How Social Media Helps and Hurts Us

How has our wired world affected our mental and physical health?

social-media-psychologyFacebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Texting. Social media and new technologies make it easier than ever to connect with friends and family.

The pervasiveness of social media—estimated to increase to over three billion users worldwide in 2017—warrants an examination of how these relatively new communication methods affect us mentally, physically and socially.

As mental health professionals, we’re on the front lines of seeing how patients cope with these new forms of communication and 24/7 connectivity. Let’s take a look at what’s facing our patients and what effects of social media we should be on the lookout for.

Benefits of Social Media

Mental Health

  • Provides a sense of belonging: Everyone wants to fit in to some degree, so when a friend or family member posts on our Facebook wall, we feel accepted.
  • Makes it easy to find role models: Social media facilitates connecting with people who share interests or concerns. If you’re training for the Boston marathon and finding it hard to go that extra mile, connecting on social media with your running hero can give you an inspiration boost.
  • Increases trust: A study by Valenzuela, Park and Kee showed that Facebook increases trust among users because the detailed information provided by contacts reduces uncertainty about their intentions and behaviors.
  • Increases bonding while decreasing loneliness: When people have one-on-one interaction on social media (e.g., getting a “like,” instant message or comment), they feel more bonded, a Carnegie Mellon University study showed.
  • Makes us happy: That’s right. Despite all the talk about “Facebook depression,” social media does make us feel better—but only while actively engaged. University of Missouri psychologists discovered that the actively engaged test subjects experienced a physiological response that indicated an increase in happiness. This increased happiness, however, went away once subjects switched back to passively browsing.
  • Spreads happiness to others: Researchers found that happiness spreads across social networks to at least three degrees of separation.

Physical Health

  • Positively affects how people manage their health: More than 40 percent of users have improved their health habits as a result of what they read on social media.
  • Improves health via smartphone apps: Having a phone app at hand helps keep users focused on exercise, diet and weight, plus some apps have social features so other users can provide additional support.
  • Increases quality of healthcare: 60 percent of doctors think the quality of care they provide is improved because of social media.

Relationships

  • Creates couples’ sense of closeness: Text and online messages have made 41 percent of couples age 18 to 29 feel closer, according to Pew Research. Some couples have even used texts to resolved arguments that they weren’t able to resolve in person.
  • Decreases isolation: Social media users are 50 percent less likely to be isolated than non-social media users.
  • Reconnects people: Facebook makes it easy to find people and revive their friendships.

Detriments of Social Media

Mental Health

  • Increases feelings of inadequacy: Social media users compare themselves to other users and feel as if they can’t measure up to the “ideal” lives that their connections depict.
  • Some show signs of social anhedonia: University of Missouri researchers found that some test subjects exhibited signs of a type of schizotypy known as social anhedonia. This condition is the inability to feel happy from activities that one would normally enjoy, including interacting with others. People who experience this have fewer Facebook friends, share fewer photos and participate less.
  • Increases chances of becoming addicted: Checking cell phones or social media accounts triggers addiction areas of the brain because users experience a “high.” Over time, brain patterns of tech users can alter. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” doesn’t include Internet addiction, but signs include emotional shutdown, withdrawal symptoms and inability to focus.
  • Makes communicating in person difficult: Social phobia can occur because of fewer in-person interactions.
  • Results in anxiety: Social media users can experience FOMO—”Fear of Missing Out.” This is where people feel that others are having fun without them. People may also experience anxiety because they don’t feel smart enough, as interesting as, or as successful as others.
  • Causes depression: According to social psychologist Ethan Kross, the lead author of a University of Michigan study, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result—it undermines it.” This is despite the number of Facebook friends, how supportive they were, or why they logged on to Facebook. The study also found that the more people used Facebook, the more their moods dropped.

Physical Health

  • Affects sleep: Staying up late texting or browsing social media sites can result in sleep disorders, stress and depression.
  • Provides a quick “hit”: The instant gratification that social media provides can be likened to a drug and elicit addiction-like symptoms.
  • Promotes inactivity: According to the National Institutes of Health, while using smartphones for texting or social media, you burn one—yes, just one—calorie an hour because your energy expenditure is next to nothing. This can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular problems, blood pressure problems, arthritis, breathing issues, neck strain and cancer.
  • Increases obesity: It’s thought that if you see on social media that your friends are gaining weight, then you may believe that it’s OK to do the same. Social media distorts the perception of what’s accepted. On the flip side, social networks can inspire people to lose weight.
  • Leads to eating disorders: Research found that women who used Facebook a lot had more body image concerns, which resulted in a higher tendency to engage in eating disorder behaviors. These women crave getting “likes” and comments on their posts, and they compare photos of themselves against their friends.

Relationships

  • Distracts people from others: A survey showed that 25 percent of couples felt partners were distracted by their cell phones. The same survey showed that 8 percent of couples argued about how much time partners spent on the Internet.
  • Brings out jealousy: Couples who use Facebook exhibit jealousy over seeing something bothersome on a partner’s wall, reconnecting with exes, developing relationships with someone they’re already friends with and tagging photos with exes in them.
  • Gives couples nothing to talk about: If partners text or use social media throughout the day to keep in touch, there might not be anything new to share once they’re with each other.
  • Decreases empathy: Because social media keeps people from interacting one on one, it’s been shown that people lose empathy. People can no longer react genuinely to real-life issues affecting others.
  • Exacerbates Relationship Contingent Self-Esteem (RCSE): The self-esteem of people with this condition depends on their relationship status. As a result, they want to show their Facebook friends that they’re in a good relationship by bragging about their partners or the relationship. They may also publicly post things on partners’ walls that may be better shared privately.

Sources: Statista, iVillage, Wiley Online Library, Association for Computing Machinery, Harvard Health Publications, ReferralMD, Pew Research, Pew Research, Medical News Today, Social Work Today, Medical News Today, University Herald, Huffington Post, Tom’s Guide, The Academic Minute, Huffington Post, Time, University Herald.

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