Suzanne Degges-White, PhD : Social media is a powerful force that can spread both positive and negative messages instantly. Public figures have “larger than life” images, and social media sites empower fans or anti-fans to weigh in on all aspects of a public figure’s life. While there’s a saying that “any press is good press,” that doesn’t hold with social media. Hurtful comments, threats, and criticism shared through social media can take a toll on mental health. Few of us enjoy negative feedback or criticism of our choices, so imagine how it must feel to be a public figure who doesn’t get just one critical remark about a decision but hundreds of thousands of people weighing in with insults or disrespectful remarks. When Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka stepped back from athletic competition to support their mental health, they also stepped back from social media. While social media can be a positive force that allows for broad communication levels, it can also be negative. When we make a decision that puts our mental health ahead of what others expect of us, the blowback on social media can be highly damaging. Is social media a “bad” thing? Sites such as TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram are designed to draw people down a spiral of content. When you start following a thread, you’re enticed to branch off into deeper threads, and you can lose hours of your day without even realizing it. We sometimes forget that the developers of these sites create algorithms that feed us what we want to be fed. This suggests that we need to be careful where our surfing leads us-and indicates that we need to limit the power of the spiral to draw us in. Social media sites should have a “Surf at your own risk” sign to help us remember that there are rip tides and undertows that may try to drag us out further than is good for us. The danger of social media often lies in its anonymity. When no one has to “sign their name” or prove their legitimacy to post a comment, people can post comments that they would never voice in public. Without the “rails of responsibility” to shape their words, people can make hurtful, harmful, and abusive comments about others online. Why do people follow social media if it’s not good for them? Social media sites can become a process or behavioral addiction versus a substance addiction. The same part of the brain lights up when we see a “like” or a new “follow” on our feed that lights up when addicts get a hit of their substance of choice. The “likes” and “follows” give us a sense of validation-it’s like getting a high five or a compliment from someone that matters. The more we get these signs of validation and approval, the harder we work for them and the greater our need for them. Social media can provide a great opportunity to explore the lives of others, engage in some self-assessment, and share your thoughts and experiences and advice or reviews. However, when you find yourself spending excessive amounts of time trawling the site for positive feedback or going deeper down rabbit holes, spending too much time in “upward comparison,” or experiencing excessive amounts of FOMO (fear of missing out), it may time to rein in your wanderings and focus on the people around you IRT (in real-time). Benefits of Cutting Down on Social Media Time You’ll also realize some health benefits by cutting your time on social media. Sleep quality is likely to improve-you’re not exposing yourself to the unhealthy light from your screen, but you’re also going to have less worrisome thoughts at night as you won’t be focused so much on what others have or do. The anxiety caused by comparing yourself to others will decrease, so you’ll sleep better at night and feel better during the day. Depression has been associated with the overuse of social media, so limiting media time may increase your mood. And when you’re not constantly comparing your accomplishments to others, you will take more satisfaction in what you have done in your life. You’ll also have more time to spend with other people and develop deeper relationships with the people in your life.
(Suzanne Degges-White is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University).