Nearly nine in ten (88%) UK adults are online and, when it comes to young people, internet usage is near ubiquitous (98% of 16-24-year-olds). While 40% of the world’s population is on social media, here in the UK that figure jumps to 66%. And it plays a big role in our lives; the average person spends around two hours a day surfing these platforms. In this post we take a look at the benefits and the negatives of social media, before outlining some tangible steps you can take to make social media work for you.
We all know that human beings are social creatures, but did you know that strong social connection is associated with longevity, stronger immune systems and reduced anxiety and depression? Conversely, research has found a lack of such connection could be worse for health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure and it’s also been linked with declines in both physical and mental health. Social media is inherently supposed to be social, so can be used to create and foster connections.
Interacting with friends and family by commenting or reminiscing about past memories is linked with feelings of wellbeing. One study found that people who sent or received more messages enjoyed improved levels of social support and these positive effects were even stronger when the communication happened between close friends.
Social media can be used create connections that translate into real life too. Platforms such as Facebook can be used to unite local communities and inform residents about news, events and groups. By showcasing these opportunities for connection, social media can be used to help reduce isolation and loneliness within local communities.
Mental health support
While we’re all used to hearing about the negative impact of social media on mental health, The UK Mental Health Foundation says it is ‘undeniable’ that online technologies can be harnessed to reach the most vulnerable in society while reducing the stigma of getting help.
Social media users are encouraged to share their thoughts and images with the world; this can lead to more self-expression, which may be of use particularly in young adults who are just starting to find their place in the world and work out who they are.
Poor quality sleep
Not that long ago, humans used to spend the evening and night in candlelight or darkness. Yet now artificial lighting is with us until the moment we go to bed. Research has found this can inhibit the production of melatonin, which facilitates sleep. Blue light – which is emitted by smartphones – is said to be the worst offender. So, scrolling though Instagram or getting in a twitter debate before bed probably isn’t the best recipe for a good night’s sleep.
Depression and anxiety
A study of 1,700 people found a threefold risk of depression and anxiety among people who used the most social media platforms. However, it wasn’t the use of social media in and of itself that caused this, it was the consequences such as cyber-bullying and feeling like they were wasting their time. The amount of platforms used can also have an impact on mental health; research found that those using seven or more platforms were more than three times as likely as people using between none and two platforms to have high levels of general anxiety.
If you ever leave social media feeling worse about yourself, you’re not alone. A survey found nearly two thirds of users felt social media made them feel inadequate about their own lives and achievements. Research suggests that looking at other people’s selfies lowered self-esteem, as users compared themselves unfavourably. It could also be a case of seeing everyone’s highly edited highlight reel and assuming that is the full story and that you are alone in your struggles.
While many of us use social media to capture moments and turn them into memories, there is some evidence this doesn’t actually work. Research suggests that by documenting the events, you may actually have more difficulty preserving the memory in your own mind.
Self-harm and suicide
One of the most troubling concerns is the rise in disturbing online content which can encourage self-harm and even suicide. Just recently, father of British teenager Molly Russell said Instagram was partly to blame for her death. Considering suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year olds globally, it’s a significant concern that needs to be addressed. If you have young people in your life, start to foster an open conversation with them around social media and encourage them to share any disturbing content they come across with you. Such content can be reported directly to the platform; most of them have a simple process in place for reporting inappropriate content, just search for report or check out the help section. You can also report illegal or inappropriate online behaviour through the nationally acclaimed ThinkUKnow website. For more relevant resources and guidance, visit the Kent County Council website.
Make social media work for you
Research shows that social media has both positive and negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing. Some of the negatives could be from how the social media platform is used, rather than anything inherent about the platform. So, by tweaking your usage, you could mitigate some of the negative aspects.
If you’d like to continue using it, we’ve researched some tools and techniques you can use to make social media work for you, rather than feeling controlled by it.
Monitor social media usage
Before you make any changes, you might like to monitor your social media usage. How long do spend per day on it? Which platforms are you drawn towards? What causes you to visit it (e.g. boredom, anxiety)? Once you get a grip on your triggers, you’ll be better placed to pick the right strategies.
Set time limits
Research found that people who limit their social media use to 30 minutes a day felt better after just three weeks. They also reported reduced feelings of depression and loneliness. You might also like to take this a step further and set certain times that are totally phone free, perhaps an hour before bed which may improve sleep. Alternatively, some people enjoy having one day per week without their phones.
Unfollow people that make you feel bad
If anyone you follow leaves you feeling worse about yourself, consider unfollowing them. If they are a close friend or family member who might be offended, many platforms allow you to mute them without identifying them.
Delete any apps you don’t like
When you are in the monitoring stage, notice which apps feel soul sucking. Use Marie Kondo's famous mantra and ask yourself whether it ‘sparks joy’ and if doesn’t, consider getting rid of it. If that sounds too severe, many platforms allow you to temporarily deactivate your account for a set period of time. That could be a happy medium and once the time has passed, you may find you don’t miss it and decide to delete it entirely.
Be mindful with your interactions
Studies have found that negative online interactions are linked with low mood and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. If your social media usage includes getting into twitter wars and arguing in the comments, it could be worth curbing these habits and focusing on the platforms that encourage high quality, positive interactions instead.
Ultimately, how you approach social media will depend on you and your lifestyle. Why not take some of the ideas above and experiment with them? Adapt as you go and in no time at all you’ll have a social media system that works for you.