Social Media and Mental Health: Friends or Foes?

May 9, 2024

I am an elder millennial. I am part of the generation that knew what life was like before social media, but also went through middle school with the AIM screenname “saraobx”—leaving away messages with moody song lyrics and “brb ttyl lylas”. The generation who had to receive an invite to join Facebook when it was exclusive and cool, when Instagram was for photos only, when Twitter was called Twitter, and Vine was the original TikTok.

Fortunately for my parents, they had minimal knowledge about the usage and impact of social media, chat rooms, and the Internet—outside of Ask Jeeves—as it was just getting its hold on their children. Also, luckily for them, we only had one home computer with dial-up internet so our addiction to being online was kept somewhat at bay. Yet fast forward 20 years and I am a parent raising a daughter in the age of rampant social media. I am simply terrified about the impact it will have on her, while simultaneously concerned about the impact it is currently having on me.

As I have grown up amid both the creation and rise of social media, it makes me ponder if all of us were essentially making up how to deal with social media as we’ve been going along. With inaugural praise for its ability to help connect people from all over the world, we quickly realized that what appeared to be a source of closer connection and understanding was also contributing to increased feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and low self-worth. When looking for articles written about the impact of social media on mental health, I found no shortage of publications, both academic and otherwise, highlighting the concerns. Up until recently, the path to engaging with social media without the associated risks was murky at best. And while we cannot rely on the social media companies themselves to protect us from these risks, we can start to take some internal stock on what we are doing well and what we need to change to better manage how we consume social media, and its impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Social Media Wellness Check
While these social media beasts try to figure out towing the line perfectly of feeding us the ideal algorithm that keeps us engaged—while not getting sued in the process—I’ve concluded that we must look out for ourselves and our loved ones. This leads me to the list of reflective questions I’ve been working on when doing a social media wellness check on myself.

1) Am I connecting more than I’m isolating?

You’ve probably seen the meme of the couple putting their kids to bed and sitting in silence on the couch scrolling on their phones for 45 minutes. My husband and I could easily recreate the image. That mindless scrolling some evenings is a blessing as we come down from the overstimulation of the day. And at other times, it prevents us from connecting. So, I have to ask myself:

Am I mindlessly scrolling? If so, for how long and do I know how and when to cut myself off? How often am I picking up my phone to open a social media app? Am I ignoring my husband or daughter to look on a social media app instead of being fully present? How does that impact their ability to connect with me and vice versa? Am I being purposeful in using the social media app to connect with loved ones, particularly those who I have few other ways to easily connect and communicate?

2) Am I comparing more than feeling comforted?

Anyone who says they’ve never felt a pang of jealousy when an old friend posts about their three-week vacation on the Amalfi Coast or sees a TikTok of an influencer’s beautiful home renovation is lying. There are times when I see images and videos on social media of people I know or total strangers and I can find myself comparing to that person, wanting what they have, and shaming myself for not having what they have. And other times, I see a 10 month-picture of my friend’s baby—who they struggled to have—and feel instant joy. This begs the questions:

When scrolling through my feed, what feelings am I most often experiencing? Am I engaging with things that bring me more giggles, joy, and comfort? Is this informative or helpful information? Or am I more often pulled into viewing profiles or videos that fill me with envy, frustration, guilt, sadness or anger? How am I keeping that balance in check?

3) Am I cleaning more than collecting?

If you’ve been on social media long enough, the number of accounts you follow only seems to grow. So much so, that you’re catching a life update of someone you met at summer camp when you were 16 years old and who you wouldn’t even recognize if you passed them on the street. This is especially true since the algorithms can populate your feed with accounts you may not even want to engage with. It’s important to ask yourself:

Do I WANT to be following this person? When was the last time I audited my list of followers, so that it includes only those friends, family, and content creators that fill my cup rather than empty my cup? Do I constantly disagree with this account or feel the need to leave a negative comment? Am I paying too much attention to how many likes, views, or comments I have rather than being authentic in this space?

4) Am I being a critical consumer more than taking at face value?

There’s a reason why if you get diagnosed with a disease, one of the first things your provider will tell you is “don’t Google”. One of my closest friends reached out recently to let me know that thanks to an Instagram Reel she saw, she took a 10-question test that by the end convinced her she could have Autism. Now, this friend does not have Autism, but it does highlight how quickly we can be convinced of something that we see, whether it has validity or not. When we feel like something is “off” or we need support or are vulnerable in any way, we may, intentionally or not, turn to those on social media for advice and solutions. However, for many reasons, we have to take the critical reading skills we learn in school and apply these same principles to the social media we are consuming: 1) identify the author’s ideas; 2) evaluate the evidence provided by the author that supports their idea; 3) form your own opinion. And that means asking the following questions:

Is this a trusted voice and if so, why? What is the purpose of what they are sharing and why am I being targeted? What is this voice possibly not considering or considering incorrectly?

There’s no doubt that social media is here to stay in some form or another, and what that will look like in another 15 year is yet to been seen—hopefully for the better and not for worse. But we do have control of what and how we consume our information. It’s up to us to take actions to set appropriate boundaries and find a personal (family) balance in efforts to reduce the negative impacts on our mental health.

Sara Moscarelli, MS, LMFTSenior Project Manager, Center of Excellence for Integrated Care

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