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August 01, 2021 Feature

The Mental Health Effects Relative to Social Media

Tiffany A. Lesnik

During the past ten years, the rapid development of social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace has caused several profound changes in the way people communicate and interact. Facebook, as the biggest social networking website today, has more than one billion active users, and it is estimated that in the future, this number will significantly increase, especially in developing countries. Igor Pantic, Online Social Networking and Mental Health, 17 Cyberpsychology, Behav. & Soc. Networking 652 (2014).

According to the top five social media platforms from largest to smallest are Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram, with some individuals using multiple social media applications daily such as Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter. The reasons for use vary, including personal, business, informational, and entertainment. While YouTube can be a huge help when you need to know how to fix a garbage disposal without hiring a plumber, there is a lot of other harmful information out there when overconsumed that is insidious to our personal lives.

That is not to say that everything about social media is negative. There are numerous benefits to social media, and there is a wealth of information that is available at the click of a button.

Positive Uses of Social Media

  • Communicate and stay up to date with family and friends around the world.
  • Find new friends and communities, and network with other people who share similar interests or ambitions.
  • Join or promote worthwhile causes and raise awareness on important issues.
  • Seek or offer emotional support during tough times.
  • Find vital social connections if you live in a remote area, for example, or have limited independence or social anxiety or are part of a marginalized group.
  • Find an outlet for your creativity and self-expression.
  • Learn a skill or how to do a DIY project at the click of a button.
  • Promote your business and use social media as an affordable marketing option.
  • Create a timeline of your life and a storage of important photos that are accessible in one space.

COVID-19 and the Acceleration of Social Media Use

Facebook was first published in 2004, but even before then scientists were beginning to investigate the potential positive and negative effects of communicating in a virtual world. Human beings by nature need to be connected and have a feeling of belonging to one another. Human beings are social creatures. We need the companionship of others to thrive in life, and the strength of our connections have a huge impact on our mental health and happiness. Being socially connected to others can ease stress, anxiety, and depression; boost self-worth; provide comfort and joy; prevent loneliness; and even add years to your life. On the flip side, lacking strong social connections can pose serious risks to your mental and emotional health, but those connections need to be positive connections rather than negative connections that can increase feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. Help Guide, Soc. Media & Mental Health (Sept. 2020).

Welcome 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic. Massive restrictions were put into place limiting interpersonal human interaction. Social media use sky-rocketed like never seen before, and with it a whole host of negative side effects for its users. Researchers began investigating the possible association between social media usage and the mental health toll from the coronavirus at the peak of Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak. Researchers studied how people in Wuhan—the first epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic—used social media and its effects on users’ mental health conditions and health behavior change. The results showed that social media usage was related to both depression and secondary trauma, which also predicted health behavior change. As the virus struck, social media usage was rewarding to Wuhan people, who gained informational, emotional, and peer support from the health information shared on social media. An excessive use of social media, however, led to mental health issues. The results imply that taking a social media break may promote well-being during the pandemic, which is crucial to mitigating mental health harm inflicted by the pandemic. Bu Zhong, Yakun Huang & Qian Liu, Mental Health Toll from the Coronavirus: Social Media Usage Reveals Wuhan Residents’ Depression and Secondary Trauma in the COVID-19 Outbreak, 114 Computs. Hum. Behav. 106524 (Jan. 2021).

Social Media Usage and Your Marriage

For those in already rocky relationships, getting to leave the home to interact with friends, go to the gym, engage in hobbies, or stay engaged in business may be the escape that is needed to keep the relationship intact or to keep issues of domestic violence from escalating. With the advent of stay-at-home orders, nonessential businesses closing, and children schooling from home, already-struggling families were forced into an environment where there was no relief from one another and using social media became an escape for the interpersonal problems faced at home. In certain cases, social media use took priority over spending time with family.

