Feature: Is Social Media Doing Us More Harm Than Good?

Imagine. You wake up refreshed from a deep sleep, uninterrupted by the occasional buzz and vibration of social media notifications on your smartphone through the night. The first thing you do when you wake up in the morning isn’t scrolling through your Instagram feed to check whether you’ve missed anything important during the night, and subsequently getting a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out) – before you’ve even got out of bed. Your journey to work isn’t spent frantically attempting to get the very best Boomerang of the scenery on the way to share to your followers. You’re not surrounded by robotic commuters glued to their smartphone screens, aimlessly scrolling their lives away.

Your day at work goes by like any other, without the constant, niggling urge to check your Facebook messages, reply to the comment on the meme that one of your friends tagged you in because it’s just so relatable, or to see whether so-and-so has replied to your Tweet yet. You arrive home, and you don’t spend an hour sprawled out on the sofa, belly-laughing lazily at videos of cats pushing things off tables. You fall asleep easily, with the aid of a book or a movie, free from the distraction of your smartphone.

The question is: can you imagine an everyday life like this? A life without the nagging temptations, 24/7 connections, shameless comparisons, on-demand entertainment and instant access to other people’s lives, hopes, dreams and wishes that social media has brought us? I, for one, can remember what life was like before the age of social media – and this only brings about an unshakeable sense of dread and concern for the younger generations, also known as the “digital natives”, who will only ever know a life with this invisible entity we call social media playing a crucial role in it.

The music-streaming social media site MySpace was a huge hit in the early 2000s, but most people would agree that it was Facebook which revolutionised the entire concept of social media. What began as a project brainstormed by geek-turned-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, limited solely to students of Harvard University, quickly became a worldwide obsession. By 2007, just three years after its launch, the site had 50 million users across the globe. A study by communications consultancy Flint revealed that, in the UK, over three in five people use Facebook every day. Almost half (45%) of people surveyed admitted to logging in to Facebook several times a day.

In 2010, iPhone users began uploading their over-filtered photos and hashtag-littered captions onto a new app called Instagram. By 2012, people with Android devices could do the same. That same year, Facebook bought the growing network for $1 billion. Today, Instagram is the most popular of the social networks, with around 500 million daily users. 90% of them are under 35 years old.

According to Statista, as of January 2018 there are 44 million active users of social media in the United Kingdom, which equates to 66% of the population.

However, a survey by research firm Ampere Analysis revealed that the attitudes towards social media is changing amongst young people. In 2016, 66% of 16-24 year olds agreed with the statement “social media is important to me”. However, only 57% agreed with this statement in 2018.

33-year-old Victoria is one of many people who have made the decision to quit social media. It was the addictiveness and ‘fake’ tendencies of social media platforms that prompted her to come off it altogether. “I’d get sucked in to friends of friends’ photos and conversations, wasting hours of my time. I knew I could use that time more productively, on my business or real-life friends. People would add me who I knew from school, yet they’d never say hi to me in the street!

I also began to dislike how people relied on Facebook as a means for communication. A lifelong friend announced his engagement on Facebook, but it didn’t pop up on my feed so I had no clue he was engaged for weeks.”

Aspiring photographer, Owen Vachell, also decided to quit Instagram because of its ‘fake’ nature.

“I’ve only ever taken part in it because I felt like I should. But when I really took stock of how I felt about Instagram, it was just another thing on my to do list and causing unnecessary stress.

Since leaving the platform, I feel like an enormous weight has been lifted. The strain it put on me was affecting my mental health. I’m a lot happier now and I’m able to focus more freely on the things in my life and business that really matter, like new projects.

According to the NHS-funded Mental Health Network, 49% of 18-24 year olds who have experienced high levels of stress feel that comparing themselves to others was the main reason behind their stress. 36% of women related their stress to their appearance and body image. The #StatusOfMind study by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) revealed that rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen by 70% in the last 25 years. It also found that social media use is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

Anxiety and depression sufferer Ellie Pilcher, 23, is still active on social media, but writes for the Huffington Post about the close relationship between poor mental health and social media use.

After a break-up when she was 16, Ellie was bullied through social media.

“Instagram and Facebook were particularly savage, with photos and captions being shared that were thinly veiled comments and insults about me. I turned to Twitter, as not many people used it at that time. Twitter was more positive for me and I found an online community for reassurance.

