In terms of human existence, social media has been around for not even a millisecond. However, it is having a profound and unexpected impact on both our physical and emotional health.
The growing age of technology and social media is having a profound effect on our brain wiring, self-esteem, lifestyle and mental/emotional wellbeing. There have been many studies linking problematic technology usage to various psychological issues, including anxiety, ADHD, autism, depression, hostility, schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, loneliness, and stress.
I want to make it clear that before I get into the crux of this post, I do not think that the use of the Internet and social media is all bad. It does play some extremely important functions in our modern world and can also be used for extremely positive things. I mean, without social media and the Internet, you would not be reading this post. It has revolutionised our world in some very positive ways, however it does not come without its pitfalls.
In this post I would like to point out the various ways in which social media is effecting our health and wellbeing. Hopefully in doing this, it may make you identify some issues around your relationship to social media and if it is a barrier to you optimising certain aspects of your physical and emotional wellbeing.
How can social media negatively affect your health?
When I looked to the research, large epidemiological studies indicate that high-income countries tend to have higher depression rates than middle to low-income countries (that are without wars, famine, natural disasters and conflict). The World Health Organization has found that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and estimates that depression affects 121 million people worldwide.
Divorce, separation, or the death of a spouse were commonly associated with depression across all countries, however on average, there are higher rates of depression among those in higher income/richer countries compared to lower income/poorer countries. It seems that as life gets better from a material point of view, people get more and more unhappy. While there are many explanations and contributing factors to this, social media certainly has a role to play in this perplexing puzzle of human nature because social media use is significantly greater in more developed countries due to increased access to the internet and smart phones.
A constant distraction that can isolate us
A study with over 300,000 participants found that social support was a stronger predictor of survival than physical activity, body mass index, hypertension, air pollution, alcohol consumption, and even smoking fifteen cigarettes a day!
Furthermore, many other studies have found that the main determining factor to a happy life is good quality relationships. Humans are social beings and crave human connection and community.
Social relationships help buffer the effects of chronic stress by providing emotional support and as we know, stress can be very damaging to our health. Also, social relationships directly influence health through their effects on various aspects of our emotional and physical wellbeing.
The benefits of social connection to our mental health were highlighted during the COVID -19 lockdowns where there was a sharp increase in and exacerbation of mental health issues. While the lack of social connection was not the only contributing factor to the rise in mental health issues, it certainly was a large one.
In our modern world, we are losing a sense of genuine relationships and human connection. Social media has a large role to play in this and it is having a profound effect on our emotional and physical health. Social media platforms hone in on our natural interest in others and ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires and profiting from them.
We are more “connected” than ever, as we interact with algorithmic versions of each other, however we have never felt more isolated. The distraction of social media is decreasing face to face human connection and even when we are present around other humans, even those dearest to us, we are too stuck on our devices to pay them the attention they deserve.
It is so common these days to see parents on their phone while their kids play on the playground, couples at dinner on their respective devices and kids being distracted by a screen in social settings instead of learning to engage with others and the world around them. Instead of simply being present in each moment and feeling connected with the people around us, our attention is increasingly elsewhere.
Lots of people say that they can multi task, however, our brain is not capable of multi tasking. Yes we can do two or more things at once, but none of the tasks can get your full attention, which in my opinion is not multi tasking. This is why it is so dangerous to be on your phone while driving!
Based on this, it is no surprise that recent studies have shown that increased internet usage is associated with decreased relationship quality, loneliness and depression.
Moreover, interestingly, due to the high of cost social media devices and decreased internet availability, in developing nations, studies show their use of social media and screen time is less. Maybe this is one of the reasons behind their lowered rates of depression.
Also, one thing that I have noticed when travelling in developing nations, is that people in poorer nations tend to have a greater sense of community and there is more of a “street culture” compared to richer countries, where depression is more prevalent. In richer countries, especially within cities, people live in relative isolation and hardly know their neighbours/local communities. We tend to stick to our immediate social network and don’t really engage with others. Where in poorer nations, people have a greater sense of community. Also, people in richer countries tend to have more individualistic attitudes toward life, where as in poorer countries, people have more community-based attitudes. With less devices and more social connection, it is maybe a reason as to why these nations have lower rates of depression despite their small of amounts of material wealth.
