If you’re anything like me and millions of other students, you’ve might have binge-watched the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why this past week. There’s a quote from one of the episodes about the importance of human connection which I can’t seem to shake, as the main character Hannah Baker describes how “Humans are a social species, we rely on connections to survive. Even the most basic social interactions keep us alive. Statistics prove the subjective feeling of loneliness can increase the chance of premature death by 26%.” This got me thinking about the concept of “basic social interactions”, like waving hello to a friend or a shop assistant saying “Have a good day,” when we leave a store. Then there’s also that feeling we get when someone likes our recent Facebook status or comments on an Instagram picture that we maybe spent too much time editing.
Social media can be used for the most basic social interactions or the most intense, from simply liking a myriad of posts to possibly finding a new love interest. But social media is a funny concept to me, because the way I see it is that you’re receiving all these social interactions but you can see everybody else’s too, and sometimes it’s like you’re getting a wave hello from a friend but you can see that somebody else is getting a hundred more waves from hundreds of more people. You can view the most beautiful photos on a perfectly filtered Instagram page which can present the illusion that you’re getting a full view of someone else’s life, when really it’s just a tiny fragment of their world. Sometimes this can have the opposite effect of what these social media apps intend on providing; sometimes this results in loneliness.
There was a time in my life when checking social media was the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I did before I went to sleep, on top of the dozens of times I would check it throughout the day. Digital media is scientifically proven to be addictive. When we receive a text message or notification on a post, it triggers the chemical in your brain called dopamine that controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain which makes us want, seek and desire. This means that social media can become an addictive thrill seeking adventure for us, but what happens when we don’t receive that text or notification we so desperately crave? This is where the lonely feeling hits us and makes us feel a false sense of inadequacy, simply because we don’t measure up to the same amount of likes that everyone else is getting.
Of course, everyone’s experience with social media is different, and whereas some of us need to take a step back from it and reconnect with real life there are people that gain a lot of happiness from it. In order to breakdown whether social media is really detrimental for a young person’s mental health, I consulted psychology Master’s student Alyssa Saiphoo who conducted a study at York University last June in order to determine just how harmful images can be to our self-worth when shared on social media. Alyssa focused on how social media affects body image for her study. In Alyssa’s study, there were 98 participants – 71% were female second year kinesiology students with a mean age of 19.52. They were placed into one of two groups: an experimental group where participants were instructed to abstain from using social media for one week, and a control group where participants continued to use social media as usual. Alyssa explains that she measured their social physique anxiety or SPA (SPA is defined as anxiety experienced in response to other’s evaluations of them) at the beginning of the study and then again one week later and then looked to see if she saw any changes. Alyssa explains that what they found was, “That participants in the social media break condition did not experience any change in SPA over the week. Interestingly, they found that participants who used their social media as normal actually had increased social physique anxiety after the week had passed. So, taking a break from social media may not improve body image, but normal social media use may actually increase them.” Alyssa explains since they had half of their participants take a one week break from social media, they asked them some questions about their experience at the end of the study. Here were some of the results:
What kinds of things did you do to make sure/try to ensure that you would not use your social media over the course of the week?
- Kept myself distracted with school = 11
- Kept myself distracted with other hobbies = 9
- Blocked technology (e.g. turned off notifications, deactivated accounts, deleted apps, etc.) = 32
- Other = 8
What did you do with your time instead of using social media over the past week?
- Socialized = 12
- Focused more on school work = 37
- Engaged in some sort of health behaviour (e.g. slept more, exercised, meditated, etc.) = 13
- Other = 29
How did you find staying off social media for one week?
- Easier than I thought it would be = 17
- Harder than I thought it would be = 26
- Neutral = 7
Alyssa concludes that it seems that people found this experience to be harder than they thought it would be, they used their extra time to focus on school work, and they had to block technology to make sure they actually did it. Many responses also indicated that they found this experience to be very eye opening; they didn’t realize that they were so invested in their social media experiences. When asking Alyssa her thoughts on whether social media can be detrimental to a young person’s mental health, this was her response:
Overall, I don’t think I can say for sure that social media are detrimental to mental health because honestly, I don’t know! I don’t really think “science” knows either (but we are trying to figure it out!). The majority of the research I’ve read does point to this, but there’s also research that contradicts this [and] shows that social media can be beneficial. I personally think there’s a lot of factors that determine whether social media will impact you positively or negatively.
