From the first thing in the morning after turning off an alarm to the last thing at night—often long after the lights are turned out—people are glued to their phones and social media. Scrolling, liking, swiping, sharing, commenting, and messaging have turned into a daily habit. In fact, nearly half of the world’s population actively use social media. This not-so-new-anymore means of communication has had a ripple effect on society that’s just now starting to be more understood, especially in terms of social media’s effect on mental health.
Researching the Link Between Social Media and Mental Health
Researches into the links between social media use and depression and anxiety have cited varying associations. Some studies place the blame with social media itself as the trigger for symptoms of depression and anxiety; while others present data to support that increased social media usage is a sign or symptom of a potential mental illness. Together new research is beginning to shed light on the relationship between mental health and social media.
“Research shows that for some people with depression, global, uncontrolled inflammation is associated with their mood problem,” says Dr. Raymond Kotwicki, the Charles B. West Chief Medical Officer at Skyland Trail. “The lack of physical movement, real-time social interactions, and increased anxiety related to FOMO—the fear of missing out—with excessive social media use increases inflammation and correspondingly can exacerbate depression.”
Addressing Social Media Use in Mental Health Treatment Programs
At Skyland Trail, the clinical team is using lessons from both cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy to help residential treatment and day treatment adult clients better understand the difference between healthy social media use and unhealthy social media use and recognize how social media may impact some symptoms of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
“The interactions we have online can elicit emotions similar to those we feel in real life situations,” says Kelsey Smith, a care coordinator at Skyland Trail who leads a course on healthy social media habits. “However, we may not be aware of the emotional impact of online interactions because of the anonymity and disconnectedness that can be associated with social media. Sometimes we just aren’t as gentle or careful online,” says Smith.
“Social media creates a perceived distance for bullying,” adds Kotwicki. “People may post hurtful words or pictures more easily using social media than in face-to-face confrontations. The resultant ease of attacks has undoubtedly contributed to anxiety and depression for the targets of bullies.”
Throughout the course, clients are asked to participate in mindfulness exercises that examine their moods, thoughts, and emotions in relation to social media.
The goal of the course is to help adults with an anxiety or depression diagnosis learn to use social media mindfully. How can we use social media as a tool to support our mental health, instead of using social media as a habit and allowing it to shape our thoughts and moods in unhealthy ways?
Discussing the Good and Bad of Social Media
Clients participating in the social media and mental health group make a list of everything they consider to be social media—from the obvious platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to things like Soundcloud or messenger apps like WhatsApp. At this stage, clients are asked to identify and share both the positive and negative aspects of social media.
On the positive side, many clients say social media helps them stay connected with friends and family, stay up-to-date on news, or find events happening in their communities. On the negative side, many clients recognize their tendency to seek external validation through social media, for example excessively monitoring their feeds to see how many likes a photo receives. Other clients notice an unhealthy habit of using social media as an unrealistic measuring stick. Do you ever judge yourself based on how your friends or even celebrities present themselves on platforms? Does it sometimes feel like everyone else has better vacations, more friends, the perfect family, or more successful careers?
“One of the most important skills our clients learn through this course is how to check for cognitive distortions in their automatic thoughts,” says Smith.
Social Media and Addiction
In another session, clients are asked to use their phones and social media for a short period of time, and then, at an undisclosed time, clients are abruptly asked to put their phones away, stop what they’re doing, and think about how social media can play an addictive role in their lives. One recent study by Michigan State even shows a connection between social media use and the risky decision-making associated with substance abuse.
Clients are encouraged to designate times that are social media free—maybe an entire social media free day of the week, or specific times of the day like mealtimes or after 7:00 p.m. Clients consider strategies to be more intentional about when they use social media and when they put their phones away for a while.
“Time boundaries are a great way to limit our pursuit of external validation,” adds Smith. “It’s so easy to get sucked into the endless loop of a social media feed.”
Can Selfies Drive Anxiety?
Whether it’s a famous selfie like the one Ellen DeGeneres snapped at the 2014 Oscars or a photo of someone at a vulnerable moment, selfies can have a varying impact on emotions and serve different purposes. Clients participating in the social media group, many of whom are struggling with anxiety or depression, are asked to take a selfie and then have their photo taken normally, thinking about the difference between their moods during the two. Some selfies are easily identified as seeking external validation, which can be an unhealthy habit. While other forms of the selfie could be a positive way to keep records for special occasions and experiences like travel, accomplishing a goal, or spending time with loved ones.