Since I was a teenager Instagram has still remained a relatively negative place with me due to Comparison Syndrome and a feeling that I am not as successful personally or professionally as other people I have known. This contributed to some of my downward spirals in my twenties, and also contributed to the feeling of loneliness and FOMO. There is a choice to ‘fake’ your life on social media as well which is also very harmful, both internally and externally, as it can exhaust a teenager mentally as well as harm other’s opinions of them which are based on false information.

I think mental health care professionals and adults could encourage young people to spend less time on social media with alternatives if possible. Using social media is not harmful if it is done in moderation, just like drinking.”

Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services for AXA PPP Healthcare, explains the negative effects that can be triggered from excessive social media use.

“In many ways, it can be a ‘false reality’ – simply a window through which you see just a snapshot of another person’s life. This snapshot is often carefully choreographed and portrays the subject at their best moment and in their best light. As such, when seeing others though social media it’s natural to make assumptions about how their life might be and you might believe that they, and others, are all having a great time while you are missing out.

For some, being online is their main source of social interaction and, over time, this can turn out to be an isolating and lonely experience. And, while the ‘rewards’ of communicating online are instantaneous, it can also create an ‘always on’ state of alertness from which can be a struggle to switch off.”

While social media use can cause people’s mental health and quality of life to suffer, some people argue that it can be highly rewarding if it’s used in the right way. Social networking sites can be a means of communication to connect people across the globe that otherwise would’ve never had the chance to, a source of news and entertainment, and a way to stay in touch with faraway family and friends.

Fiona Thomas, author of the newly released Depression in a Digital Age, decided to write the book after experiencing severe anxiety from her addiction to social media. She is now an advocate for using technology as a communication tool for people suffering with mental illness.

“I was spending so long staring at a screen that I started to believe it was the most important thing in my life. Finding time to disconnect is always beneficial for creative thinking in my opinion and it can be hard to do in this digital world.

Of course, social media can have a negative impact on young people’s mental health. But for those of us who feel marginalised by pre-existing mental health concerns, social media can act as a lifeline, a way to stay connected to the outside world when we want to shut it all out. I’ve seen it happen time and again, where people with depression and anxiety feel isolated and unable to talk about their emotions, but having the option to blog about it or write an Instagram caption helps them reclaim their illness and talk about it more honestly. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t trigger anxiety and depression in others, but this generally happens as a result of PSMU (Passive Social Media Use) and so it must be used with care.”

To ensure that young people use social media in a safe manner, Fiona gives the following advice.

“Put your phone in ‘do not disturb’ when you don’t want to be distracted and if all else fails, put your phone in another room! The world won’t fall apart if you neglect to check Instagram every 5 minutes. Also, make time for activities that mean leaving your phone at home such as a manicure, swimming or a massage. Doing something to occupy your mind and stimulate creativity is always a good substitute for aimlessly scrolling.”

Dr Winwood also has a few tips on how you can limit your social media usage. “If you find you crave social media, try checking out apps designed to block certain sites at certain times of the day. This helps to avoid that mindless checking and re-checking we all fall victim to.

Get an alarm clock – using your phone as an alarm can make it tempting to automatically check the online scene the minute you’re getting up. Having a separate alarm clock takes that temptation away.”

Although some people are choosing to quit social media after realising how unhealthy it can be, or at least trying to use it in a safer way, there’s no denying its huge popularity and prevalence in everyday life.

Gone are the days where we could just turn up at our friend’s houses completely unannounced, without arranging it prior through one of the social media platforms. We’ve waved goodbye to the age of rifling through countless magazines to read interviews of our favourite bands or celebrities. Now, we can simply type in their names and follow their every move, which – fair enough – is pretty damn cool. But, for me, the creation of social media has brought about this huge, collective sense of nostalgia of the time before. Of the little things we did to get through day-to-day life without the aid of instant, 24/7, all-knowing technology at our fingertips.

As for the future of social media, things could go one of two ways. One: it’ll develop even more and the youth of 50 years’ time will no longer know how to have an actual coherent, face-to-face conversation. Or two: its links to poor mental health will become common knowledge, and people will start using it in a healthier way, still being able to enjoy all the benefits it brings whilst remaining aware and present. Personally, I’m hoping for the latter.

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