A quick scan of opinions on the net (including Facebook!) would have you believing that social media causes everything from bad breath to meteor strikes! The good news is that much of the panic you might hear isn’t actually justified. For example, some big studies of both teenagers and young adults show that using social media probably does not cause depression. However, social media is such a new thing in our society that some of the long-term effects are not clear yet. Here are few thoughts about social media and mental health.
- Social media is wonderful! It is now the top form of entertainment for masses of people of all ages. It connects us, helps us communicate and often makes us smile. It can help us access help and to join communities. That’s got to be good for our well-being.
- Like a lot of wonderful things, we can have too much of a good thing. Just as people get hooked to the point of addiction on good things like food, sex, exercise, study, etc., some people become obsessed with social media. That’s NOT good for our mental health.
- If I am looking at Facebook, I am not asleep. One the (many) downsides of mental illnesses is that our sleep is already disturbed, and social media like Facebook might seem like a great way to pass our wakeful hours in the middle of the night. However, the stimulation and the bright day-light coloured light can make our already poor sleep even worse. It switches our brain on so that we don’t feel sleepy. A lack of sleep not only makes us tired, it can tip us into an episode of worse mental health or delay our recovery from it.
- It can make people feel lonely. This is surprising when, for most of us, social media is the way we stay in touch with friends, but for some people it actually heightens their sense of loneliness.
- It distorts our view of the world. People post on Instagram and Facebook pictures of their parties, their holidays, their new cars and happy family gatherings. People usually only post the ‘peaks’ of their lives, not their valleys. If I am sitting in the middle of my own bleak valley, looking at all those pictures, I could get the idea that everyone is happy and successful except me. In actual fact, everyone has their problems, including a surprisingly large number of people privately battling mental health problems. I am not going to feel glad about their trouble, but it does rescue me from thinking my misery is unique.
- ‘Active on-line’ means ‘Inactive on-couch’. Studies show that heavy users of the internet are, really, ‘heavy’ users. They are far more likely to be over-weight and not getting exercise. Very few things are as good for mental health as being active.
- Social media is like a megaphone – it can amplify and broadcast what’s going on in my mind. Facebook etc., is a great way to share what we are thinking; if that thinking is a bit ‘crinkly’ at the moment, those crinkles come across loud and clear. Sometimes, I can tell when some of my friends with mental health challenges are starting to slide into a bad patch because of the number of their posts and the things they are posting about.
A final thought: if we are wondering if we are spending too much time on-line or gaming, a good question to ask ourselves is, “What else am I doing?”. If we are exercising, sleeping, mixing with family and friends, doing some chores, being creative, learning, actively relaxing and doing useful things… then we probably deserve some time on the net
 The Longitudinal Association Between Social-Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among Adolescents and Young Adults. T Heffer et al, Clinical Psychological Science , 2019
 Teens, Social Media, and Technology 2018 (2018). Available online at: https://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/50/