Lately, I cannot stop talking about social media with my clients. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat…they’re all topics of discussion in a startlingly high number of my sessions. This has not always been the case. In my clinical experience, this is a phenomenon that has emerged in the past five or so years. During this time period, I have found it both uplifting and disturbing to observe the effects social media has had on my clients’ wellbeing. The positive effects of social media are certainly notable: a greater sense of connectivity and community for many individuals, increased access to helpful resources, and an unprecedented ability to build a platform and spread our messages far and wide. However, social media can be a tricky thing. Our engagement with its various platforms can also come at great cost, and for many, this cost is not always worth its rewards.
It usually begins with a client saying something along the lines of:
“Well, I know I probably shouldn’t have…but I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, and I kept seeing pictures of________”. (Fill in the blank with any of the following: “all of these beautiful people with their amazing bodies”, “my friends going on dream vacations and looking so happy”, “picture-perfect recipes that I could never make myself nor allow myself to eat”, “my ex-husband and his new wife looking smitten and gorgeous”, “everyone living these incredible lives and accomplishing all their goals”, etc., you get the idea…)
Inevitably, no matter the nature of the social media content or how one fills in that blank, this type of comparison-game leads to a cascade of challenging, often painful emotions. Shame. Loneliness. Despair. Sadness. Unworthiness. Jealousy. Can anyone relate to this experience? (If your hand is not up, then either you stay off social media completely- my husband is one of these unicorns- or you might just be kidding yourself!) These emotions can lead to highly problematic behaviors (not to mention just an overall unsatisfied or depressed feeling about life), for example: restricting/dieting, over-exercising, binge eating, isolating, engaging in self-critical thoughts, etc.
Emerging research supports what my clients, and probably many of you, know to be true. Studies suggest that more time on social media can lead to increased depressive symptoms and low self-esteem. One study found that teenagers who spent 5+ hours per day online were 71% more likely to be at risk for suicide when compared to teens who only spent 1 hour online each day; with every hour spent online, the risk factors increased (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2017). Another study found that the more we use Instagram, the more we self-objectify our bodies and experience increased body image concerns (Fardouly, Willburger, & Vartanian, 2017).
Why is social media so powerful, affecting not only our mood but also our sense of worth? It appears that even though we know everyone’s life on social media is curated and filtered, we cannot help but compare ourselves to these online images. Whether it’s someone else’s physical characteristics, personality traits, or even educational level, we essentially compare our real and often messy lives with these projections and end up feeling inadequate (Pantic, 2014). How often have you heard someone say, “You never would have known she was going through a divorce/hard time/financial problem/depression/eating disorder/job loss from her pictures online! Everything seemed fine!” It’s as if despite knowing social media does not always equal real life, we fall for the illusion every time.
So, what do we do? Swear off social media forever and wistfully pine away for the “glory days” of the pre-tech 80’s and 90’s? Not necessarily. I believe social media, and technology in general, can be used responsibly and effectively. Here are some helpful things to consider- for both you and your family:
Change the way you personally interact with social media & technology
· Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode for a certain time period each day, and/or turn of your notifications (either completely or for certain apps)
· Delete apps or unfollow accounts that leave you feeling inadequate or “less than” in any way (if you feel yourself strongly comparing- this a huge red flag)
· Avoid the “Explore” page on Instagram if you find yourself wasting precious time or going down the comparison rabbit-hole; instead, stick to your personal, hopefully mindfully-chosen feed
· Track your screen time using an app (you may be shocked by what you see, but it’s great for accountability)
· Use an alarm clock to wake up (yes this might seem old-school, but this can prevent immediate social media/tech usage starting the moment you wake up)
· Take a day to completely unplug from social media or tech in general
· Make tech free zones in your house (e.g., the kitchen table is one of ours, you could also try bedrooms, playrooms, etc.)
· Put your phone in gray scale (apps are way less tempting when they’re only in black and white!)
· Use social media/tech in empowering ways (decide to follow only uplifting/inspirational accounts or try out a meditation app)
Change the way your family interacts with and discusses social media & technology
· First and foremost, be a good role model when it comes to social media and tech use (in other words, practice what you preach…and we all struggle with this one, so no judgment…)
· Talk about the benefits of social media/tech when used appropriately, as well as its negative consequences (it can replace outdoor time, face-to-face connection, exercise, sleep, etc.)
· Educate your kids about how images are filtered and curated online; share with them that “online life does not always equal real life”
· Know your kids’ friends online and off (we want to know who they hang out with at the mall or on the playground, why shouldn’t the same apply to who they interact with on the internet?)
· Set boundaries and limits with their screen time, make sure these limits are known to them and enforced consistently
· Screen time shouldn’t always be a solo activity- especially for young children (engage with your kids while they’re watching TV or using media, and turn it into an educational opportunity)
· Do your homework regarding the various apps, shows, social platforms, etc., that your children use (things aren’t always what they appear to be!)
· Don’t use tech as a pacifier; kids need to learn other ways to emotionally regulate other than sitting in front of a computer or TV
· Educate your kids and teens about sexting, predators and privacy settings
· Share with your kids that what they post online can impact others, and leaves a digital footprint indefinitely
· Help your children make the connection between social media/tech use and their mental health-share with them what research is showing, and assist them in making more informed choices and decisions
* This list is partly adapted from guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Fardouly, J., Willburger, B.K., & Vartanian, L.R. (2017). Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways. New Media & Society, 20(4),1380-1395. doi:10.1177/1461444817694499.
Pantic, I. (2014). Online social networking and mental health. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17(10), 652-7.
Twenge, J.M., Joiner, T.E., Rogers, M.L., & Martin, G.N. (2017). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3-17. doi:10.1177/2167702617723376.