I definitely agree with Alyssa in the sense that how we use social media is crucial to whether it will impact us positively or negatively. This school year I tried out a digital media break, and although this is a slow and sometimes difficult process I’ve noticed that disengaging from it has improved my mental health significantly. I never had an Instagram or Snapchat account until 2 years ago when I started university, because after moving to the city I soon realized that in order to navigate the social world certain apps were suddenly essential. By not having certain apps on your phone you can feel like you’re missing out on so much, but when I finally caved and downloaded Snapchat on my phone per the request of my friends, I realized that I wasn’t missing out on anything at all. What I was missing out on from having all these apps on my phone was act of picking up the phone and calling a friend or seeing them in person, and having a genuine conversation.
Sure, it’s fun to see what everyone else is doing, but not to the extent where you realize you’re so caught up in other people’s lives that you’re forgetting to live your own. And while you’re living your own life with these apps, you suddenly have this new sense of obligation that every meal you eat or fun event you go to must be documented, because otherwise did it even really happen? Is anything really significant unless it’s captured for everyone else to see? If you’re not on Tinder, are you even trying to date at all? Speaking of Tinder, from watching my friends on dating apps I see them add a whole new level of insecurity to their lives where they brand themselves as “not good enough” simply because someone didn’t swipe right on their phone, and that concept is bizarre to me. I perceive apps such as these to be dangerous sometimes because of the way it can change a person’s opinion of themselves, which is why I’ve seen many of my friends delete apps such as these off their phone. But the fact that they would install them again just a few days later shows the addictive nature of digital media. Although I’ve never invested my time in dating apps, like I said I’ve been addicted to digital media before. The addiction was the first part of my social media downfall. The second part was realizing that I was posting what other people would want to see and not posting for myself – similar to what my fellow Storyteller Janine explored in her blog here.
Social media has a way of putting a magnifying glass on my insecurities, as it does for millions of other people. It can start off with the smallest trigger like reading a tweet that you wish you were witty enough to think of, and then all of a sudden you’re wishing you had the thigh gap of a model you just saw on Instagram. Shutting off from social media doesn’t equate to shutting off from negative feelings, because even when we turn off the apps and look at the real world around us, we often still compare ourselves to people that we perceive as smarter or funnier or more attractive than us. But social media can definitely shine a spotlight on those parts of ourselves that we aren’t happy with and gives us a clear and distinct window to the lives of others who are *seemingly* perfect. As a TV nerd, I created my Twitter account when I was in high school for the sole purpose of tweeting about TV shows, but when I got to university I felt the pressure to stop. I didn’t want to be perceived as ignorant, especially in today’s political climate. This pressure to change the topic of conversation, however, just made me feel sad, inauthentic and I started to tweet less and less. I soon realized that there are no rules about what you have to use your social media for, or who you have to follow. I know people that don’t follow any of their friends and will solely follow funny meme or travel accounts, simply because that’s all they are interesting in seeing. I eventually stopped taking social media so seriously and went back to tweeting about what I’m passionate about. I realized I liked it so much better like this – because rather than having to acknowledge everything that was happening in the world, it was providing an escape for me where I could tweet about my obsession with Eleven’s love for eggos on Stranger Things and my every thought on the Gilmore Girls revival.
Like Alyssa explains through the results of her study, how we approach social media will be different for everyone, because we all approach our apps with different intentions and purposes and I applaud that, so long as we do so in a healthy way. For me, that’s where I’m at with social media right now – a very elusive, comedic and non-committal relationship. And that makes me happy.
How does social media affect your life? Would you ever consider taking a digital media break, and why/why not? Let us know over at @RUStudentLife!