WASHINGTON – Our social media platforms are bombarded with images showing seemingly perfect people living seemingly perfect lives.
What they don’t show is the effect that mental health experts say can come with that torrent of images: Increased social media use can be tied to depression and anxiety, they say.
Dr. Brian Primack, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, studies the ties between depression and social media, and said it’s “basically a straight line.”
“The people who had the least depression were the people who used the very least or no social media at all … for every increment of social media use, those people had more depression. and we found the same results when we looked at other mental health outcomes like anxiety and like perceived social isolation.”
But experts also say that, with thoughtful posting and viewing, there are ways to counter the negatives of social media and enjoy a platform that can keep us in touch and spark social change like the #metoo movement.
Social media is not going anywhere anytime soon, they say, but being more aware of what we post and look at can help keep a healthier mental outlook.
Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, said he challenges his students to sit at home on a Friday night and watch their social feeds.
“See what your friends are doing and see how you feel,” he said. “You will feel a lot of things from FOMO (fear of missing out) to loneliness to feelings of self-worth that aren’t so high.”
Keeping that in check may mean trying to avoid comparing your success to other people on sites like LinkedIn or remembering that, as Primack said, our friends’ and families’ posts are often edited, showing only the best of their lives.
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“You’re looking at other people’s sort of heavily curated posts, their unattainable lives, and everyone is thinking other people are having an easier time,” Primack said.
Talan said social media users need to think about what they’re seeing, but also about what they’re posting.
“Maybe what we should all be doing more of, ‘Why am I posting a picture of my new outfit? Why am I lifting my shirt up? Why am I posing in this pair of pants versus another?'” he said. “These are questions we should each be asking ourselves.”
Primack said that one thing that’s different about social media, as opposed to advertising images, is that “these are real people, we know these people” in our social media feeds. That can lead to envy and a distorted view of our own lives.
Samantha Melbourne Weaver, an Arizona State University alumna, said she feels it in her professional life.
“When I’m looking for jobs or kind of comparing my resume to people who have jobs that I want in the future, I’m just like, well, I’m supremely underqualified for everything, I screwed up for not going to an Ivy League school,” she said.
Another ASU alum, Kylie Gumpert, said she decided to stop using Instagram, a platform she felt was “making people feel crappy about themselves. It’s a lot of Instagram models and beautiful people in beautiful places.”
Gumpert said she backed away from social media use after she realized that “instead of working on my personal growth, I felt like I was constantly looking outward and trying to achieve these expectations.”
But for many, pulling back is easier said than done.
People who say they are addicted to social media are not far off the mark, said Dr. Suzana Flores, a psychiatrist and author of “Facehooked: How Facebook Affects Our Emotions, Relationships and Lives.” She got the idea for the book after she started seeing patients “presenting with anxiety or depression due to misunderstandings or obsessive qualities with interactions on social media.”
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Flores said there are “MRI studies showing we are receiving a dopamine hit, every time we get a push notification someone has responded or liked.”
“We get these dopamine hits to the brain in the same place we get pleasure from food or sex. So, we aren’t just being addicted behaviorally but chemically,” Flores said.
But not all aspects of social media are bad, if people can learn how to better manage them. Weaver called social media an amazing tool if we can learn how to use it.
“If I could go back in time and give advice to myself, it would be to use social media a little more honestly,” she said.
Social media gave rise to the #metoo campaign, which Primack notes “brought some really important issues to light so hopefully that will continue to reduce inappropriate behavior from a lot of people.”
And Flores said she is a “huge fan of social media” who didn’t write her book as a “get off of social media book.”
“It’s more of, like, let’s be aware of what’s happening so that we can make different decisions,” she said of the goal of her book. “Because we are humans and in order to maintain good mental health we have to be able to … real-life interactions with our friends.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sources in the Public Insight Network informed the reporting in this story through a partnership with the Cronkite PIN Bureau. To send us a story idea or to learn more about PIN, click here.