Social Media and Mental Health

One of the best decisions I’ve made recently was to deactivate my personal Instagram account. I kept my professional counseling account, but even there, I chose to follow very few people and haven’t been very active lately. Why did I decide to go off Instagram, and why has it been so good for me? The answer, I think, has a few different layers that are helpful to peel back and explore. So let’s get into it.

First, I want to say that I don’t believe social media is all bad. In fact, it can be a great way to connect people; most of the friendships I’ve made since living overseas have been through various Facebook groups. It can be a resource for a wide range of knowledge; much of my Spanish language learning has been through accounts on Instagram that teach Spanish. Social media has given us the chance to reconnect with people we haven’t seen in years and stay in touch with people we live far away from. It can be a great thing if we use it wisely!

But, it’s my opinion that most of us don’t use it wisely or set good boundaries when it comes to our social media use and what we take in. Let’s break down why social media can be counterproductive for our mental health if we’re not careful.

The Comparison Game:

I can’t recall where I heard the term “the comparison game,” (or if it’s something I made up and think came from somewhere else) but we can all agree that this is one of the worst pitfalls of social media. Comparing ourselves to the seemingly perfect lives of our friends or the people we follow. (We could also break down the language of the use of the word ‘follower’ rather than ‘friend’ and argue that it makes us feel separated or set apart from the people we interact with, and that it reinforces a need to feel special and praised. But let’s save that for the linguistics experts.) Most of what we see on social media are the highlights: birthdays, anniversaries, accomplishments, trips and vacations, growing families, etc. We also tend to see edited versions of people’s lives, whether it’s an edited photo or an edited version of the circumstances (read: a smiling family at the beach that had just been in a big argument moments before). Either way, it’s not the whole picture. And why would it be? We’ve determined that for the most part, social media is a place where we talk about the good parts of life, and maybe we touch on the difficult parts, but often times we know we’ll receive affirmation and praise for being so vulnerable on social media. The problem is that, even if we can compartmentalize and rationalize that what we’re seeing isn’t the whole picture, it’s hard for the thinking part of us and the feeling part of us to align on this. Our newsfeeds reinforce the belief that other people are having more fun, more success, more money, and better lives than us. And what does that give us? Insecurity, inferiority, discontentment, envy. We stop being able to be happy for our friends (abundance mentality) and start feeling badly about ourselves (scarcity mentality).

We aren’t meant to have this many friends:

Not only are we bombarded with the amazing vacations our friends are taking and the beautiful homes they’re buying (or maybe in your teenagers’ cases: the amazing clothes, skin, and friends they have), but we are being bombarded by it from way too many people— most of them we don’t even know very well. If you’re an adult, think about how many friends you had before social media. You probably had a circle of acquaintances, a smaller circle of good but not close friends, and an even smaller circle of close intimate friends. Compared to having a relatively small social circle, having upwards of 500 friends on social media seems nearly impossible to manage. We find ourselves friends with or following people that we knew years ago, people we met once or twice, or people who we don’t even know apart from social media. This might not seem like a big deal at first glance, but we have to consider what happens when we’re constantly observing people’s lives via social media, but not interacting with them on a regular basis. All we see are the highlights, but we don’t see the full picture (this goes back to the “Comparison Game”). We aren’t in relationship with most of these ‘friends,’ so we really don’t know them; and with the high volume of these kinds of interactions, it only reinforces the belief that everyone else’s lives are better than our own.

The other issue with having so many ‘friends’ or following so many people is that it skews our perspective of what relationships and friendships really are. We start to consider actions like ‘liking,’ ‘commenting,’ and ‘following’ as friendship interactions. In some ways they can be, but in reality, these social media interactions are not the same as real face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversations with friends. We may start to feel like we have a large circle of friends, or get validation from the amount of likes and comments our posts receive, and think to ourselves that we have a fulfilling social life. More than likely though, if we are solely depending on these types of interactions to meet our relational needs, we’ll end up feeling lonely and disconnected. Even though it feels like we know people (and that they know us) based on social media ‘friendships,’ it’s just not the same as having real-life friends that we do life with, share our struggles with, celebrate our wins with. The same thing tends to happen to people who follow celebrities on social media. People start to feel that they know these celebrities intimately, but really it’s a one-sided one-way ‘friendship.’ We don’t really know celebrities, but we interact with their content so frequently that it starts to feel that way. But these types of interactions often times lead to emptiness rather than fulfillment, because the ‘friendship’ and interactions will almost never be reciprocated by that celebrity or figure.

So are we supposed to just abandon social media completely?

Not unless you decide that’s the healthiest approach for you! Like I said before, social media isn’t all bad. But just like anything else that we take in for entertainment, we need to set boundaries. I believe that setting healthy boundaries with social media is crucial for our mental health, as well as for our relationships and friendships. Some concrete steps you could take are: limiting the time you spend on social media; limiting the number of accounts you follow or are ‘friends’ with; choosing to follow accounts of people you personally know and have relationships with, rather than strangers or celebrities; choosing to follow accounts that don’t affect the way you view yourself or feel about yourself. If you find yourself playing the “Comparison Game” or feeling less-than, it’s time to assess your social media use and set some boundaries. If you find yourself spending a lot of time interacting with ‘friends’ on social media, but feel lonely and isolated because you lack real-life friendships, it’s time to set some boundaries with social media.

An additional note for parents with teenagers or children with social media:

Social media can be a dangerous place for developing brains for a number of reasons. Teenagers are more likely to experience cyber-bullying when using social media, as well as be exposed to content that is not age appropriate. Your teenagers are still developing their decision-making skills, so having free rein of access to social media is not what I recommend. I encourage parents to have an open and honest conversation about the pros and cons of social media use and what motivates their teens’ desire to use social media (i.e. peer pressure, loneliness, interest). I also recommend helping your teens set healthy boundaries with social media, as well as monitoring these boundaries with your child (maintaining open, honest dialogue) to ensure that they are using social media safely. Some examples of boundaries for teenagers using social media could be: leaving their phone in the living room overnight to charge so that they don’t stay up late at night; agreeing on which accounts are appropriate for teens to follow (protecting them from adult content or highly influential content); parents openly following their teens’ accounts to check in on appropriate interactions. This can be a tight-rope to walk with teenagers, as they are coming into the season of life where they start to separate from parents and explore their independence. Parents may find that being too controlling or overpowering about social media use leads to small acts of rebellion from teenagers and may actually be damaging relationally. Remember that this is the era that teens are living in, and rather than try to totally control and prohibit their social media use, it’s more effective to stay in that conversation and leave the door open for honest conversation around this topic. I have noticed some changes in myself since leaving Instagram. I don’t feel the subconscious need to take photos and videos of everything I do now; many times my phone stays in my purse and I realize I didn’t take any pictures at all! I don’t feel the need to plan out my posts or stories or think of witty captions. I have noticed myself enjoying social interactions more, living more in the moment, and comparing myself to others less. So, perhaps quitting social media altogether isn’t for you, but you can certainly take some time to consider your boundaries and take care of yourself when it comes to your social media platforms.

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