The definition of addiction is: “the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life.”
If we use this definition, it’s fair to say that a lot of us are addicted to the Internet and social media. What is worse, is that this addiction is socially acceptable.
Social media can become a constant distraction in your life. Think about how often throughout your day where you mindlessly scroll through social media, as well as check your email and communication platforms. While this is necessary to some degree, we could do a lot better at scheduling the time we spend on our devices to check these things. This all distracts us from being on task in whatever we are wanting to focus on, it decreases productivity and can become a means of procrastination. This can cause us stress when we fail to get things done in our lives.
It can also distract us from being present in our lives
Scrolling through social media and our communication platforms can distract us from being present in the now. Looking at a screen can cause us to miss what is going on in front of us in the present moment, which could be spending time with our loved ones or being in a really cool place.
Also, due to the brag culture of social media and the “hey look my life is better than yours,” everyone is trying to stand out with the best photo in the coolest places. People sometimes obsess about getting the best photo instead of simply enjoying the present moment in their current environment. The obsession with trying to get a great photo for the validation of likes, can really impact a persons ability to fully take in what is going on in their present environment.
Sleep is absolutely vital for our health. It is s a time where the body repairs and regenerates itself from a day of physical and mental stressors. Therefore, if we don’t get enough sleep or enough good quality sleep, this repair and regeneration does not happen effectively and it ultimately leads to chronic inflammation in the body, which can drive and exacerbate a number of diseases.
This is why a lack of sleep and lack of good quality sleep increases the risk of every chronic disease, including weight gain and obesity. Most Australians don’t get enough sleep and good quality sleep, which is a large reason as to why our chronic disease rates are so high.
Blue/artificial light exposure from our technological devices at night is the one factor that is having the largest and most profound effect on our sleeping habits and sleep quality. Not only does technology keep us occupied at night therefore pushing out our bed times, but it disrupts the hormones that govern our sleep and wake cycle called the circadian rhythm. This effects our sleep onset, maintenance and quality.
The hormones that govern our sleep and wake cycle are released in response to amount of light entering eye. Cortisol, our get up and go hormone, is released in response to light entering the eye, therefore it is highest during the day when we are awake and the sun is out. As the sun sets and less light enters the eye, cortisol should theoretically drop off and melatonin should increase.
Melatonin is released in response to less light (i.e. darkness) entering he eye.
I say ‘theoretically’ as this doesn’t happen in our modern world. This is because increased light exposure at night leads to increased light exposure on the eye. Therefore, the body thinks it is day time, when it is actually night. This causes a spike in cortisol and suppression of the sleepy hormone melatonin.
People look at technology right up until they go to bed, therefore the body thinks it is day time right up until they try to fall asleep. This is highly detrimental because melatonin is responsible for all the beneficial effects of sleep. Decreased melatonin production during the night as a result of blue light exposure before bed can affect our sleep onset, sleep maintenance and quality of our sleep. Therefore, even if you are getting enough sleep, if the quality is poor, you will still wake up unrefreshed.
Lack of exercise, daily movement and getting outdoors
Increased use of the internet and social media usually promotes sedentary behaviour. It is well established that sedentary behaviour is linked with many chronic health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Recent studies demonstrate that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for hospitalisation, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all cause mortality, independent of the amount of exercise one gets.
People who spend a lot of time on social media and the internet also tend to get less fresh air, sunlight and spending time in nature. All of these things are known to benefit both our physical and emotional wellbeing.
Social media and other forms of media, constantly bombard us with stories, images and videos of humans that are on the extremes of the bell curve. We are flooded with people who are exceptional and outliers in our society. They are the 99.999999th percentile of human existence. The reason for this is essentially for these media outlets to make more money.
We are constantly exposed to the hottest people, the best athletes, the smartest people, the richest people and the most successful people. We are even are exposed to the worst of humanity. We are also exposed to the highlights reels of our friends, family and acquaintances lives on social media.
