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Social Media and Mental Health Part 2: The Dangers of Social Media

As discussed in part one of this series, social media offers some definite mental health benefits. It holds considerable potential as a means of communication and connection, while also offering substantial capacity as a tool for personal support and development. While users can reap the rewards of these positive aspects of social media, though, they should also remember that it also has a dark side. Dangers lurk in the waters of social media, many of which can affect our mental health.

1. Usage can lead to a social media addiction.

A study conducted by Harvard University discovered that using social media for expressing yourself activates a region of the brain that is associated with pleasure and addictions. The wider the audience, the greater the pleasure. And as with any addiction, you keep going back for more.

Social media addiction can have a stronger hold on people than addictions to cigarettes or alcohol, and many users recognize this growing compulsion. In fact, about six percent of users who choose to leave Facebook do so because they fear becoming addicted. So how can you tell if you’re developing an addiction?

An early symptom is that you have an increasingly difficult time with time management. Perhaps you begin showing up late for appointments, or maybe you miss them entirely. You start neglecting your normal household chores, stop taking care of yourself, and gradually disconnect from other interests and relationships (including with God and the Church). Eventually your thoughts become preoccupied with social media involvement.

If you’re becoming addicted and someone confronts you about it, chances are you will become defensive or feel guilty regarding your social media habits. An addiction can be manifested physically, too, as you might have trouble sleeping, experience strained vision, have backaches or headaches, develop Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, or have severe weight fluctuations.

2. Cyberbullying is rampant.

Statistics Canada reports that nearly 20 percent of Internet users aged 15 to 29 claim to have been cyberbullied or cyberstalked. This wasn’t even a possibility a generation or two ago, but happens today on a regular basis. Granted, bullying has always been prevalent in the schoolyard, but want makes cyberbullying particularly dangerous is that it can happen anonymously and can follow people right into their homes. It’s a threat 24/7.

The RCMP describes how cyberbullying “involves the use of communication technologies such as the Internet, social networking sites, websites, email, text messaging and instant messaging to repeatedly intimidate or harass others.” It can also include spreading embarrassing or compromising photographs, distributing someone’s private information, publicly mocking or attacking a person online, or posing as someone else online in order to lure a victim into a false sense of security or a dangerous relationship. Cyberbullying creates a sense of fear within the victim, leaving them feeling exposed, humiliated, trapped, and powerless.

Though some may view cyberbullying as an online problem, it can have ramifications in the real world, too. Victims are prone to developing a host of mental health and social issues, such as depression, anxiety, declining self-worth, decreased academic performance, increased aggression, stress-related health problems, and isolation. Furthermore, teenaged victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to commit suicide than teens who have not been cyberbullied. Cyberbullying is a significant problem on social media that must be brought into the light, not taken lightly.

3. Superficial relationships can replace real relationships.

Social media isn’t really all that social. In fact, it can be highly anti-social, causing people who would have otherwise been socially engaged in real-world relationships to withdraw into isolation. This can happen psychologically, but it can also happen simply because of time management; the time that could have been spent engaging with other people one-on-one is spent online instead.

A report published this past March in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine says that people who log onto social media for more than two hours per day are twice as likely to experience social isolation than those who spend less than half an hour. They experience a decreased sense of belonging, they have a lower engagement with others, and they find that they are less fulfilled in the relationships they do have. This study also revealed that people who visit various social media platforms at least 58 times per week are three times as likely to feel socially isolated than those who visit less than nine times per week.

What the study wasn’t able to determine was which came first: the social chicken or the isolated egg. Do people become isolated because they’re on social media, or are they on social media because they’re isolated? One of the senior authors of the study suggests that it could be a combination of both.

4. Comparisons can lead to a sense of inferiority.

Perhaps you log onto Facebook, see the perfect life that someone else portrays online, and you feel worse about your own life as a result. Or you browse through the photos of the amazing vacation one of your friends enjoyed, which causes you to feel like you’re missing out. What you forget, however, is that people choose what they’re going to post online. Few people will post about their failures or post less-than-flattering images of themselves, opting instead to present an idealized view of their reality. Unfortunately, when others compare their own flawed realities to these sanitized fantasies, it can cause them to experience feelings of inferiority.

Researchers at the University of Missouri looked into this problem and discovered that regular social media usage could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user. If the person wasn’t prone to become envious, however, social media could have a positive effect on their well-being instead.

With comparisons being made, the constant barrage of posts and images projecting the apparently-perfect lives of others can lead users to feel dissatisfied with their own lives. The segment of the population most vulnerable to this is young women. Over the past decade, the percentage of young women who show signs of mental illness has increased significantly, and social media is believed to be a major cause. While many social media platforms can have this effect, Instagram has been singled out as having the greatest impact, causing high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and the “fear of missing out.”

5. Social media can be used for escapism.

Users of social media, especially those dealing with anxiety or other social phobias, may turn to social media as a means of escaping from their relational difficulties, their financial problems, their families, their jobs, or whatever else might be causing trouble in their lives. Instead of dealing with issues, they set them aside in order to escape into the world of social media.

The danger, however, is that while they may be trying to escape life, social media becomes their life. An article in the Chicago Tribune even compared social media to crack cocaine as a tool for escapism.

When it comes to social media, there are lots of benefits, but plenty of dangers, too. So what do we do with all this? How can we establish healthy social media habits that will safeguard our mental health while also helping us keep life in perspective? Find out in the final installment of this series.