How many likes did you get? Who commented on your post? Do your good friends know how wonderful your life is?
Although only about a decade old (Facebook started in 2004 but didn’t really become popular outside of US Universities for several years; Twitter began in 2006; and Instagram is less than 7 years old), social media has become, for most of us, an integral part of our lives and central to how we view the world (much has even been made of the role played by Facebook’s News Feed in determining key political outcomes such as the Brexit vote and the most recent election result in America).
Approximately 17 million Australians actively use Facebook every month; 5 million use Instagram; and about 4 million use one of the newer kids on the block, Snapchat, each and every day. A 2016 Sensis study reported that the average Australian spends more than 12 hours each week on Facebook alone!
These numbers prove pretty clearly that social media use is a big part of lots of lives.
Now some might not think this is a problem; except that social media has been described as being more addictive than cigarettes and a recent UK study, surveying almost 1500 young people (between the ages of 14 and 24), found that Instagram use in particular was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression.
At the same time, however, it’s important to note that other studies have found social media use is not that bad and not always bad. In fact, some studies have found that social media makes it easier for some people to connect with others, to reach out and ask for help, and to feel as though they belong (all good things).
Like most areas of life, few things are all good or all bad.
And like most things in life there’s rarely, if ever, one simple cause. So, if someone is not happy and/or if someone is experiencing mental ill-health, it’s unlikely to be due solely to social media use. In fact, according to the research, if social media use is contributing to depression or anxiety it’s more than likely just one of many contributing factors and, probably, a relatively minor one. There are more than likely several other, more significant influencing variables.
One way we’re pretty sure social media can have a negative impact is via social comparison. This is when we compare our lives to others and often, judge our own situation less favourably. In fact, one of the most common mistakes we typically make when using social media is to imagine other people’s “posts” are a true reflection of their lives when the reality is, most people only post the “best” bits. If, therefore, we compare our “bloopers” (the warts and all realities of our messy lives) with other people’s “highlight reels” we’re bound to feel underwhelmed or worse, worthless and hopeless.
But most experts agree that our online world fairly accurately resembles our offline (or real life) world. Accordingly, if you’re healthy and happy, strong and resilient in “real life” you’ll be more robust on social media as well. And further, strong social and familial connections have been found to protect against any online or real-world adversity.
Taking all this into account, I invite you to consider the following tips for enjoying social media, while minimising any negative impact it might have:
Use your online world to organise and enjoy (not to replace) the real world; it really is only the latter that counts
Remember what’s real, and what’s not real. Remember that the online world is not typically a true representation of the real world
Remember, also, who your “real” friends are. Not everyone with whom you’re connected online will be a real friend and accordingly, not all their opinions should count equally
And most notably, avoid social comparison. Don’t compare your inside with other people’s outside!