Being Mindful of the Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

Many of us have felt the negative effects of social media first-hand through the coronavirus pandemic.

There are a variety of reasons we might experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. 

For example, around 22% of car accident victims suffer from PTSD

What people don’t realize is that in addition to these events that can more obviously lead to PTSD, social media can have a significant and even harmful effect on our mental health.

Many of us have felt the negative effects of social media first-hand through the coronavirus pandemic. 

It’s critical that we understand the potential effects of social media on our mental health so we can take a step back if necessary. 

Vicarious Traumatization

There is a psychological term called vicarious traumatization. This refers to the idea that even if we don’t live or experience them first-hand, witnessing events that are traumatic through television or social media or even just knowing about the events, can be harmful to our mental health. 

In 2017, research found that the trauma we continuously experience in the media can lead to anxiety, problems with coping, feelings of fear and helplessness, and even PTSD. 

Another research study also found that people who never experienced trauma before then witnessing distressing media content were found to experience symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. 

There are some people who may be even more vulnerable to traumatic social media content. For example, people with a history of trauma may be more likely to have negative effects if they see something negative on social media or in the media. 

Other Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

There are other ways, aside from being traumatizing, that social media can negatively affect mental health.

For example, it may make you feel more lonely, and that can make symptoms of anxiety or depression worse. 

Can There Be Positive Effects?

It’s possible that while there are negative effects there might also be positive effects on mental health. 

Research conducted by Harvard found that routine social media use could be positively associated with three health outcomes—social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health. 

Routine social media use was defined as using platforms as part of an everyday routine and responding to content shared by other people. 

However, having an emotional connection to social media showed a negative association with the same three outcomes. 

An emotional connection might include obsessively checking social media because of a fear of missing out or feeling disconnected from friends when not on social media. 

The Harvard research indicated that the key to social media is to be mindful of your use. 

There have been other studies that tend to conclude something similar across the board—lower levels of social media usage are associated with improved mental health. 

One large-scale study found occasional social media users are nearly three times less likely to be depressed than people classified as heavy users. A separate study found that when young people use social media more than two hours a day, they are more likely to rate their mental health as being poor or fair, compared to occasional users of social media. 

Yet another study found that when people limited their use of social media to half an hour per day, they had significantly lower symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to a control group. 

Should You Do a Digital Detox?

The term digital detox has grown in popularity, and it’s something people are often encouraged to do if they feel they’re losing control over their social media habits, or it’s affecting them negatively. 

A digital detox can be a way to regain a sense of mindfulness as far as your use of social media goes. 

A digital detox can be done on your own terms, but it doesn’t have to necessarily mean you completely avoid social media. That may not work for you, especially if you use social media for work or education. 

Instead, a good strategy can rely on setting aside certain times of day and timeframes during which you’ll use social media. Maybe, as an example, you set a limit each night, after which you don’t use social media anymore. Another option might be to avoid social media altogether one day a week, such as on Sunday. 

If you’re going to do a digital detox, you might want to create a strategy for what you’ll do instead so that you can stay focused on other things. 

Even having the occasional social media detox or digital detox might be good for both your physical and mental health.

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