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The impact of social media on health and wellbeing

We as humans are social beings; we live in a community, we crave social interaction. Our personal health and wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the health of our communities and our interactions with one another. But we also live in a technological age. And this technological age fosters social interaction in new modern ways via social media. Around 42% of online adults use social media, which provides opportunities to express ourselves, to interact with each other and to belong to various groups. However, the relationship between our health and wellbeing and our use of social media is complicated.

The premise of a lot of social media platforms is the ‘power’ it gives individuals to share and make the world more connected, making communication more accessible. But, what is critical to question and explore is how this then affects mental health and wellbeing. Research on the link between social media use and mental health and wellbeing is mixed. Studies find that it can have positive effects, but it can also be detrimental.

How does social media negatively impact our wellbeing?

One adverse consequence of living in a social media age is that it opens up the opportunity for social comparison, which can be extremely detrimental to our wellbeing. This is a major problem in today’s society – which has triggered much attention recently – as numerous people who use social media present idealised versions of their lives, which leads others to make social upward comparisons. It adds pressure to act or look in a particular way. It offers a world that has been carefully crafted and selected, and as such there is no wonder why some individuals struggle to ‘thrive’ in this extremely invasive social environment.

When an individual may be experiencing low self-esteem, when comparing themselves to this ‘perfect’ image reflected on a social media post, it can lead to further personal issues.

In 2012, Anxiety UK conducted a survey on social media use and its effects on emotions, finding that 53% of participants indicated social media platforms had changed their behaviour, and 51% of these individuals suggested this change had been negative. Of those who reported a negative impact from social media, they also indicated depleted confidence levels when comparing their achievements to their friends. Additionally, this study revealed that two thirds of the sample reported having difficulties relaxing and going to sleep after using these sites, and other half (55%) indicated they felt “worried” or “uncomfortable” when they were unable to access it.

Another major concern that social media fosters is cyberbullying. Social media opens a window for bullying which can be made easy, sneaky and vindictive. This is a prevalent concern if you have children, especially adolescents, as they are growing up in an environment which is essentially driven by social media. According to Enough is Enough (EIE) – an organisation that aims to make internet use safe for children – 95% of adolescents who use social media have witnessed a form of cyberbullying and 33% have been victims themselves.

The problem with living in an “online” world is that there is no real privacy. Having a discussion with your children about what information and pictures they should be sharing with the social media world is one you shouldn’t delay. Profiles can be changed, but they can also define you and even haunt you. Posts can make any individual vulnerable. And in our accessible society, any potential employer can dig up any ‘dirt’ that may be floating around online. So try and address this in a sensitive yet relatable manner. It is not to say that social media is negative in its entirety, and in fact it can actually be a really positive platform as it connects people near and far. But it is how we use it that we need to be mindful of. Parents need to be aware of the time and environment that their children are being brought up in – a social media world where your children feel the need to be constantly “online” and connected. It’s important to try and understand this but also to try and facilitate ways which they can use it safely and appropriately. You should also try to encourage time away from the social media world, highlighting that there is a bigger (real) world around us.

Is social media all bad?

A lot of studies do point to the negative impacts of social media on mental health and wellbeing, however some researchers indicate that the opposite may be true. A study from the University of California San Diego reports that social media use can spread happiness. The researchers indicate a form of social contagion, that happy status updates encourage other users to post happy status updates themselves.

Additionally, social media could potentially be a useful tool in identifying individuals with mental health issues. A study from the University of Missouri indicated that Facebook activity may be an indicator of a person’s psychological health. The researchers found that those individuals who shared less pictures, communicated less, had a longer profile and fewer Facebook friends were more likely to experience social anhedonia – the inability to encounter happiness from activities that are usually deemed enjoyable, such as hanging out with friends. Used as a resource in this way could help to identify, manage, address and even prevent psychological concerns.

The take-home message

Undeniably the exact impact of social media on our mental health and wellbeing are unclear. But due to the expansive use – and no sign of this use slowing down – it is important to try and find out how it affects us. Increasing our understanding can inform us of how we can be careful of the negative impacts but it can also help us to facilitate the positive impacts.


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