How can we stop social media undermining our mental health?

2nd Feb 2018
Challenging mental health inequalities
Social media

This content mentions anxiety, which some people may find triggering.

Rather than asking if social media is THE problem, let’s for a moment ask what the screen reflects. Our desire to capture and communicate a positive identity has always existed. Keeping diaries was all the rage for millions of our Victorian-era predecessors. Social media is the latest manifestation.

Social media is something we brought into existence, not something that happened to us. Its skeleton is a vast network of algorithms, built to reflect and take advantage of our desires and behaviours.

One of these behaviours - social comparison - was captured perfectly in 1913, when a US comic strip coined the phrase 'keeping up with the Joneses'. The comic resonated with millions of Americans, capturing the anxiety and misery of looking over the fence to our neighbours for comparison and benchmarks for success.

Today, we can see far beyond that fence. The average Facebook user can see into the lives of 338 friends. Naturally, we're starting to wonder if our expanded line of sight could be having a negative impact on our mental health.

What we do know is that self-acceptance and self-esteem are crucial for good mental health. Comparing ourselves to others, be it online or offline, can undermine these things, giving rise to feelings of inadequacy.

One study suggests that whether or not comparing ourselves to others online can harm us depends on a number of factors, namely:

  1. the degree to which we are comparing ourselves to what we see on our feeds and the amount of time we spend doing it
  2. the degree to which we believe what we see is an accurate portrayal of reality
  3. the degree of perceived similarity between ourselves and the people we’re comparing ourselves to
Keeping up with the Joneses comic

Based on this, then, online comparison could be particularly harmful if we spend a lot of time comparing our lives to the highlights of our friends lives. To try to reduce the impact of these three factors in our own lives, there are a couple of things we could try.

The first challenge will be catching those unconscious moments when we slip into comparison mode. We could try to be more intentional with the time we spend on social media. Deleting mobile apps and logging into desktop versions while getting into this habit could help. Often, we can unconsciously open our phones and start scrolling through our feeds, regaining consciousness ten minutes into comparing ourselves to our feeds!

We could also seek out more life-affirming content that reflects the behind-the-scenes of our realities. This could help to minimise the alienating impact of seeing nothing but highlights. There are tons of social media groups based on a range of things we will recognise from our own lives, including mental health peer support groups and communities.

For the final similarity factor, it might be worth thinking about who, from our social feeds, we feel most in competition with. Are there any particular names that come to mind that maybe trigger feelings of insecurity? Consider un-following them for a while on apps where this is possible. It's not the same as unfriending so they won't know, it just means you won't see them in your feed for a while.

By moving beyond asking if social media is the problem, and starting to dissect the root problems it could be reflecting on us, maybe we can minimise the opportunity social media has to undermine our mental health.

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