How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health?
Whether you’re a fan or not, social media has become a fundamental aspect of most people’s lives. According to statistical analysis company Statista, here in the UK an estimated 43 million people of all ages will be using social networks regularly – at least once a month – by 2022, up from 38 million in 2015i. Young adults are the biggest users, with 94 per cent of 25-to-34-year-olds in the UK having a social media profileii. Statistics, meanwhile, show that Facebook is still the most popular social networking site in the UKiii.
There’s no doubt that we’re becoming increasingly reliant on social media to keep up with friends, family and work colleagues. But despite its popularity, social media is a relatively new phenomenon, which means we’re still finding out what impact it may have on us. Unfortunately, the signs so far suggest it’s not that great for our mental wellbeing.
Social media itself, however, isn’t the problem. It’s how we use it. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest we’re using it a lot – arguably far too much. The latest figures from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, suggest that, on average, we check our smartphones every 12 minutes of the dayiv. The same survey suggests two fifths of adults check their smartphones within five minutes of waking in the morning, while 78 per cent of us admit we couldn’t live without our phones.
Studies elsewhere have found links between social media use and mental health issues such as low moods and anxietyv, eating problems vi , poor sleepvii and even an increased risk for suicideviii.
Researchers have also discovered social media use may lead to low self-esteemix and that it could also have an effect on our face-to-face relationships too, with more than half of people admitting they’ve interrupted conversations with friends and family to check their smartphoneiv.
The upside of social media
But it’s not all bad news. There’s evidence that social media can be good for our wellbeing too. According to the Mental Health Foundation it’s undeniable that online technologies can be used to reach the most vulnerable in society, including those with mental health issuesx. That’s because it builds online communities that can provide much-needed emotional support, especially in areas where regional mental health services are unavailable and for those who can’t afford to travel to access them.
Meanwhile, experts from Harvard University have studied two aspects of social media use – namely how much it’s used routinely and how emotionally connected people are to their social networking sitesxi.
What they found was that routine use of social media – that is, using social media as part of your everyday routine – is associated positively with social wellbeing, positive mental health and self-rated health. But emotional connection to social media – for example, checking apps excessively and feeling disconnected when you’re not logged in – was found to have negative associations with all three.
According to one of the study’s authors, research scientist Mefsin Awoke Bekalu, the findings suggest as long as people use social media mindfully, routine use may not be a problem – in fact it could be beneficialxii.
Social media and children
Social media use is also linked to mental health worries in children. According to Ofcom, 18 per cent of children aged 8 - 11 and 69 per cent of children aged 12 - 15 have a social media profile (younger children do too, says the report, including one per cent of three-to-four-year-olds)xiii.
If you’re a parent this may be a particular concern. That’s because the bulk of the evidence out there suggests using social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat may have more negative effects for children and teenagers than positive ones.
One recent study of more than 6,500 children aged 12 - 15 suggests those who spend more than three hours a day using social media have an increased risk for depression, anxiety and other internalising problems (xiv). Meanwhile, an earlier study found one in five young people wake up regularly during the night to send or check messages on social media, making them more likely to feel constantly tired at school (xv).
Spending time chatting on social networks may affect how happy children are too, particularly with their appearance. To understand more about self-esteem in children please visit our article. Meanwhile, according to the NSPCC children are experiencing increasing pressures from social media and cyberbullying (xvi).
Another report from the Office for National Statistics claims children who spend more than three hours a day on social media sites may be more than twice as likely to have poor mental health as others spending less time onlinexvii.
On the plus side, however, social media can help children and teenagers stay in touch with extended family and friends. It can also help them develop their networking skills, not to mention boosting their practical skills in using technology.
• For tips and advice for children on how to enjoy a more positive time online, visit the Young Minds website.
Should you quit?
As using social media has been linked frequently with mental wellbeing problems, should you consider giving it up altogether? This may sound like a good idea, but thanks to the way we live our lives these days it simply isn’t an option for most of us. Cutting down on the amount of time we spend online, however, may be a better solution.
One study carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania suggests limiting the use of Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites could support your mental healthxviii.
The researchers enrolled 143 volunteers and separated them into two groups. One group carried on using social media as usual, while the other had to limit its use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to just 10 minutes each per day.
The experiment lasted for three weeks, before and after which the volunteers completed a survey. This asked them to rate their experience of factors such as anxiety, depression, self-esteem, access to social support, fear of missing out (FOMO) and loneliness.
After analysing the surveys, the researchers found those who had restricted their social media use reported significantly lower levels of loneliness. Those who had rated feelings of low mood high at the start of the study also experienced reduced symptoms that the researchers describe as ‘clinically significant’.