The constant bombardment of this information creates unrealistic expectations about how we should exist in the world. It starts to make us believe that being extraordinary or living an extraordinary life is actually normal, how we should be and what we should aspire to.
We start to believe that in order to live a happy, fulfilling and meaningful life, we need to live a life that is extraordinary, glamorous and selfie-perfect, hoping that we become the envy of everyone on our social media feeds. It is this belief that creates clueless millennials who are constantly looking to stand out of the crowd and it perpetuates the brag culture of social media, as everyone is trying to show that their lives are better than everyone else.
Also, when people in society start to believe that the key to a happy life is an extraordinary one, an ordinary life then becomes synonymous with a meaningless life and people become dissatisfied with their ordinary lives.
People fail to realise that despite the glamour of social media, it is essentially a snapshot in time and only shows the highlights. People post what they want others to see, meanwhile behind the camera it is likely that most of their day to day life is in fact quite ordinary.
This is even true for people who are extraordinary and have aspects of their lives that are extraordinary. The reality is that most of life is quite ordinary and banal.
Also, what most people also don’t realise is that the exceptional humans seen on social media may be exceptional in one aspect of their lives, but are usually pretty average in other aspects, as it is not possible to become exceptional in a certain area, without completely neglecting other things.
Furthermore, people believe that an extraordinary, glamorous, selfie perfect life that is constructed on social media is normal, achievable and reality based, when they experience negative emotions like sadness, grief, anger, anxiety and negative life situations, they can’t help but think that this is abnormal.
Also, exacerbating this is the fact that when people are experiencing negative emotions and difficult life situations, they are one click away from seeing everyone else supposedly living their best lives on social media.
The stigma around mental health issues is another exacerbating factor to this problem because most people don’t open up about their emotional issues, hence when someone is struggling, it appears that everyone is doing just fine (i.e. we lack vulnerability to talk about our mental health in fear of being stigmatised).
If people feel abnormal when they are facing negative emotions or a tough time in life, this will likely increase the frequency and intensity of the negative emotions they were already experiencing. People start to feel anxious about why they are anxious, sad for feeling sad and angry because they are angry. When negative emotions don’t feel normal, people get annoyed at themselves for feeling them in the first place. This is opposed to just being able to sit with negative emotions and realising it is a normal part of the human experience that will eventually pass. We need to be more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
Lastly, the natural tendency of humans to compare themselves to others is a likely reason as to why we see higher depression rates in “richer countries” compared to “poorer countries,” that don’t have war, famine and natural disasters.
This is because in rich countries, there are large income disparities between the rich and poor. People who are considered not to be rich, are constantly exposed to the wealthy elite and the possibilities of what money could buy. This makes them feel dissatisfied with their life situation, despite the fact they likely have enough money to cover all of their expenses plus more.
People in poorer countries are not as frequently exposed to the rich and live amongst other people who have similar amounts of money to them. Therefore, the likelihood of comparison is much less. This is why when I travel to South Africa I am always amazed to see the genuine happiness of people living a simple life in rural towns, which is away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
In order to pursue an extraordinary life, social media tells us to value and derive our self worth from the following:
– what others think/say about us
– comparing ourselves to others
– social status
– money/material goods
– busyness. Busyness is like a badge of honour in our society. We live in a world where our value is defined by our productivity. Many of us find our last minute captured, optimized and appropriated as a financial resource for the technologies we use.
– social media followers/likes/appearance (people seek validation from this).
Humans are hardwired to crave belonging and connection, and society places emphasis on the pursuit of these things, making us believe that if we attain them, we will feel enough and worthy of love, connection and belonging. Reality is, the pursuit of these things never leaves us feeling satisfied and its leads to a toxic cycle of wanting more.
This is because what is considered adequate amounts of these things are subjective and arbitrary. It is also because we measure the value of these things in comparison to other people.
This is why a University of Warwick study found that money only makes people happy if it makes them richer than their peers. Earning a million dollars a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn 2 million a year.
Because we believe that attaining these things are necessary for feeling worthy, we often sacrifice our physical and mental/emotional wellbeing in the pursuit of them. We perceive these things as rewarding, and it is worth the hard work.
