The Guardian has again worked its whistleblowing magic, exposing the role of Cambridge Analytica in illegally obtaining masses of personal data from 50 million Facebook profiles. This data was then used by Trump’s digital political campaign to target the U.S electorate. It’s not good news for Mark Zuckerberg — as Facebook’s stock falls, the momentum of an online petition to #DeleteFacebook rises, endorsed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, Elon Musk and other prominent names.
For the conspiratorial amongst us, it’s clear online data has been targeted by the elite for some time, as exposed by the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Instead of focusing on why this industrial breach of privacy should be cause to #DeleteFacebook, this article will assess whether you should boycott social media for the sake of your mental health.
It’s easy to mindlessly swipe and scroll without considering the consequences on your wellbeing. Does it make you feel anxious, depressed, jealous, agitated? Does it have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem or body image? Do you find yourself checking your phone habitually, as if there’s a psychic connection, and you and your phone are unified, half-human, half-Android?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re certainly not alone. There’s a growing field of evidence highlighting the negative influence social media has over our lives and our mental health, from making us feel a bit jaded to full-on, self-destructive addiction. There are benefits, but as a bad-news-first kinda guy, let’s take a look at the drawbacks before offering some resolution to digital doom and gloom.
Our Survey Says… Depression, Anxiety, Isolation!
Heaps of scientific studies conclude social media often makes us feel rubbish. There’s a direct correlation between the number of social media platforms people use, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. A study by the University of Missouri noted when participants browsed Facebook, they experienced feelings of envy due to negative comparisons to those in their newsfeed — leading to feelings of depression. How many of us have stalked our ex’s new partner, making a mental checklist of how many ways they’re cooler and have better stubble and nicer clothes? Just me? Moving on…
Last year, The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on the role of social media in young people’s lives. Instagram and Snapchat had the most detrimental effect for those aged 14 to 24. “Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” noted Shirley Cramer, the Chief Executive at RSPH. Not only do we compare our lives with others, we compare our bodies to unattainable, and heavily photoshopped images.
With a concoction of negative body image, FOMO, comparison and feelings of envy, anxiety and depression, it’s not surprising studies have linked the time spent online with perceived social isolation. This isolation is “perceived” as it isn’t objectionably true; even people with fulfilling relationships and social lives can end up feeling very much alone after prolonged periods online.
Distraction And Multitasking
Managing distraction and instant gratification is integral aspects to spiritual practice. Meditation and mindfulness emphasise the importance of paying focused attention on the present, noting the moment you become distracted. Not only do our thoughts take us away from the present, but the craving and impulse to check our phones distracts us, too. Think you can have a cheeky browse on Pinterest while conversing with your BFF? Think again — there’s no such thing as multitasking.
The neocortex is the part of our brain responsible for thinking and focus, but it can only focus on one thing at a time. When we believe we’re multitasking, we’re instead rapidly turning our focus from one task to another. This isn’t a skillful practice; MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller notes we pay a “cognitive cost” when attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.
Numerous studies identify this cost as anything from a significant drop in IQ to, disturbingly, reduced density in the anterior cingulate cortex — the area of the brain responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control. The vast majority of us are distracted by our smartphones, like 97% of college students who admitted to losing focus in class. Such multitasking isn’t only damaging in a working or learning environment, either. Scrolling Dwayne Johnson’s Twitter while watching Netflix or opening a new tab to ask Google questions you wouldn’t raise with your therapist are two examples that have the same negative impact on the brain.
Your Smartphone Is Draining Your Brain’s Energy
Our phones aren’t only influencing our brains while we are transfixed on them. A study by The University of Texas tested participant’s concentration after dividing them into three groups. One group had their phones turned off and facing down on their desk. Another group placed their phones in a pocket or a bag. The third group placed their phones in another room. Unsurprisingly, the third group performed significantly better.
