We’re talking about the effect that social media has on your mental health.
Don’t worry, this won’t be in the evening news “this new study says your kids are miserable” kind of thing; instead, it’ll be more like an examination of the often-overlooked detrimental factors that play a role in social media.
Because there are some very common arguments against social media, mostly by older people who don’t understand social media and don’t like it, but that’s not what this is.
In fact, there are lots of aspects of social media that are extremely positive.
It creates a place of community and allows people to find each other who never otherwise would have.
Especially for folks from marginalized identities, like queer people, it can be life-changing in a positive way.
But like any tool, social media has its good and its bad.
Today we’ll mostly be talking about the bad.
So the common arguments you hear about the negative effects of social media probably go something like this: “When you see everyone’s perfect lives on Instagram, it makes you sad that your life isn’t that perfect.”
“Everyone’s only posting online for followers now and it consumes their every waking thought.”
“People have record low self-esteem because they feel like they aren’t as attractive as Instagram models.”
“Your children are addicted to Snapchat and Twitter to the point that they never go outside!”
“People only communicate through apps now and never see each other face-to-face!”
Some of those arguments have a good point, I definitely don’t want to say that social media is perfect in every way.
I just think these arguments– for the most part — are overhyped.
Does social media have a negative effect on people’s self-esteem?
Yeah, sometimes it does.
But other times, it can have a positive effect.
You can find studies that point to all kinds of different results here, so what it seems to me is that social media doesn’t inherently have a positive or negative effect on self-esteem; instead, it depends on who you follow.
When people follow celebrities with way more money than them who don’t look like them, it can make them feel worse about themselves.
But when people follow their friends and family and people who look more like them, social media doesn’t have that same effect.
In fact, following people who look like you can help your self-esteem because you can say, “Look, I think they’re hot, and my body is similar to theirs.”
And the wonderful thing about social media as opposed to like, media in general, is that you can choose to follow only people from certain niches who look like you. If you’re trans, you can follow a bunch of trans people.
If you’re not thin, you can follow other people who aren’t thin. If you’re a person of color, you can follow other people of color.
That way, you’re seeing lots of people who look like you in a way that mainstream forms of media usually can’t provide.
Social media has the potential to help your self-esteem, it just depends on how you use it.
And I don’t want to put this solely on people who use social media — it’s also largely influenced by what the algorithms of these social media apps are recommending to you.
So there’s definitely ways for social media to improve there, for sure, but I don’t think it’s the Big Bad Evil that it’s often hyped to be.
And to briefly touch on those other arguments, I think that older generations will always be afraid of new things.
When books came out, people thought they would cause everyone to stay inside and read all day.
When TV came out everyone thought the same thing.
And now people are just picking on social media cause it’s the newest thing young people like that’s popular to hate on.
People still go outside.
People still interact face-to-face. None of that is going away any time soon.
The only difference is now we have online ways of organizing to meet up in real life with people we actually like.
So, none of that I would say is the main reason social media is hurting your mental health. The biggest reason, honestly, is something that I see discussed sometimes, but not very often.
It’s the fact that thanks to social media, we’re seeing so much depressing, negative, painful news day in and day out.
Before social media came around, all this stuff still happened.
Bad stuff has always happened, obviously.
But before, we didn’t have a way of perceiving all of that at once. We’d read about it every now and then in a newspaper, or see a couple stories about it on the evening news.
Dealing with negative news stories is a fact of life.
But social media has taken that and amplified it to its extreme.
When you wake up and check Twitter, you likely see tons of stories about awful things that have happened in the world.
All day as you scroll through, even if a lot of your timeline is positive, negative news stories are chipping away at you all day.
Then when you go to sleep, they’re likely one of the last things you see as you scroll through your phone before bed.
A certain groups’ civil rights have been taken away.
A terrible human has been appointed to a high political position.
A person is raising money so that they can try not to die from a preventable illness.
A war continues to be fought and civilians are killed.
Most people see this stuff all over their timelines.
And even when people don’t see this stuff everywhere, they can feel guilt over not being informed enough about these things.
So it’s kind of a catch-22 where you’re always miserable.
Human brains aren’t mean to deal with so much negative news at once.
We can deal with bad things happening occasionally.
We can have hope and we can see that there is good in the world.
But negative stories so much more often make the news because they’re more likely to be one-time events than anything positive — since positive things tend to happen more slowly over time.
And then those negative stories evoke an emotional response in us and get us to share them, so they reach more people.
And then we’re all swimming in all this depressing news.
And again, I’m not trying to say that it’s social media users who are at fault here.
We share things that tug at our heart strings for good reasons.
We want the world to know about negative things so that we can change them — because you can’t change something you’re unaware of.
I think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to talk about the bad stuff happening in the world so that we can fix it.
But when all we see all day is a constant deluge of negative news stories, it can take a toll on our mental health.
People may not want to admit it, but it’s difficult to see so much bad stuff happening in the world and not feel at least a little down about it.
For many, it can be debilitating.
And really, I don’t know what the solution is here.
I think one piece of it could be adjusting social media algorithms, because large chunks of what we see now aren’t decided solely by us but by an invisible algorithm that guesses what will keep you on the app for the longest amount of time.
Often, they find that stories that evoke a strong emotional response do that the best — even if that response is anger or extreme sadness.
But even if changes were made to the algorithms that show us the content we consume, I don’t think that would fix everything, and so I don’t have all the answers here.
This article isn’t about fixing social media; it’s more about how you can cope in a world where this is a reality.
So what can you do?
Well, the first major thing you can do is go offline more.
I know I’m gonna sound like some anti-technology old person here, but going offline can be so beneficial.
Not because you’re tied to a screen or not getting human interaction or whatever — but because then you’re not seeing all this terrible stuff all the time.
And I think one of the best things you can do to cope with so much negative news is just to not see it. And I know that’s hard.
I know you might feel a lot of guilt about not always knowing everything that’s happening.
The only advice I can give you there is that you need to take care of yourself if you ever want to have an impact on these things in the future.
If this stuff takes such a toll on you and burns you out, you won’t be able to do anything about it.
You need time to recharge mentally before going back out there.
It’s good to want to change the world for the better, but that’s going to be hard to do if you lose hope.
So I think a necessary part of fighting for change is taking a minute every once in a while to stop and take care of yourself.
Go outside. Don’t go on social media. Go hangout with people, or play a sport, or play video games, or read a book, or whatever you want.
Just give yourself a minute to not be stressed out by every bad thing happening in the world.
And secondly, find people that you can talk to about all of this. And by that, I mean find some good friends who understand what you’re talking about and can help distract you when you need that. But also, find a therapist.
Talking to a professional who knows about coping strategies and how to deal with negative news can be so so helpful.
You can’t do this alone. You need the help of other people to get through this.
And really, that’s all the advice I can give you.
I don’t think anyone has figured out fully how to cope with stuff or fix it.
The best thing you can do is unplug and talk to your friends and ideally a therapist as well.
So that’s really all there is to it.
I do want to point out though that this isn’t the only reason social media can be harmful.
Like I said in the beginning, I think social media can do a lot of good, but it can also open the floodgates for online bullying and harassment, which, depending on your experience online, could be another component of how social media is affecting your mental health.
So the constant stream of negative news isn’t the only downside to social media, even though I think it’s probably one of the most major ones.