However, looking after our health and wellbeing often drops down the priority list and a lot of the time this is because we perceive it as something that requires a lot of effort for little reward.
In the pursuit of the extraordinary, we lose sight of the ordinary things in our lives, which actually bring us the most joy, such as our:
– health and wellbeing
– loved ones
We need to start making our values based around these things and therefore prioritising them. It is these things that people on their death bed always regret not prioritising enough.
Decreased self worth
Following on from the previous two sections, the glamorous highlights reels of social media make us feel like we are not enough. We are not sexy enough, rich enough, healthy enough, strong enough, successful enough, etc. When we don’t feel ‘enough,’ we feel like we are unworthy of love, belonging and connection unless we attain all of the things that marketing tells us to have. Not feeling enough is good for business, as we start to buy ‘things’ and pursue ‘things’ to try feel enough. However, it is not good for our mental health and how we interact with those around us.
The reality is that when we rely on external things to feel ‘enough,’ as well as the opinions of others, we find ourselves with a toxic mentality that will lead to a never ending pursuit of feeling good enough. However, when we start to believe that we are enough, that we are worthy of love, belonging and connection, despite our flaws, we start to operate within the world from a whole new perspective.
Lastly, contrary to popular belief, the feeling of being enough does not diminish the drive to improve ones self and succeed in various pursuits. It just changes the way we go about it. When we feel enough, we engage with our goals and pursuits in a very different way. We no longer think that our success or failure is a reflection of who we are as a person and our worthiness. This allows us to dare greatly and take risks, even in the face of fear, emotional exposure and failure.
Spending too much money
Social media and media outlets constantly market ‘things’ to us that we are told to value and derive our self worth from. We are constantly told that in order to be X (which is desirable/socially acceptable by societal standards), we need to get Y.
Often, because we don’t already have X, we constantly feel inadequate. Therefore, we spend dollar after dollar, year after year in our consumer society to try and attain whatever new thing the media is marketing to us that we supposedly need to be happy and feel enough.
A platform for the expression of narcissism
People post intimate fragments of their lives, both good and bad, to gain attention, stand out and brag. Many will argue that they do this to inspire other people, however for some reason, the “inspiring post” is always with a glamorous, edited selfie that took 100 shots for the “perfect one.”
Furthermore, people often argue that sharing their pain and struggles on social media is a good thing, as it shows vulnerability and may help someone else realise that they aren’t alone in their struggle. While this is sometimes true, it often not the case in our society.
Oversharing personal information that you have not worked through and healed from is not vulnerability. People often overshare to soothe their own pain, seek validation and to be heard. Sharing your own pain to people you hardly know on the internet, in order to heal yourself, is not healthy. Oversharing to find connection with others more often than not leads to disconnection.
It is important to only share your most intimate and vulnerable details about yourself to those who deserve to hear it. People who you have a trusting relationship with. People who you genuinely have an authentic and honest relationship with. A person who you know that no matter what your flaws are, they accept you for who you are and see you as enough.
Obviously I am grateful for those who speak and write about their struggles to know we’re not alone, but often those people have worked through their pain with those closest to them and healed as a result. They aren’t using internet strangers to heal themselves.
So next time, before you post something intimate, ask yourself the following questions.
Why am I sharing this?
What outcome am I hoping for?
What emotions am I experiencing?
Do my intentions align with my values?
Is there an outcome, response or lack of response that will hurt my feelings?
Is this sharing in the service of connection?
Am I genuinely asking people in my life for what I need?
If you find that a lot of the answers to these questions have got to do with seeking external validation from others and to feel ‘enough,’ then you need to re-think your post.
Health and nutrition misinformation
Social media is fast becoming people’s main source of health and nutrition information. There are some evidence based and credible people out there, with formal degrees, who post some great content. However, the majority of the information on social media and the internet is hype driven misinformation.
Most people on social media are just trying to promote or sell you something in some way or another. Also, for some reason, the amount of followers a person has or the way they look increases their credibility online and therefore the ‘quality’ of what they are promoting to their followers.
