There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the term “social media” meant nothing to the general public. Maybe someone here or there had the beginnings of a Myspace page, but that was it. Now, though, it seems like nearly everyone has a Facebook account, or they’re checking Twitter feeds and posting to Instagram or Snapchat. The obvious upside to this is that as a whole, society is more connected. But these tools for sharing personal insight have a downside, too. According to a study by the Royal Society for Public Health and Young Health Movement, anxiety and depression increased 70% in the past 25 years thanks to the use of social media. Is this because we are quick to compare ourselves to each other and the lives we lead?
When it comes to social media, there is good, bad and sometimes ugly. But learning how to navigate the bad and the ugly—and ultimately avoid social media comparison traps—is key.
Social Media: The Bad and the Ugly
No doubt, social media has greatly transformed our society. However, the unregulated use of these platforms has caused a number of adverse emotional and mental effects. They include:
- Loss of sleep: Sleep is essential to our wellbeing. But gadgets can keep the brain alert and deprive it of the chance to wind down before going to sleep.
- Unrealistic depictions of beauty: A lot of social media users confess to having body image issues. As many as nine out of ten teenage girls using social media say that they are unhappy with their appearance. Being presented with unrealistic standards of beauty through social media paired with insecurities among young people can be a toxic combination.
- Cyberbullying: On social media sites, harassment, threats, and rumors can be damaging. Victims were seen to experience lower self-esteem, depression, or suicidal ideation. A number of high profile cases have prompted authorities to enact laws addressing cyberbullying.
- Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): This is a concept that emerged with the use of social media. Before the advent of social media, missing out on events and not being invited to parties can trigger an unsettling feeling. Without seeing what happens in these events, one can easily forget about it. But scrolling through a social media feed can give a glimpse of what peers are doing at any given time.
Attempts to Curb the Excessive Use of Social Media
The Royal Society of Public Health in the United Kingdom has presented specific steps on how to regulate the use of social media for young people. Their report, “Status of Mind: Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health”, suggests the implementation of pop-up warnings when a user has been on a social media site for too long.
To curb distorted body perception among teens, the report suggests that manipulated photos be highlighted. Likewise, teens whose posts suggest mental health problems should be discreetly flagged and offered support. This RSPH report also suggests that education about safe social media use be incorporated in school curriculums. There is also a need for youth workers and professionals to have digital and social media training.
Lastly, the report suggests that more serious and in-depth research be carried out in order to understand the effects of social media on the mental health of young people.
Don’t Fall for the Social Media Comparison Trap
It may still take a while before regulation comes to fruition. But while policies are not yet in place, users and parents of young adults using social media can help create a more positive online environment. And it’s important to remember a few key points.
First, social media streams contain well-curated content, and not a true and accurate account of someone’s life—only a user’s “best side” is being shown. So, comparisons made are comparisons made with only half the story. In addition, social media is akin to a public space, and in this space not everyone is bound to like everyone. For this reason, a person’s value can never be ascribed to how many “likes”, “shares” or comments they get.
Humans have a natural tendency to be social. In prehistoric times, our ancestors gathered around the fire to share ideas and stories, while in modern times we share our ideas and stories through social media platforms. We have learned how to tame fire. Eventually, everyone will learn how to tame social media.