Taking a Social Media Inventory for Mental Health
For this task, clients are asked to categorize the last 100 posts on their platform of choice and discuss how they represent themselves on social media. What would your last 100 Instagram posts say about you? Most of us would see a combination of our favorite sports, music artists, tasty meals, cuddly pets, a new outfit, fun times with friends or family, or inspirational images—and maybe some criticism or frustration about things or relationships that didn’t go well. Looking back, would you classify the intention of any of your posts as passive aggressive, attention-seeking, or aiming to stir up drama? How does what you posted on social media compare to how you communicated your thoughts and feelings in the real world during the same period of time?
Taking a social media inventory can help us be more mindful of what we choose to share and why we are sharing it in the first place. Not every post has to show us #livingourbestlife.
How Social Media Shapes Our Thoughts
As part of another exercise to examine how social media impacts depression and anxiety, clients scan through their social media feeds and immediately express their thoughts on the content they see. The purpose of the activity is to openly and freely examine how social media affects our thinking, even if we aren’t necessarily verbalizing a response in person or taking an action on the platform itself in the form of a comment or like.
“When surfing through our news feed, we let our assumptions about other people’s lives run rampant,” says Smith, which can impact how users perceive their own life experiences. “By tracking automatic thoughts and reframing them, we can start to challenge these ideals.” The results of an exercise like this may help us make decisions about the kinds of content we want to see on social media. If a particular person or content source consistently triggers negative thoughts, maybe we should consider not following them anymore. If we choose to continue to see that content, we can be more aware of the negative thoughts it often conjures and be prepared to process those thoughts in a way that won’t negatively impact our overall mood.
“Edited and photoshopped posts paint pictures of perfect lives of people who are imperfect,” according to Kotwicki. “It’s tempting to begin comparing one’s self to these ideals, establishing a sense of unworthiness or failure. In this way, immersion in the scrubbed virtual world of social media can lead people to feeling inadequate, depressed, and anxious that they are not as fabulous as their peers.”
As Lin Manuel Miranda says, “Do NOT get stuck in the comments section of life today. Make, do, create the things. Let others tussle it out. Vamos!”
Can Memes Normalize Unhealthy Behavior?
What do you meme? Nope, clients don’t play the popular card game. Instead, they talk about how memes that may sometimes help us relate to one another or create a chuckle, can also normalize unhealthy behavior by making light of serious, complex issues like depression, suicide, or substance abuse. What should we do when these unhealthy memes enter our feeds?
Memes may also take the place of actually seeking help or having a constructive conversation about depression or anxiety. Is there a better way to show your social networks that you need support? Is there a better opportunity to contact a friend, loved one, or mental health professional directly to get the help and support you need?
Maybe a meme is an appropriate way to share your sense of humor. Who doesn’t love a good Drake meme from time to time? Though, a Game of Thrones reference with Sean Bean predicting an imminent emotional winter may not be the best way to deal with an episode of anxiety or depression.
How to Practice Self Care When the News is Bad
The proliferation of negative news on social media can be triggering for people struggling with depression or anxiety. So, how do we practice self-care online like we do in a bubble bath or during a quiet morning meditation?
Unplugging can be a good short-term solution to get away from all of the negativity. However, if your friend from high school continues to share insensitive or upsetting content, filtering can be a good strategy as well. Stick to the sources that don’t trigger you or limit reading to just a few times per day.
Remember one of the most important rules of the Internet: don’t feed the trolls. It’s just not worth the time and energy in most cases.
What We Can Learn about Social Media and Mental Health
Practicing healthy social media habits can be an important component of mental health treatment for anxiety and depression. Social media can be a helpful tool in forming interpersonal relationships, establishing positive core beliefs, and being aware of how we interact with the world around us. Even if that world is online.
Learning to set boundaries for ourselves on when and how often we use our phones, especially now that smartphones have screen time usage features, and how we engage with social media platforms can help us interact with social media more mindfully and protect our mental health. “By spending less time on social media, we don’t have to work as hard to resist comparisons,” says Smith. “We can work on building our own life-worth-living.”
If you or your loved one would like to speak to a trained mental health specialist, call 866-504-4966 today or contact us directly.