How to Tell If Social Media Use Is Having a Negative Impact on Your Marriage or Family

  • You are spending more time on social media than you are with your spouse or children. If you are neglecting one-on-one time with your spouse and/or children instead of actually interacting with them, social media may be having a negative impact on your family. Some examples may include turning on the television to entertain your children while you sit on your phone or throwing your kids in the bathtub or the playroom and instead of actively engaging with them, scrolling through your phone. Rather than spending time with your spouse in the evening or spending time at a restaurant on a date night, you are again more interested in what your phone has to say than what your spouse has to say.
  • You are arguing with your spouse regarding the content of your social media page(s) or theirs. Social media has become increasingly political and toxic. Certain comments or political affiliations can leave certain families feelings targeted or flagged for community or family bullying. Perhaps it is not a political issue, or perhaps your spouse is more private and does not want private family pictures or information spread across the Internet for all of the world to see. Either way, if you are prioritizing the importance of your favorite social media platform over your spouse, it is likely that your relationship will suffer as a result.
  • You are arguing over the appropriateness of friend requests, such as an old fling from high school. In a world that has become so polarized, it is possible that your spouse may not approve of your associations on social media, which may lead to arguments. You may need to address whether there is a legitimate concern about your social connections or if there is an inappropriate need for your spouse to exert their power and control over you. Additionally, there may be real concern over accepting friend requests who were long-lost loves or exes. If you find that you are prioritizing chatting with old flings and looking for secret moments to chat, your marriage could be at risk of an online affair or potentially a physical affair, if you take things to the next level. It is like taking that one bite of chocolate; once you are tempted and take one bite, it is hard not to take another. It is better to avoid the temptation from the beginning than to create a situation where others will be hurt, including your children and yourself.
  • You are accessing your accounts in secret. When you start accessing your accounts in secret, for example, when your spouse is out of the house, sleeping, etc., you may need to question why you are hiding your social media use. Is it because your spouse has requested more of your time and attention and you feel guilty for continuing your online usage over your spouse, or are you engaging in relationships that are less than appropriate, such as engaging in personal conversations with an “online friend” with who you begin to crave their attention and time more than those of your spouse?
  • You are using social media as a negative point of comparison for your relationship. Pictures are just pictures. As an attorney, I submit happy pictures into evidence every day during custody trials. It only takes minutes to dress everyone up and put on happy smiles. This brief moment that is captured on film isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the lives that are captured in that snapshot. In fact, the family could be completely miserable, on the brink of bankruptcy, living with an abusive spouse, or suffering from a genetic fatal illness that pictures will not show. However, as humans we tend to attribute positive attributes to all that we see and then compare what others have to our own lives. We are willing to overlook any possible negatives in others’ lives while focusing on all the negatives in ours. It is important to remember that reality is not always what it seems, and you never know what goes on behind closed doors. No one’s lives are perfect, even if they appear to be in the media. Focus on the positives and be thankful for what you have in your own life. Be mindful that you are probably not posting the worst pictures and worst facts about your family either.

The negative effects of social media are not limited to families that are already in distress but also can have significant effects on teenagers, single individuals living alone, the elderly, and intact families that are happily married, as social media can create a false reality that can change the perceptions of those who use it about themselves, the world that they live in, and their prospects for their future. In a nutshell, social media create a powerful influence over those who use it and, as with any electronics, must be limited in order to keep the user healthy.