Social media, like any form of marketing platform, often uses genetically gifted models to sell health and nutrition products. This is quite insidious as it makes people believe that if they buy what is marketed to them, they may be able to look like the model selling it. Good genes and hours of consistent hard work in the gym help shape a lot of the models you see on social media, not the product they are selling to you.
Issues in children
Increased screen time in children has been linked to various behavioural disorders and obesity. Kids are playing outside less and interacting less with other children/people face to face, which is a crucial part of development and learning how to behave/exist in the world. Also, adults are often using screens and technology as a means to keep their kids occupied in social settings or even in the car. The kids become so focused on their screens that they end up lacking awareness of the people and environment around them, causing a disconnect and missed opportunities of learning about the world around them.
While I do think technology use is important for children’s learning and development, especially in our modern world, excessive amounts, like anything, can be detrimental.
Parents are often critical of their kids excessive use of screens. However, it is becoming more common that adults are failing to model the behaviours they want to see in their kids due to their own excessive use of technology and social media, which is often a distraction from them being present with their kids. For a parent, saying one thing and doing another is sure to cause disengagement from children. Parenting is about modelling the behaviours we want to see in our kids, not saying one thing and modelling the opposite.
Lastly, early exposure of social media to young children is giving them a warped sense of what is normal. Seeing thousands of extraordinary people on screens creates an unrealistic expectation of how people should look and live their lives.
As I have pointed out, there are a number of physical and emotional health issues that can result from using social media. Like I said at the beginning of this article, not all social media is bad and it can add some great benefits to our lives. However, we need to teach people to not use it excessively and create a healthy relationship with it.
Creating a healthy relationship with social media needs to start in schools and at home in order to prepare the younger generation for the world they are going to exist in. For people who are older, there are various strategies a person can take to start creating a more healthy relationship with social media, as well as communication platforms, the internet and technology in general.
Here are some of those strategies:
Turning off notifications and alerts on your phone.
Only checking email and other communication platforms at specific times of the day and limited to 2-3 times per day.
Focusing on your most important daily tasks before engaging with social media and communication platforms.
No social media, communication platforms, screens and technological devices at least 45mins before bed.
Every 30-60 minutes, make sure you break up long periods of sitting looking at a screen with a walk, some light stretches or body weight exercises.
Every so often, try a digital detox where you abstain from all social media, communications platforms and internet usage for at least a day. You may schedule this when you go away somewhere on a trip or holiday.
Try to keep your kids occupied or engaged in their environment instead of giving them a screen.
Follow unbiased, evidence based health and nutrition information. Examine.com is a great example of a website that is evidence based in their approach to health, supplement and nutrition information. They have scientists and researchers creating their content and they are completely unbiased with no third party affiliations. The only things they sell on their website is science based nutrition, supplement and health information, which a lot of the time includes content to help people stay away from fads and misinformation.
Try to enjoy experiences in your life without trying to capture that moment in a photo. Be completely present and don’t feel the need to document it, share it or brag about it.
Realise that social media is a highlights real of people lives. What you see on there is not a reflection of real life.
Putting your phone on silent, out of sight or even turning it off when you are spending quality time with people you love.
Turning your phone off when you need to do something that requires focus and your full attention.
Unfollow people on social media that make you feel complex about your life, self-esteem or body image.
Understand that social media is not inherently bad and using it is not bad. What determines its use as unhealthy or not, largely depends on the context in which it is occurring. If you are using it to numb uncomfortable emotions and distract you from dealing with life, it is unhealthy. However, sometimes using it to engage with friends and loved ones can leave you feeling connected, which is a good thing.
Before you post intimate details and photos of yourself online, think about your intentions behind it.
Change your value system to make values that are more conducive to good mental health. It is not easy and it takes time, but it is worth it. For more information on how to form good values read two of Mark Manson’s books called ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’ and ‘Everything is Fucked.’
Realise that despite your flaws, you are worthy of love, belonging and connection. You are enough. Once you truly embrace this and become what Brene Brown calls a “wholehearted person,” your interaction with the pressures of the outside world become very different. Read Brene Brown’s book called ‘Daring Greatly’ for more insight into this concept.