It is difficult to imagine a time without computers or smartphones. I recall heading to college with an electric typewriter feeling fortunate as typing would be so much easier than with a manual machine. Show a typewriter to young people today, and they may not even know what it is. With the click of a button or the swipe of your finger, information explodes in a second. Whether young or old, much of what we do on a routine basis has become electronic. Sending a birthday card or making a direct telephone call to chat has been replaced by an emoji-filled text message. The computer has become the phone, library, bank, map, and shopping store of today. The technology of today has enabled almost all of us to master a smartphone, and it becomes our lifeline. Is all this technology a good thing, especially when it is also our social life?
Social media are computer-mediated technologies that allow us to create and share information and other forms of expression through virtual communities. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are just a few of the more popular platforms. Just walk in a public place and look around as a casual observer. It sometimes alarms me how many people are face down, buried in the latest post. I have watched as people walk into poles or cross streets without looking. Sit idly at a restaurant and watch a neighboring table as no one is talking to each other, but rather staring at their phones. But does it matter how many people “LIKE” your post? Should we continue to spend countless hours arguing a political point via Twitter or Facebook? Can the inescapable drift into the world of social media be harmful? The unfortunate answer is yes. Like it or not, social media and the rapidly changing world of technology can be harmful to our health.
Research substantiates that increased social media use can lead to depression and anxiety. The burden of mental illness is not to be understated. In the U.S. alone, the economic burden of depression is $210 billion (1). Those that suffer from anxiety and depressive disorders have decreased work productivity, a tendency towards other illnesses, and in the worst-case scenario, even an increased rate of suicide. For young adults, depression and anxiety may increase the risk of substance abuse, poor academic performance, and suicide (2-5).
While no one would argue that anything that impacts the rates of these critical illnesses should be something we look to mediate, it is difficult to discern the cause vs. effect. Does excessive social media use lead to depression, or do people that suffer from anxiety tend to hide in excessive use of social media? Certainly, those that are depressed or anxious may have greater tendencies to use social media because they can remain anonymous. Could it make sense to believe that the more we spend time on a social media site, the less time we spend face to face, interacting daily with the world? Isolation leads to deeper anxiety or depression. Are we being kept from our family, our responsibilities, exercise, and friendships because we are vicariously living through other’s Facebook and Instagram posts? Is comparison living keeping us from living ourselves?
Do we ever post TMI or “too much information,” leaving ourselves open to those who might not have our best interests in mind? Why do we post or reply to posts with words that we might not say to each other?
Common sense may be the answer here. Any practice or habit today that is not beneficial to our mental health should be things we try to keep in check. Today, as fast as the world moves and changes around us, as politically charged with opinions posing as facts, and not a stable element of unbiased truth, we each need to assess the level of media exposure in our family and ourselves. Think about your use of social media. Think about how it impacts your mood, your stress level, your anxiety. Is there a general sense of malcontent following exposure to social media? Are you comparing yourself or your life based on someone else’s carefully edited screen life? Are you feeling left out? Do you hide from others or spend too much time alone because of your daily consumption of the latest Twitter buzz or Facebook/Instagram post?
Take protective action for yourself and your family, just as one would if they were overspending, eating or drinking. Consider not touching your smartphone for one day except for important telephone calls. Then try that for another day and another. See what effect limiting yourself has on you. Try taking Facebook off of your phone and check it only a few times per week on your desk or laptop. Studies do support that moods are improved the less you touch social media. There will be a withdrawal period, but then there may be freedom. LIKES aside, don’t forget that it is nice to look someone in the eye or hear their voice on the phone and say “Happy Birthday. “