Social Media & Mental Health: A Slave to the ‘Gram

Written by michellepsyd

July 10, 2021

Social media is an undeniable part of everyday, modern life – at least, for the majority of us. It functions on practically all levels, helping keep us in the loop on everything from your friends’ latest vacation photos to events happening in your community to the latest laws being passed and more. But it doesn’t only extend to this level anymore. After all, this level of engagement has been around for the last few years. 

What’s new is that the old standbys – namely Facebook and Twitter – aren’t enough anymore. The expectations for our social media usage have extended and expanded to encompass far beyond this, and it’s dramatically impacting our mental health, for better and for worse. Want more of the details on that? Keep reading below to discover how Instagram is holding us captive and what you can do to minimize the negative effects this has in your own daily life.

Pros of Social Media

  • Allows people to stay in touch, even passively. If there’s one factor about social media that receives widespread approval for, it’s the fact that it truly does open up possibilities for communication that other generations only dreamt about. It allows you to easily keep in touch, regardless of whether your friends/family live down the street or on the complete opposite side of the world, helping us maintain close bonds that would probably otherwise suffer. Thanks to SM timelines, newsfeeds, and more, it also means we can keep in touch in more passive ways, staying in the loop about friends’ daily lives without having an in-depth catchup. While this doesn’t exactly breed deep conversation, it does help make us feel involved and connected in a way once reserved only for those who lived together or close by. 
  • Creates space for community that might not be possible IRL. Community –and its supposed dissolution –is always a hot topic. However, the reality is that it has always been a tenuous thing for many people. Unless you fit in with everyone in your immediate vicinity, you’ve always been left behind. And for the marginalized, like people of color, disabled folks, LGBTQ people, single parents, and more, finding community is yet even harder and potentially risky. Social media fills in these gaps, though, and can create an incredibly meaningful space for those who’ve never had one. If that’s not an amazing pro, we don’t know what is.  
  • Opens up some business and career opportunities. Once upon a time, social media was used primarily so you could chat with all your hometown friends and Facebook stalk your totally oblivious crush. That still holds true, but it’s no longer reserved only for this. The role of SM has dramatically expanded and now is an absolutely critical part of career growth and business ownership. Advertising, networking, building a following, and even selling products all happen within our favorite apps now. Through them, you can also get directly in touch with customers/clients and build a devoted following, giving you a leg up in the business world –something all of us can benefit from. 
  • Can improve our expectations and considerations of what’s “normal.” It’s not news that social media can completely destroy body image and shape our aesthetic ideals. It has been the subject of research and personal criticism for years. Airbrushing, photoshopping, misleading angles, and perfect lighting all create images that are beautiful but impossible to actually achieve. See how that could be damaging if you didn’t recognize that? Yet, there is a flip side: social media can also positively change our idea of the norm and improve our body image. Follow accounts that don’t re-touch models plus folks of all sizes, genders, shapes, and colors, and you’ll actually normalize the bodies that genuinely are normal and attainable.  

Cons of Social Media

Encourages unnecessary and harmful comparisons.  We know we just brushed over this a little to discuss the positives for body image, but it does deserve a thorough acknowledgment along with the positives. As good as SM can be for us re-normalize bodies that aren’t always used in traditional advertising, movies, etc., it can be used for bad, too. We’re moving in the right direction these days, but uber skinny women and jacked men are still literally everywhere. Algorithms still lean in their favor, and companies still largely advertise these bodies over all others. If we allow ourselves to soak this in, it can seriously harm how we view our bodies and create harmful comparisons that can stick with us for years. Extremely damaging, to be sure, and not one of social media’s bright spots.

Opens people up to bullying and additional negativity. Have you ever wandered into a Facebook or YouTube comment section and suddenly lost all hope in humanity? Odds are you have. These platforms seem to just welcome some of the nastiest, most confrontational, and downright mean-spirited comments out there –truly stuff almost no one would say out loud. But being behind a keyboard provides a sense of freedom and anonymity that emboldens folks in the worst ways. Because of this, social media is just as much a place of bullying and negativity as it is community.  

Takes time away from other endeavors. Some people mindlessly eat chips or passively watch Netflix in their spare time, but others (myself included!) mindlessly scroll through social media. It’s just so easy to get lost in. One second you’re merely checking in to see your best friend’s latest post, and the next, you suddenly realize you’ve been looking at obscure memes and videos of cats in costumes for the last three hours. Yikes! That takes significant time away from other endeavors and meaningful hobbies and unnecessarily, too. Watching TikTokers for a whole evening might give our brains some needed dopamine, but there are better, more fun ways to go about this. Like, you know, actually picking up that guitar you’ve been “learning” to play for the last year or opening up that art kit you got for Christmas.

The Real-Life Effects of Social Media

We’re now being called on to actively engage with more platforms than ever before. Instagram, Google Business, Dribble, and even LinkedIn are no longer optional platforms to engage with at your leisure. They’re an absolute must. Nowadays, remaining public-facing is a matter of survival rather than choice, required for business just as much (if not more) than pleasure, and these social media sites/apps are at the center of this. We’re expected not just to have a profile on practically every one that’s come out of the woodwork but to expertly navigate them all, posting amazingly engaging content every single day without fail.

