices and messages, but social activism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and because the stakes are so high, the anxiety often is, too.
“For people who have been experiencing the effects of social injustice firsthand, having a daily saturation of ongoing depredations might feel quite overwhelming,” Estey says. Further, social media is open to anyone’s views, so there are going to be people who are saying things to stir people one direction or another. When it comes from a direction of malice or ignorance, this is obviously especially damaging and can lead to mental health issues.
Recent events have caused an increase of posts and debates about political, racial, and socioeconomic debates. Embracing discomfort and using it to propel a learning process is a positive use, but sinking into it while continuing to scroll social media can have clear negative effects.
In recent years, social media has also presented a lot of criticism, including for those working toward the same or similar goals. Even with subtle differences, there can be a lot of infighting, notes Turco, which can attack one’s self-esteem. Asking whether you’re doing enough is an important step toward social justice, but overconsuming and becoming paralyzed with anxiety isn’t beneficial to you or your cause.
7 signs you need a social media break
“You don’t want to work too hard when you’re looking at social media, and unfortunately in the current situation, we’re all working too hard,” Turco says of the past few months. When experiencing anxiety, we should seek to slow down our nervous system rather than bombard it with more information via social media. But knowing that social media is having a negative effect on your well-being isn’t always obvious. Here are some warning signs of doomscrolling to look out for:
- Increased anxiety: If your anxiety is spiking or you feel mental fatigue or depressive symptoms, you may want to look at social media’s potential role in these changes.
- Loneliness and isolation: Social media and depression have been connected time and time again. Our social networks don’t take the place of real life social interactions like one might hope it would. It’s often a solitary endeavor, so you may notice yourself becoming more isolated and not connecting with others personally.
- Lost time: If you go into a bubble and lose track of time while using social media, it might be time to dial it back.
- Inconsistencies: Presenting yourself on social media platforms in a way that’s inconsistent with who you are or how you are feeling can be a sign that the use is not constructive.
- Insomnia: If you can’t get to sleep because it feels like your brain was working too hard, your sleep is disrupted or you have trouble falling asleep, it could be attributable to social media use.
- Distraction: If you feel a pervasive malaise or persistent distraction, you likely need to seek out real human interaction vs. social media interaction.
- Arguments: Getting into arguments on social media is likely a sign you’re too invested in the platform.
How to stop scrolling while still feeling connected
Once you’ve recognized that you may need to decrease your social media intake, Estey recommends constructing some “speed bumps” into your digital life. Although social media can be a great way to connect with others, especially while we remain socially distanced, it’s best if it is not the only way, says Mouratidis.
- Build social connection: Spend time with others outside of social media, whether it be a socially distant walk or a FaceTime chat.
- Develop mindfulness: Opening up social media can become very reflexive. Practicing mindfulness via meditation or checking in with yourself before you open up a social network will bring more awareness to how often you’re using social media throughout the day.
- Set goals: Aim to only use social media when it helps to advance your personal or professional goals or reduces your anxiety.
- Disable notifications: Notifications are designed to keep us opening up the apps. Disabling notifications helps break your habits and reflectively opening up social media platforms.
- Designate social media breaks: Use your smartphone’s features (like the iPhone Screen Time function) or a timer to limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Put your phone down at least an hour before you go to bed to allow your brain to wind down before falling asleep.
- Consider the content: It helps not only to restrict the time but also to restrict the type of content you’re consuming. Consider a balanced selection that also includes apolitical areas that are soothing and create a sense of calm or humor. Rather than getting on your angry college roommate’s page or trolling an ex’s grid, check in with your cousin whom you haven’t seen in a while.
- Add structure: Planning when you eat lunch or do your laundry—or scheduling time to watch a documentary or TV show—is very helpful in creating structure and preventing “dead time” that we feel we need to fill with social media.
- Delete the apps: Delete social media from your phone but leave it on a device you use sparingly. This cuts down on reflexively opening apps while allowing some use in your life.
- Use it for its intent: Focus your social media use on staying in touch with someone rather than engaging in a one-way dialogue of information intake, and you’ll feel more present.
- Model good behavior: It’s crucial that parents model effective social media habits to their children. For example, having conversations with others as opposed to strictly interacting on social media platforms and not using technology while eating dinner with family members.
- Limit your list: Unfriend acquaintances or unfollow accounts that you find triggering or that aren’t benefiting your mental health.
Ultimately, successful social media use comes down to enhancing rather than indulging, concludes Turco. “You can indulge in social media and get nothing out of it except lose a few hours of sleep and get irritated at your partner for no reason, or you can use it to meaningfully connect with people and enhance your life,” he says.