But what are all these hours on social media actually doing to us?
A place for connection
For most of us, social media is primarily a place to connect with other people — to stay in contact with each other, to have conversations and to share experiences. We feel more involved, bond with each other and recognise ourselves in the experiences of others, which gives us a sense of being seen and heard. These interactions on social media increase our self-confidence and we feel more connected and less alone.
But social media can also negatively affect our mental health. According to psychologist Lili Thoelen, it’s mainly down to how we use the medium.
Active versus passive usage
“The way that you use social media influences how it affects your mental health,” explains psychologist Lili Thoelen. Not everyone is as responsive to social media, but it also matters how we use them. “There’s a difference between passive and active usage,” says Lili.
Through active usage, such as posting, liking and reacting, we feel more connected to each other, experience more support and just generally feel better. However, when we just passively scroll through social media, we experience predominantly negative effects — we fall into negative thought patterns more easily, such as comparing ourselves to others and it can make us feel anxious, restless, sad or depressed.
“Too much active usage is obviously also not good for our mental health,” says Lili. “But sharing a photo every now and then or reacting to a photo of someone we know can make us feel more connected. It’s a way of staying in touch with each other.”
Comparing yourself to other people
One of the main pitfalls of social media is that we end up constantly comparing our lives to those of other people, Lili notices — particularly when we use social media passively. When we’re constantly comparing ourselves to other people, this can lead to insecurity and low self-esteem. “What’s dangerous about social media is that we mainly see what’s going on at a surface level — we don’t see the doubts and insecurities that we experience in our daily lives. This makes us feel more alone,” explains Lili.
💡 You might find it interesting to read: Comparing Ourselves to Others: Why We Do It and What to Do Instead
When we talk to other people – from a colleague at the office to a friend we meet for coffee – we often notice that we’re not alone in our experiences. We all have days when we don’t feel so great; when we leave our phones at home or spill coffee all over our white trousers. We all have bad days sometimes, but we don’t (usually) see much of this on social media.
Another danger of social media is that algorithms ensure we see a lot of the same content, which means we aren’t challenged by other perspectives and we develop a distorted view of reality.
However, it’s almost impossible to imagine our lives without social media. According to Lili, this means it’s important to be conscious of how we use them: “Insights into the way you use social media can help you to understand how it’s affecting your mental health.” By doing so we can (learn to) approach social media in a mindful manner, experiencing more of the positive effects and less of the negative.
How to use social media mindfully
1. Become aware of how you use social media
As Lili explains, it’s first important to become aware of how you use social media. Maybe you’ve noticed that you spend a lot of time on social media at certain points throughout the day, for example in the morning or when you get home from work. Take a moment to consider what these moments mean to you. How do they make you feel?
Are there other times when you check social media? For most of us, it’s become an unconscious habit of grabbing our phones at regular intervals throughout the day and quickly checking social media. See if you can become aware of this.
What’s more, consider if you’re mainly using social media in an active or passive way and how you feel about that.
2. Know who you’re following
Often we don’t entirely know who we’re following and why, and we regularly follow people who don’t actually make us feel that good. Ask yourself if the people you follow make you feel inspired or if they give you a sense that you’re not good enough. Who are you constantly comparing yourself to? Unfollow the people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.
3. Don’t start your day by scrolling
We often start the day by scrolling, which instantly makes it part of our day. When you wait a little longer in the morning before checking social media, you’ll probably notice that you don’t miss it all that much and you’ll feel less need to check it during the day. Give it a try.
4. Turn off your notifications
After watching the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma many people started turning off the notifications on their phones. Maybe you did the same. Although this doesn’t always prevent us from opening our social media apps and checking what’s new, it can still make a difference. This is because every time we get a notification, we feel tempted to check who or what it is. And once you’ve picked up your phone, well, we all know how that ends.
5. Limit your time on social media
Have you noticed that you don’t always feel great when you’re scrolling through social media, but do you not want to quit? Fortunately, you don’t have to delete your social media accounts to change the effect that social media has on your mental health. Taking a break every now and then can make a real difference.
Opinions are divided about how much time we’d ideally spend on social media. But cutting back our social media usage to around half an hour a day would already be an improvement in terms of our mental health.