While health experts continue to warn us that sitting is the new smoking, citing several diseases it triggers, and many more to which it is linked, they often fail to inform us of the threat from that which we do while sitting; scrolling through social media. While this may seem harmless, and like anything it is when in small doses, when it runs into hours and occurs on a daily basis, it can be doing us real harm.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about the potential for negative effects of social media in young kids and teens, including cyber-bullying and “Facebook depression.” But the same risks may be true for adults, across generations. Here’s a quick run-down of the studies that have shown that social media isn’t very good for mental well-being, and in some ways, it can be pretty damaging.
#1 Social media is addictive
Experts have not been in total agreement on whether internet addiction is a real thing, but there’s good evidence it may exist. A review study from Nottingham Trent University looked back over earlier research on the psychological characteristics, personality and social media use. The authors conclude that “it may be plausible to speak specifically of ‘Facebook Addiction Disorder’…because addiction criteria, such as neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood modifying experiences, tolerance and concealing the addictive behaviour, appear to be present in some people who use excessively.”
#2 It triggers more sadness, less well-being
The more we use social media, the less happy we seem to be. One study a few years ago found that Facebook use was linked to both less moment-to-moment happiness and less life satisfaction—the more people used Facebook in a day, the more these two variables dropped off. The authors suggest this may have to do with the fact that Facebook conjures up a perception of social isolation, in a way that other solitary activities don’t. “On the surface,” the authors write, “Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect. Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.”
In fact, another study found that social media use is linked to greater feelings of social isolation. The team looked at how much people used 11 social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat and Reddit, and correlated this with their “perceived social isolation.” Not surprisingly, it turned out that the more time people spent on these sites, the more socially isolated they perceived themselves to be. And perceived social isolation is one of the worst things for us, mentally and physically.
#3 Comparing our lives with others is mentally unhealthy
Part of the reason Facebook makes people feel socially isolated is through comparing our lives to others. We fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to what others are doing and making judgements about how we measure up. One study looked at how we make comparisons to others posts, in “upward” or “downward” directions—that is, feeling that we’re either better or worse off than our friends. It turned out that both types of comparisons made people feel worse, which is surprising, since in real life, only upward comparisons (feeling another person has it better than you) makes people feel bad. But in the social network world, it seems that any kind of comparison is linked to depressive symptoms.
#4 It can lead to jealousy—and a vicious cycle
It’s no secret that the comparison factor in social media leads to jealousy—most people will admit that seeing other people’s tropical vacations and perfectly behaved kids is envy-inducing. Studies have certainly shown that social media use triggers the feelings of jealousy. The authors of one study, looking at jealousy and other negative feelings while using Facebook, wrote that “This magnitude of envy incidents taking place on FB alone is astounding, providing evidence that FB offers a breeding ground for invidious feelings.” They add that it can become a vicious cycle: feeling jealous can make a person want to make his or her own life look better, and post jealousy-inducing posts of their own, in an endless circle of one-upping and feeling jealous.
#5 We get caught in the delusion of thinking it will help
Part of the unhealthy cycle is that we keep coming back to social media, even though it doesn’t make us feel very good. This is probably because of what’s known as a forecasting error: Like a drug, we think getting a fix will help, but it makes us feel worse, which comes down to an error in our ability to predict our own response. One study looked at how people feel after using Facebook and how they think they’ll feel going in. Like other studies suggested, the participants in this one almost always felt worse after using it, compared to people engaging in other activities.
#6 More friends on social doesn’t mean you’re more social
Not long ago, one study in the effect of social media found that more friends on social media platforms doesn’t equate to a better social life. The human brain has a capacity for the number of friends it can handle, and this is significantly less than the connections you can have on social media…far less, and it takes actual social interaction to keep up these friendships. Since loneliness is linked to myriad health and mental health problems (including early death), getting real social support is important. Virtual friend time doesn’t have the therapeutic effect as time with real friends.
All of this is not to say that there’s no benefit to social media—obviously it keeps us connected across great distances and helps us find people we’d lost touch with years ago. But getting on social when you have some time to kill, or, worse, need an emotional lift, is very likely a bad idea. And studies have found that taking a break from Facebook helps boost psychological well-being. If you’re feeling brave, try taking a little break, and see how it goes. And if you’re going to keep “using,” then at least try to use in moderation.