The not-so-surprising revelation that prolonged exposure to social media may not be great for your mental health is nothing new — but as we dive deeper into the worlds of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, even more significant reasons to take a break from social media are emerging. Take, for example, recent research out of the University of Pittsburgh that found a correlation between time spent on social media and risk for depression: As the former increases, so does the latter. Although of course correlation is not causation, the increase is substantial and linear, implying a direct relationship between the two.
Social media is giving us more and more excuses to constantly be on our phones. New Snapchat filters keep us obsessed with posting funny videos; Facebook is now widely considered a legitimate news source; no meal is official without being posted on Instagram first. The researchers noted that of course there are other factors at play, like how you use social media — getting into heated political debates frequently will probably have a very different effect on the user than looking at pictures of puppies and kittens does, for example — but given the sheer variety of ways most of us use social media, it's likely that at least some of our habits are less than helpful.
So, in terms of the average person who is not solely using social media for mindless entertainment, what is all of this doing to our mental health? We understand that it can increase our risk of depression; but why specifically do we need to be more careful with the time we spend on social media? These research-backed reasons to take a break from social media present a compelling case.
1. Social Media Can Isolate You From The Real World
You hop on Instagram and swear you're going to be on it for just a few minutes; and then, after an hour of thumbing through people's pictures... well, you know how it goes.
Social media can be such a helpful tool in connecting and networking with people, but on the other hand, spend too much time buried in your phone and you risk feeling a disconnect with the real world. Plus, there's that familiar sense of guilt and emptiness many of us feel when we finally put our phone down, realizing how much time we just spent on something so trivial.
Some even go so far as to say that we're in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness. Both being alone and feeling lonely (two different things) are on the rise, with an even sharper increase in recent years. We interact face-to-face less; we gather less; we have fewer meaningful connections. Loneliness isn't just a mental state, either; it has physiological effects, too, such as weakening our immune systems.
Other studies suggest that the "cause and effect" is reversed: People who are already lonely flock to social media. Any way you cut it, these studies generally boil down to the same point: Social media and loneliness are linked.
2. It Encourages Your Competitive Side To Come Out, But Not In A Healthy Way
Let's be honest with each other: We all have those few friends who post a picture of their big toe on Instagram and get 200 likes. Then you spend 20 minutes perfecting the lighting on the jaw-dropping picture of the poached eggs and roasted asparagus you made for brunch, and the only person who likes it is your cousin.
Competition is in almost everyone's blood, but many of us will fall prey to that drive to get as many likes, followers, etc. as possible — at least more than your friends. The real danger here is that we let it define our worth as human beings, which is obviously a bad thing. No social media post validates who you are as a person; so why do we stress about how many people "like" us?
3. It Feels Like It's Constantly Comparing Your Life To Everyone Else's
People portray themselves on social media as they want to be seen, which is why you so frequently see pictures of people's perfect relationships, perfect offices, perfect homes, perfect children, and so on. It's inevitable that you're going to compare yourself to these people, wondering how and why their lives are so happy and simple, and yours isn't. In fact, "social comparison" is its own psychological phenomenon, and one study found that it plays a huge role in the relationship between social media use and depression. But it goes even deeper than you think.
While you might assume this effect of social comparison only occurs when you browse the pages of people you perceive to be more attractive, successful, etc., the same study found that the more time you spend on social media, the more depressed you can feel while browsing anyone's page, regardless of whether you perceive them to be better or worse than you.
4. You Can Become Addicted To Social Media
True, "addicted" is a word that we throw around too easily and dismissively these days. But something becomes a legitimate addiction when it has a significant, negative impact on a person's life; it's something they can't function without, and it interferes with their day-to-day routine and responsibilities.
It's also true that yes, you can absolutely become addicted to social media, and it largely stems from something called FOMO: fear of missing out. People are posting some of the tiniest details of their personal lives online, and we have to see it. The inability to quit social media has even been labeled "social media reversion," and in a study where people were challenged to stop using Facebook for 99 days, many couldn't make it past just a few.
All of this is not to say that we should all quit social media cold turkey, and we should do it right now; there are still many positive reasons to hop online. But limiting our time on these platforms — as well as choosing wisely the reasons we're using them in the first place — is of utmost importance.
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