Such were the results of the experiment that the report’s authors strongly suggest limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day can lead to significant improvement in wellbeing. That said, the researchers admit that 30 minutes may not be the right amount of time to spend on social media to enjoy these benefits – you could, for instance, spend twice that much time, and still get an uplift in wellbeing.
How to cut down
Cutting down on social media may not be easy, but it’s not impossible. To start with, why not try logging off whenever you’re with other people in a social situation – when going out to dinner, for example – or give yourself a day off every week (make it the same day each week to create a routine).
You could even try having a day away from all your digital devices, which means staying off the internet in general, not just social media. Try to impose a night curfew on your social media use too – make it a rule that you won’t use your smartphone or other devices for at least an hour before going to bed.
It’s also a good idea to impose a time limit for how long you use social media – try to spend no more than half an hour or an hour on Facebook and other sites each day, for instance. But once you decide to spend less time online, how do you make sure you stick to your new rule?
If you have an iPhone running iOS 12 or higher you could try using the Apple Screen Time facility, which lets you set limits on some of the apps you use as well as tracking how much time you’re spending on them (it also tells you how long you’ve been using your phone that day). If you have an Android phone – or an older iPhone that doesn’t support Screen Time – there are several apps you can download that will do a similar job:
As well as setting social media time limits, Offtime can block your calls and notifications when you don’t want to be disturbed. It’s available for Android and iPhone devices from offtime.app.
Only available for iPhone and other iOS devices, Moment lets you set limits for your social media apps usage and notifies you – or even blocks you – when you go over. Find it at inthemoment.io.
Stay On Task
Aimed at helping you to improve your focus at work, Stay On Task also lets you set blocks for your social media apps. It also checks up on you at random intervals to make sure you’re doing your work and not letting yourself get distracted. You can get it for Android devices from the Google Play store.
Off The Grid
This allows you to block your phone for pre-determined time periods – though you can whitelist some phone numbers to avoid missing any important calls. And if you’re tempted to use your phone before your blocked session is up, the app actually charges your bank card a dollar. Available for Android devices at the Google Play Store.
More support for your mental health
While you’re getting used to spending less time on social media, there are several nutritional supplements that could help you feel less anxious and more relaxed.
A traditional Ayurvedic herb, this is often used to combat tiredness and fatigue. It’s classified as an adaptogen, which means it may help your body manage stress. One small-scale study has found it may lead to significant stress reduction in people with a history of chronic stress, and that it reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xix). Another study found that 88 per cent of trial participants reported feeling less anxious after taking ashwagandhaxx.
Valerian is a herb with a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep problems and mild anxiety. Several studies have found it may affect the body’s production of a naturally occurring amino acid called GABA, which is thought to be related to anxiety (xxi). Meanwhile a review of 16 studies suggests valerian may improve sleep quality without producing any side effectsxxii.
St John’s wort
A popular herbal remedy, this is used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. Studies suggest it could be more effective at treating mild to moderate low mood than placeboxxiii, with some suggesting it’s at least as effective as some popular prescription antidepressantsxxiv A review of herbal medicines also suggests there’s high-quality evidence for the use of St John’s wort for major low mood disorderxxv.
If you’re taking any other medicines take care, as St John’s wort may interact with some other medicines (consult your GP before taking it).
The amino acid 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is often used as a remedy for low mood, with studies suggesting it may be as effective as antidepressantsxxvi. It may also help if you’re having problems with sleepingxxvii. Studies also suggest 5-HTP may help with anxiety disordersxxvii.
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Essential oils such as lavender have a long tradition of helping people to feel more relaxed and sleep more easily. There is also some evidence that lavender oil may be an effective natural way to treat the signs of anxietyxxix. Try using some in an essential oil diffuser if you’re feeling stressed or have a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
You may also like to consider taking a fish oil supplement to support your brain health in general. Studies suggest the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish support brain health, with one review of 19 clinical trials claiming omega-3s may have a positive effect on anxietyxxx. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also upheld claims that DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – one of the two main omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish – contributes to the maintenance of normal brain functionxxxi. To benefit from this effect, try eating two portions of oily fish a week, such as salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, fresh tuna or pilchards. If you don’t like eating fish you may want to consider taking a good-quality fish oil supplement.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3. This is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish.
Much of the evidence surrounding social media use and mental wellbeing isn’t particularly positive. But this guide should help you find a level that’s not just unharmful but possibly beneficial too. Read more about a range of health issues in our pharmacy health library.
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Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.