Scientists linked reduced concentration with colloquially termed “brain drain.” This is the result of the subconscious constantly expelling energy when trying to not check your phone — like how you think of a pink elephant when someone says “don’t think of a pink elephant.” We all form phone-checking habits to some degree, causing our subconscious to murmur away whenever our phone is in close proximity. Presumably, for every sip of coffee I take, my subconscious is using all its energy to suppress the thought: “log onto Facebook and tell everyone how delicious this flat white is, hipster scum.”
To make matters even more complicated, when we eventually pick up our phones, our brains release the reward hormone dopamine. The same occurs with each ping, notification or match. Then begins a vicious cycle of instant gratification: we have an impulse to check our phone, we check it, we get a dopamine hit, we repeat. Worryingly, the more we seek instant gratification, the more impulsive we become in all areas of life. When we reach a stage where we struggle to control our impulses and need to constantly satisfy them, we move into the realm of addiction.
Addiction And Instant Gratification
“Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show (a regular voice of wisdom).
When was the last time you were waiting for a bus and didn’t check your phone? Or the last time you didn’t immediately glance at your device when left alone for a few minutes in a social situation? Most of us have formed the habit of constantly checking to see if we’ve been notified or messaged. These habits aren’t entirely our fault — Silicon Valley has cunningly exploited psychological insights to make social media as addictive and tantalising as possible. Apps prey on our core needs, such as connection, and use them against us. Ever wonder why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use Apple products? Clue: it wasn’t because he preferred Android.
Most of us have fallen victim to these addictive qualities to some degree. There have been numerous times where I jolt to lucidity and notice I’m mindlessly scrolling through the Instagram feed of my ex three-relationships-past in a fog of melancholy and regret and self-pity, without conscious recollection of how I got there, like the middle of a dream. Sometimes I actively indulge in this brain-numbing activity as a means of procrastination. I doubt I’m alone.
This never-quenchable desire to jack into the Matrix of social media fulfils all the criteria of other forms of addiction — the consistent craving, the mistaken belief one more hit is what we need, a slump in mood when we realise we aren’t satisfied. This level of addiction is real; when excessive internet users stop browsing, they experience withdrawal symptoms. As with all addictions, the behavior is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a form of escape from undesired emotions — be it feelings of lack, restlessness, fear, anxiety, depression, or simply boredom. I’ve also noticed such browsing habits as a form of self-harm. I know looking at my ex’s Instagram makes me feel sad, but I sometimes actively look, indulging in the unpleasant emotion that comes with it.
Escapism, in the manner mentioned above, is the opposite of appreciation. It’s impossible to appreciate when you’re negatively comparing yourself or cyber-teleporting to social media land. Whether we realise it or not, if we constantly find ourselves checking our screen whenever our present moment isn’t satisfying us, on some level, we’re seeking salvation. We’re acting on the impulsive of “my current situation is boring me, it isn’t fun or enjoyable, I need to escape and find something to make me happy.” That happiness, concealed in a like or a comment or social validation, is delivered as a fleeting, superficial hit of dopamine. It’s not the answer.
It Ain’t All Bad… Thankfully
Uhhhh, are you feeling disillusioned? Worry not. Catastrophising the negatives of modern tech wouldn’t be telling the full story, and I told you, I’m a bad-news-first kinda guy. Maybe you don’t need to #DeleteFacebook after all — social media also has some big benefits. Like everything in life, a lot depends on the way we use the tools, and not the tools themselves. For example, the study on feelings of envy and depression when using Facebook also discovered that, when used with the intention to actively connect with others, social media can have a positive effect. Hurray!
Although I’ve listed numerous studies suggesting a multitude of ways social media is no good for our wellbeing, it can have a positive influence on those suffering from severe mental health issues. Those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts have used social media to form communities with those experiencing the same symptoms. In the midst of a depressive episode, it feels as if you’re the only person on Earth feeling that way. The emotional support, reduction in stigma and safe space to share difficult emotions with those who relate is invaluable.
