Social media has allowed us to become more connected than ever before. You can keep in touch with friends and relatives near and far, connect with likeminded people around the world, see what your favorite celebrities are up to, and have a platform to let your voice be heard. But it can also create harmful habits or impact your mental wellbeing. We spoke with Ashley Gilmore, a director on the professional staff at Texas Health Behavioral Health Center Dallas, to discuss social media’s impact on your health and healthier ways to use it.
Just like anything, social media exposure (SME) has its pros and cons. Gilmore notes that while we may be initially attracted to social media because of its ability to keep us connected, all that screen time can outweigh the benefits.
“It’s no secret that the more time we spend on social media, the more likely we are to experience problems with our wellbeing,” she says. “Depression, loneliness, and social comparison increase with our SME. Beyond those initial mood changes, our bodies feel the effects of too much screen time by losing sleep, losing physical activity, less ability to pay attention, and increasing our desire to access the very thing that is causing damage.”
If you’ve ever taken a tablet away from a child, tossed and turned at the thought of what you may be missing on your social feeds, or panicked searching for your missing phone, you know that last point all too well.
Believe it or not, Gilmore adds that there isn’t much of a generational gap when it comes to social media, noting that the majority of people in each generation access social media at least once per day. But the effects on our bodies and wellbeing are felt differently as we get older and can have a ripple effect.
“Generally, the more time spent on social media creates more risk to experience negative effects, and that is not isolated to a generation; however, losing sleep to stay on social media will affect a 65-year-old differently than a 25-year-old,” she explains. “The key is to look at when we are accessing social media. If you are scrolling while you eat, you are less likely to pay attention to your feelings of fullness. If you scroll before bed, you are more likely to use it later into the night and lose sleep time.”
Gilmore notes that this disruption can also be felt during in-person interactions. You may choose to scroll through your social media feed at dinner instead of making conversation with the people at the table. Or you may get so caught up in what’s online that you’re not present for those with whom you’re spending time, such as enjoying a movie with your family or playing a game with friends.
“In all of those instances, our social media use may be filling emotional needs that would be better served by working on the interpersonal relationship in front of us,” Gilmore adds.
How to Identify Unhealthy Social Media Behaviors
It’s not always easy to see how much social media use affects your day to day activities. Gilmore recommends asking yourself if you ever find yourself doing the following:
- Mini check-ins: Feeling compelled to fill those 1 to 2 minutes while you’re at a traffic stop or waiting for an elevator to check your phone can signal that you are becoming less willing to tolerate short bouts of boredom or waiting.
- Bookending: Feeling compelled to check your social media when you wake up and/or just before bed can signal that you have created a habit out of accessing, rather than it serving any real purpose in your routine.
- Self-Voyeurism: Approaching your hobbies, social gatherings, and interests as things that will create a great post can signal that you are viewing your life through the lens of how other people will see it and like it, rather than how you feel experiencing it.
How to Create Healthier Habits
When you plan to change a behavior, Gilmore adds that it’s always easier to start with manageable goals. She gives the example of spending a few days being mindful of how much time you’re using technology, along with a breakdown of how you’re spending that time. A few checks per day can add up. Many smartphones have the option to track your screen time and compile a report for you to see as well. After you gather how much time you’re spending using technology, try to reduce your daily time by 10 minutes a day.
“Recent research shows us that reducing social media exposure to 30 minutes or less a day can greatly increase our wellbeing,” Gilmore adds. “Reduce your daily time on social media until you’re using social media at most 30 minutes a day total. Fill that newly freed time with hobbies and interests to continue increasing your wellbeing.”
How to Make Your Social Sphere a More Positive Place
- Know what purpose you want social media to serve in your life and then set boundaries to keep it there — Wanting to grow your professional network? Seek out colleagues on an appropriate platform like LinkedIn, rather than granting them access to your family photos through Facebook. Find platforms that meet your needs, hobbies, and interests rather than juggling everything and everybody within one platform.
- Think before posting — Sometimes you may need to pause and think through what you’re posting and reconsider or delete altogether. Does your message spread positivity or encouragement? Are you succumbing to negative comments and trolls? Think twice before you post.
- Remember: what goes on the internet stays on the internet — Some things we think will be private may turn out to be not so private and people have experienced the loss of jobs, friends, professional networks, and community esteem. If you wouldn’t say it in person or write it by hand and sign your name to it, then don’t put it online.
- Fix your feed — You are under no obligation to read or interact with content that is upsetting to you. If you’re wanting news, go to an unbiased news source. For social media, feel free to look at content that fits your interests and connect with users that share your values. Block, unfollow, and unfriend as much as you need to be able to enjoy your social media time. Spend your time connecting, not arguing.
Gilmore adds that if you suffer from a mental illness or eating disorder, social media can be a place of support but also a slippery slope of triggering content.
“A word of support to people struggling is to turn off comments or commit to not reading them, limit your social media time around holidays where food is a focus, and take breaks from social media completely,” she says. “You can prioritize yourself and your wellbeing over staying connected to anything toxic to your mental health.”
Social media provides many resources but also has a strong influential presence. If you continuously feel stressed or overwhelmed when using social media, or worry about how much time you spend using social media, it may be worth taking a look at your habits.
If you or a loved one needs behavioral health support from a professional, Texas Health provides outpatient and inpatient care across North Texas. For information on services near you, visit Texas Health Behavioral Health or call the helpline at 682-549-7916, which is available 24/7.