Eithne Dodd examines the effects of social media on our health, both mental and physical.
SOCIAL media has something of a bad rep. It gets blamed for everything from “fake news” to trolling and while it is, for many of us, an unavoidable part of life, its effects on health are not to be ignored.
Social media has made it much more difficult to stay focused on what is going on around us. How many times have you been in a lecture only to get distracted by a buzz or a ping that takes you away from the factors leading to the First World War and towards the most recent celebrity break-up? This can lead to isolation as we stop looking to the people around us for news and conversation, we also stop looking to them for other emotional needs.
This need not be completely negative however. If we continue to socialise in person then the Internet, with its various social media sites, can be a helpful tool in generating even more social interaction.
In fact, a study done in 2010, found that while teenagers were more likely to text their school friends than spend time with them in person outside of school hours, the time that they spent in person with their friends had remained steady over the previous three years, they had simply texted each other more. This means that social contact in fact grew rather than diminished.
Those in their twenties are often accused of being too preoccupied with themselves. Their self-image and self-worth are often seen as being too dependent on the media they consume and the portrayal of themselves that they give to their various social media outlets – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr etc.
This culture of “chasing likes” or getting retweeted in a bid to earn approval is obviously damaging. Especially since it is so easily forgotten that people try to present only one particular version of themselves on social media.
Portraying ourselves in a positive (often artificial or inflated) light with the best social life and the best of friends can actually damage the mental health of others, not just ourselves. Just before Christmas researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that looking at other people’s posts on Facebook can make a person feel envious or even depressed.
1,300 people, mostly women, participated in the survey, which found that regular use of social media sites can affect your emotional well-being and satisfaction with life.
Particularly harmful is “lurking”, the act of looking at other people’s lives as portrayed to you by social media without engaging with those people in any way. The paper suggests giving up social media sites for a week as a means of improving your mental health.
The feelings of inadequacy that social media can drum up in people as they compare their lives to that of their friends has lead the HSE funded website “YourMentalHealth.ie” to also suggest a social media detox as a means of improving mental health.
Another study conducted by the University of Michigan found that people who use Facebook often are less happy than those that use the site sparingly or not at all.
It is no secret that mental health services in Ireland are underfunded and understaffed. In a survey involving ReachOut Ireland, the HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention and the Irish Association of University and College Counsellors found that more than 8 out of 10 students of the 5,556 students surveyed thought that using the internet for mental health information would be advantageous.
The survey found that 45% of students spend between two and four hours online engaged in non-college related activity per day. Seeing as there is approximately one full-time counsellor per every 5,000 students, perhaps providing positive mental health messages on social media would not only make social media more positive from the point of view of mental health, but also alleviate some of the pressure on a highly demanded service.
Of course social media can also affect your physical health. The media in general has long been blamed for portraying unrealistic images of beauty in magazines and movies that young people then feel they must aspire to look like. This leads to disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
Social media has only compounded this problem with sites like Instagram and photo editing software, meaning a culture has developed of scrolling through photos and photos of “normal” beautiful women. The NHS reports that the number of teenagers with eating disorders has doubled in the last three years and there are many studies, which show a correlation between social media consumption and eating disorders.
Crouching over our phones or tablets as we scroll through social media can also lead to bad posture, which can have surprisingly sinister affects.
When humans slouch, we do it because we are feeling scared, vulnerable or upset. A study published by the Brazilian Psychiatric Association in 2010 found that depressed patients were more likely to stand with their necks bent forward, shoulders collapsed and their arms drawn in towards their bodies’, much like someone does when they are reading their Twitter feed on a bus. Bad posture like this can trick our brains so that those with a tendency to slouch are more likely to have poor self-esteem.
In another study published in Health Psychology in 2015, non-depressed participants were divided into two groups. One group was told to sit in an upright position, the other to sit in a slouch. The people of both groups then had to answer mock job interview questions and questionnaires. Those that sat in a slouch reported lower self-esteem, worse moods and greater fear levels than those of the upright sitter.
In today’s world it isn’t feasible to be rid of social media for more than a week at a time, but reducing our time might have significant positive impacts on our health and when you do check your Snapchat stories, remember to check your posture also.