Other Negative Effects of Social Media

  • Inadequacy about your life or appearance. When others post photos of their “perfect” families and children, big new houses, amazing vacations, and their other achievements and accomplishments, it can lead some of us to doubt the accomplishments of our own lives. Additionally, people are likely to post the best pictures of themselves or edited pictures of themselves, creating an unrealistic expectation for us of what we should look like and how our lifestyles rank, and leading to potential issues with self-esteem, self-worth, and depression. Remember that what is posted online is not a full representation of others’ lives.
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO). There is research to suggest that overuse of social media can result in addiction-like behaviors, including the need to be constantly connected and the fear of missing out on updates, news events, social announcements, etc., even if it means taking risks while you’re driving, missing out on sleep at night, or prioritizing social media interaction over real-world relationships.
  • Isolation. A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that high usage of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram increases rather decreases feelings of loneliness. Conversely, the study found that reducing social media usage can actually make you feel less lonely and isolated and improve your overall well-being.
  • Increased depression and anxiety. Due to the increased social isolation, negativity, and polarization on the Internet, it is only natural that humans would experience increased feelings of depression and anxiety. Research has shown that with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased use of social media has been linked to increased depression and anxiety. Zhong, Huang & Liu, supra.
  • Self-absorption. This is the age of selfies. Sharing endless selfies and all your innermost thoughts on social media can create an unhealthy self-centeredness and distance you from real-life connections. All of this self-focus can equate to more self-importance than you actually have. One can become obsessed with the number of likes, shares, or comments that are received from their posts. If you get few responses, you may begin to feel less valued than others whose pages are more popular and frequented. Additionally, some people may begin to value themselves on the number of online friends that they have versus their actual friends. These platforms are set up intentionally to cause an addictive need to constantly check for updates and cause you to miss out on real-life relationships.
  • Risk of stalking and continuation of dysfunctional contacts. While connectedness with family is important, there may be some toxic family relationships with which you need to cut connections. If you are leaving an abusive relationship, maintaining certain relationships online may be a means for your abusive partner to stalk you or keep evidence that can be used against you later. Even if your ex-partner is not directly tracking you, they may be using other family and friends that are part of your network to keep tabs on you. In some situations, this can present real-life dangers to you and your children. Make sure to cut all connections with anyone that your ex may have known when you break off that relationship, or consider deactivating your social media accounts for some time after leaving a dangerous relationship.
  • Cyberbullying. Cyberbullying has been a problem since the advent of the Internet, especially with teenagers. Sadly, there have been cases of teenagers taking their own lives due to cyberbullying online. However, since the coronavirus pandemic took over the world, cyberbullying has taken on new heights and affects everyone of all ages. Social media have become increasingly polarized to the point there is real fear of speaking your opinion for fear of being attacked. Hateful terms—such a terrorist, racist, killer, selfish, socialist, snowflake, weak minded or closed minded, fascist, basic, garbage, stupid, moron, and a plethora of other cuss words that will not be mentioned in this article—are used against everyone and anyone. Facebook has created its own set of “Community Standards,” and if you don’t align with the community standards, you are censored or removed. The online world of social media has become a platform of conformity, and if you don’t abide by the status quo, you will quickly be ostracized, ridiculed, and shut down regardless of your age. The online world has become so toxic that many people have been taking a break from being online for their own mental health or deactivating their accounts. It is as simple as hanging out with the wrong crowd in school. If you surround yourself with negativity, the negativity will wear you down. Sometimes you need a break to surround yourself with positivity and healthy choices to get your equilibrium back on track.
  • Negative health consequences. While there has been a lot of discussion on the increased effects of depression and anxiety for overuse of social media platforms, the negative effects are not limited to only psychological ramifications. Overuse of social media can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which can also contribute to weight gain, lethargy, cardiovascular issues, and diabetes. Rather than getting outside to walk or run or hitting the treadmill, one might be more inclined to lay on the couch, snack, and, even worse, consume one alcoholic beverage after another while perusing Facebook and other social media networks, packing on pounds and contributing to physiological damage to the rest of the body. With many gyms now closed, it is now easier than ever to decide to lay around on the couch and browse the Internet rather than to get outside, especially in the winter when exercising outside may not be possible. Finally, there is a cyclical effect between the psychological and physiological. If someone is already suffering with depression and apathy, it makes it that much harder to be motivated to exercise, even though exercise produces endorphins that make us feel better.

There are both positive and negative aspects to social media. Different personality types will be affected by social media to different extremes. As with everything, use is best in moderation. Whether you are in a relationship or not, overuse of social media is shown to increase depression and anxiety and also increase the likelihood of ill physical effects. If you feel like social media is sucking the life out of you, it may be best to step away and take a break. Prioritize the “real” relationships in your life. Spend time with friends and family. Focus on wellness and health. Take time to breathe the fresh air, exercise, and eat well. If you are not comfortable getting together in person, schedule Zoom socials. There are so many ways to schedule fun Zoom events, from game night, to art classes and wine tastings; there are a whole host of businesses that have developed over the last year that allow for “real” people to connect in meaningful ways. In our house, we plan a family bingo night. It allows the youngsters to spin the bingo wheel and play along. At home, plan a family game night, cook a meal together, start a fire in the fire pit and cook dinner and dessert outside, make crafts or art together, or foster a pet to bring everyone together. It is okay to pop in and out of your favorite social media platforms to keep tabs on what is going on so long as that is not taking over your life. Remember that balance is always the key.

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Tiffany A. Lesnik is an attorney with Lesnik Family Law P.C., in Raleigh, North Carolina. She focuses on domestic violence, custody, including high-conflict custody, stepparent adoptions, grandparent visitation, and the settlement and litigation of family law disputes.