Facebook Helped Me Talk About Depression
I can vouch for this sense of community. When I started university, I’d suffered from depression and anxiety for some years. Though I’d started to understand it, I was still afraid of openly discussing it, other than mentioning it to a few close friends when suitably intoxicated. It was — as it is for many people, particularly men — something I’d kept secret. I felt weak. I felt ashamed. I felt I was somehow a failure. I felt I was pathetic. Everyone else seemed happy, why didn’t I? However, Facebook helped me become comfortable opening up about how I was feeling. Consequently I realised the sense of shame and isolation was the depression talking. It wasn’t truth.
A few years ago, on World Mental Health Day, I posted this Facebook status:
I was terrified. Could I post something for all my university peers, friends and family to see, after wasting years of mental energy hiding behind a facade? I still had regular panic attacks around this time, and I was concerned others would tune in to my anxiety, making it worse. Or noticing whenever I was having a bad day, giving me nowhere to hide.
Shaking, I published my “confession.” I was overwhelmed by the words of encouragement and support in response. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear in relief and a weight lifted. It showed me the power of social media for the good, and the power of sharing my experience with depression. Without posting that status, Mind That Ego wouldn’t exist.
I’m not alone, either. Studies have shown that adolescents using social media experience an increase in both cognitive empathy (I understand your situation) and affective empathy (also known as emotional empathy, i.e., my feelings reflect the way you are feeling). This is pretty significant, isn’t it?! For all the talk of the illusion of connection online, if we control the way we use social media, it can enhance the way we relate to each other.
You Are Not Alone
For all its superficiality, there is the opportunity to use social media for genuine connection. As well as mental health communities, those suffering chronic illness find support on social media. Platforms like Facebook are “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better,” according to Professor John Powell from Oxford University. The same applies to marginalised groups, too.
Providing the space for such groups to share and feel comfortable doing so has another surprising benefit. While researching this article, I stumbled across another profound reminder social media can indeed be a force for good. A UCLA-led study used Twitter as a tool to research the health needs of transgender and gender non-conforming communities, an area of research traditionally difficult as stigma can prevent transgender people from disclosing their gender identity. By collecting data using transgender-related hashtags, Twitter can be transformed into a tool to support marginalised groups, whose voices struggle to be heard.
To #DeleteFacebook Or Not To #DeleteFacebook
So, what’s the final answer? Ultimately, it comes down your personal relationship with it. Social media isn’t the dreaded boogeyman or life-enhancer; it falls somewhere in between. But what is clear is the need to sit back and reflect on the impact it has on our lives. In what areas does it serve us? Where is it causing us unnecessary harm? What can we change?
I believe that with a little habit changing and closer inspection, we can all find the sweet spot where technology and social media becomes an ally, not an enemy. To conclude, here are a few steps to kick start your positive relationship with social media:
- Assess your social media habits, honestly. Is your browsing behaviour making you feel a bit shit?
- Change bad habits. If you scroll Instagram and feel your self-esteem seep away with every image of a chiselled, #Photoshop model on a beach, you have two options — delete the app, or change the way you use it. For the latter, try to actively follow body-positive or socially inspiring accounts that make you feel good. Here’s a list to get you started. This applies to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (COUGH FOLLOW MIND THAT EGO COUGH).
- Do you have good habits? Great! Increase the time on your device cultivating these habits, whether using relaxation apps or watching educational videos on YouTube (note: cat videos are rarely educational, sorry).
- Be accountable. Yes, Silicon Valley exploits us, but we can empower ourselves. Don’t passively wish for the days where your only distraction was snake on your Nokia 3210. Take responsibility and use social media for positive activities, such as connecting with friends, arranging events, joining communities.
- Schedule social media time, don’t let it schedule you. If you don’t feel ready to #DeleteFacebook, instead manage the time you spend online. Be active, not passive — schedule times to log on and connect, and try and avoid passively browsing as a means of distraction.