That sounds exhausting on the surface, but it is far more in practice than you’d ever expect. Part of this can be owed to the fact that social media is beyond competitive. Literally millions of people, businesses, and brands are all searching for space on the same platform, hoping to pull in incredible numbers of likes, comments, and follows with each post. Similar content and creators exist side-by-side, hoping to outperform the other, and newbies are coming onto the scene hoping to take down those who’ve been around for far longer. The result is an environment that quickly becomes messy and chaotic, breeding stressful levels of (often unfair) competition for small businesses and anyone with less than a couple million followers already.

It’s rough on these groups, but the effects are felt just as poignantly for regular people. The sheer volume of content can be exciting and entertaining, to be sure, but there is obvious and dramatic downsides. The first of which? Advertising – it’s everywhere. You can’t escape it on social media anymore. Every brand available is trying to sell you something, trying to buy your attention with flashy videos, affiliated posts, and branded campaigns. Meanwhile, every influencer is trying to get a follow, posting only the most beautifully shot and edited photos with only the coolest fashions and products.

And you’re then actively expected to go along with it all, thoroughly engage, buy stuff, and follow like everyone else. You’re expected to let these influencers and brands shape your tastes, benefit from your likes, support the overall platform they’re on, and provide your own content. That can destroy your mental health and body image. Feeling compelled to show off and consume only the good parts of your life and everyone else’s respectively is not good. Turning your life into entertainment for strangers or viewing others’ in that way is a surefire way to feel disconnected and lonely. Being barraged with unattainable looks and expensive products contributes to unnecessary discontentment and unease. Constant advertisement is manipulative and is likely to leave you anxious and with a lower bank balance. None of this is healthy. And with COVID-19 making us turn to social media more than ever, it has only gotten worse. Don’t fret yet, though. There are ways to navigate social media and the expectations placed on us in more positive, appropriate ways.  Keep reading for four of our biggest tips to help with this.

4 Pro Tips for Navigating Expectations

1. Examine why you choose to use social media

Here’s the thing: the problem with social media isn’t that you use it, it’s how you use it. Most of us feel a kind of creeping pressure to interact with certain content, display only our “best” selves, and judge ourselves against the images we’re looking at day in and day out. None of this is healthy and can only breed discontentment within ourselves and others. So, when navigating SM, always evaluate how you’re using it and why. 

Are you scrolling through all those fashion accounts on Insta because you like it or do you feel like you need to be up on all the latest trends? Are you really on Facebook to keep in touch with your college friends or because it’s something expected of you? Did you sign up for LinkedIn because you genuinely want to network or is it because others act like you can’t have any career growth without it? Be honest with yourself and closely examine your answers. It’s the ideal first step to developing a healthier, more sustainable relationship with social media.

2. Always remind yourself that SM content is also curated content

Social media is fun to look at. People post some of the coolest stuff! Fashion, travel content, reviews, makeup tutorials, incredible photography, awesome tattoos – all of this is just a taste of what you’ll discover sprawled all over your feed and the hottest tags. But there’s something we all need to periodically remind ourselves about when it comes to this content. It’s not representative. All of it is specifically curated. Only the best, most exciting, and engaging content is what’s posted. 

That flawless model you follow? She doesn’t always wear floor-length Met Gala-esque gowns with a perfect cat-eye. There are days she looks tired and wears decade-old sweatpants while lazing on the couch. Your rival from college who is constantly sharing images of his time in Hawaii? He’s probably not always jetting from destination to destination. His everyday life is probably nothing nearly as glamorous. This is just what he chooses to show off. Don’t ever forget this. People’s lives, including your own, aren’t nearly as shiny, perfect, and fun as they appear on their feed.

3. Be mindful about consumption, not mindless

Scrolling through social media when you’re bored or need a short break from your work is incredibly hard to resist. However, resisting this impulse is one of the best things you can do to change your relationship with social media. Mindless consumption is something we don’t want to feed. 

It takes time away from other things you could be doing and acts as a distraction that isn’t really all that fulfilling or satisfying. It opens us up to unnecessary advertising and influences to our opinions on everything from what brands we should buy to how we should look to where we should vacation. You don’t need this in your life. So, instead, choose to be mindful about what you’re consuming and when you’re consuming it. Intentionality is key. 

4. Set and stick to strong usage boundaries – even when it’s hard

We’ve talked about it a lot here; the idea of staying conscious about your interactions and SM posting. But how exactly are you supposed to go about this?  Well, we’ve got the answer to that. It calls for setting (and sticking to!) boundaries. This is a non-negotiable. If you want to better navigate social media, reap more of its benefits, and shrug off some of its worst negatives, you can’t skip this step. Why? Because social media will never change. It’ll never be the place of positivity that it could be. You have to change your habits and make your specific feed into this space. 

Need a little assistance getting the ball rolling? You’ve got some decisions to make. What do you want to get from your social media? A sense of community? A platform where you normalize bodies that look like your own? An area of social advocacy and change? A space for entertainment rather than constant marketing? Identify this, then go through all the accounts you follow and see if they match this goal. 

For those that don’t, immediately unfollow and maybe even block them, so you don’t go backward. Also, make hard choices about how often you want to interact with social media and what ones you sign up for. Don’t stay on every platform to say you’re on it. Once again, be intentional and stick with it. Falling back into old habits is so simple and automatic. Don’t allow yourself to take the easy way out.  

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