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Breaking the Scroll: Navigating the Impact of Social Media on Mental Health and Setting Healthy Boundaries

Breaking the Scroll: Navigating the Impact of Social Media on Mental Health and Setting Healthy Boundaries

Written by Amanda Turco, LPC

Have you ever been scrolling through social media and realize you have just been consumed for hours? How do you feel when you come back to awareness? What is going on in the present around you? Did you miss something? Do you feel good about the time you spent or is it a little disorienting? Now, I want you to consider if you could shut off from all social media use for just an hour? How about a whole day? A week?

Real talk– I’ve stopped writing this blog to check social media about 5 times already… almost subconsciously. I’d estimate that this back and forth cost me about 30 minutes of time I am not going to get back. Why did I do this? Because social media is a positive distraction and a quick, easy source of dopamine when I am feeling stuck. But in the long term, I can get frustrated with myself, feel more anxious about my unfinished to-do list, and then because of this stress, find myself turning to social media to need another break to refocus my mind again. So, given my personal experience with social media combined with the many conversations I have with clients about the positive, negative, and everything in between experiences of social media in their lives, I wanted to explore social media and mental health a bit in this blog.

There are a lot of positive advancements in technology and social media in our current world:

  • Quick access to your social network and avenues for connection. Research by the Pew Research Center found that 72% of adults in the United States use social media to connect with others. Relationships can be built, it’s easier to stay in touch, and there’s a lot of positive benefits to this type of connection.
  • Easy access to news. The internet and social media platforms have made it easier to access breaking news and diverse sources of information. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021, 60% of the global population relies on digital platforms for news, with social media playing a significant role in their news consumption (Newman et al., 2021). This is powerful!
  • Content creation and opportunities for jobs. Technology and social media have democratized content creation, providing opportunities for individuals to showcase their talents and creativity. Research indicates that the influencer marketing industry was valued at $13.8 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow event further (Social Media Today, 2021).
  • Creative outlets of expression and advocacy. Social media allows people to share diverse voices, amplify causes they care about, raise funds and resources for people and organizations who may not otherwise have a platform, and share valuable information.
  • Accessing content that is entertaining, fun, and makes us feel good. The dopamine hit from social media is real! And it can be a great tool for redirecting energy or working through a hard moment.

With all that said, there are definitely challenging aspects of social media as well. How can you tell if/when social media/ technology use is becoming harmful to your mental health?

  • You are using social media as a distraction from negative emotions or distress. Although this can sometimes be helpful to escape from reality, it can also quickly be a form of emotional avoidance. In creating a habit of turning to scrolling when overwhelmed/sad/mad/etc., we are teaching our brain that negative emotions are bad, and we can’t cope or tolerate them without distractions. Unfortunately, the problem and emotions will still be there and sometimes get worse until we learn to process through the difficult moments.
  • You find yourself feeling worse about yourself and/or thinking other people are having much happier/more interesting lives than you after you scroll. Social media is a very easy trap for social comparison. While we may logically know that what we are seeing is most often only a snapshot and best version of someone else’s life, it can feel like everyone else is always looking put together, having an awesome day, doing amazing things, etc. while we are living a life with ups and downs and lots of gray. Research has found that digital social comparison often lowers self esteem and increases negative self talk. This can also increase the risk for depression, anxiety, body image dissatisfaction, and eating disorders.
  • You notice that you feel more anxious or in a lower mood after using social media. One of the reasons challenging emotions might pop up on social media may be the type of videos and posts the algorithm is showing you. Content that brushes up against your areas of work, like “what I eat in a day” videos or ones that trigger your OCD focus areas, can be overtly and subconsciously distressing. To make it even more complicated, the more you watch content, the more related content you will get. If you find you just don’t feel great afterwards, this is something to tune into.
  • You are able to connect with peers online, but face to face social interaction causes more anxiety. You find yourself avoiding these in person interactions or tolerating them with distress. Online social connections are wonderful and you can build true and lasting relationships through digital platforms. They can also be genuine spots for connection for our in-real-life friends. However, if ALL your social connection happens online, this can create struggles when you try to transition in-person. Social skills are skills, at the end of the day. It’s important to practice them.
  • You are noticing trouble staying motivated, difficulty sustaining your attention for long periods of time, inability to think clearly or concentrate. If you notice that social media use or technology is getting in the way of completing school or work- related tasks, this is a sign your relationship with it might be one to be worked on! Frequent use of social media has been associated with a shortened attention span.The constant stream of content and the need for quick, engaging updates can make it difficult to focus on longer, more complex tasks.

Social media is taking you away from present positive experiences (are you missing out on important conversations with friends/ family, moments of joy or pleasure in the real world?). Sometimes using social  media in excess changes your reward centers in the brain, making it harder for you to find happiness around you in the present world. Things that used to be pleasurable no longer feel that way (ex. Reading, time in nature, sports, social events) or you may find that even when you are having fun, you feel pulled to check, scroll, or engage online.

So what can you do? Here are a few suggestions for how to set boundaries to take care of your mental health:

  • Set time limits on how much you are using social media. Establishing specific time limits for social media use helps you lower the amount of time you spend on these platforms or even just be more mindful.
  • Filter your feed for positive, supportive, and realistic content. Curating your social media feed with content that is positive, supportive, and more realistic can shift your experience when online AND shift what you view as “normal” and appealing. By following accounts and pages that inspire, educate, or motivate you, you can reduce exposure to negative or unrealistic content.
  • Don’t use social media to change how you feel or distract from your emotions. Using social media as a coping mechanism to escape or distract from negative emotions won’t help in the long run. When you notice warning signs of this behavior, try and put your phone down and instead engage in some mindfulness, even just for a few minutes.
    Leave your phone in another room when you need to focus on important work: To minimize distractions and improve focus, physically separate your phone from your workspace. If this feels tough, you can set a time limit of 10 minutes to do for focused, no-phone work.
  • Keep to one source of technology at a time (e.g., no phone while watching TV). Multitasking with multiple digital devices can fragment your attention. Focusing on one technology source at a time, such as watching TV without constantly checking your phone, allows you to engage more deeply with each activity!
  • Turn your phone off when you are with friends or family and be present. This one might feel a little extreme, but hear us out! When spending time with loved ones, turning off your phone or putting it on silent mode helps you be fully present and engaged in the moment – you can even have someone else be your designated point of contact to others if you’re worried they won’t be able to reach you. You might find you enjoy it !
    Prioritize mental, physical, and real social connection. Structuring your day to include things that stimulate your body and brain along with real social connections. This is a good thing if trying to work on your social media boundaries or just live a happy, productive and fulfilling life.

If you find you are struggling to make healthy boundaries and shift your relationship to social media, reach out. Working with a therapist can help you find the balance that works best for you.

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