Topic Expert Roundup: Are Social Media Bad for Mental Health?

man-looks-at-smartphone-while-his-frustrated-date-waits There is no question that the explosion of information technology over the past couple of decades—owed largely to the rise of the Internet—has made our lives immeasurably more convenient. We can access almost any information from almost anywhere at any time, and we can communicate in any number of ways with any number of people from any number of devices.

Most of this year’s high school graduates likely have never known another way of life, but most adults can remember one. A time when people vetted potential mates face to face, not on a screen. A time when people called to chat or sent handwritten letters, not impersonal texts. A time when the most intimate details of their lives and thoughts were shared only with family and a close circle of true friends, not splashed across social media for all the world to see.

Clearly, social media have changed everything. Less clear is whether everything has changed for the better. There is a growing body of research that suggests that social media, for all their conveniences, actually make us less social, less active, and, indeed, less healthy and happy. Research also suggests that they hamper our productivity, sap our energy and self-esteem, and fuel stress, anxiety, depression, narcissistic behaviors, and Internet addiction.

Are social media bad for mental health? Are they better for mental health than they get credit for? How can people prevent social media from having an adverse effect on their well-being? We wanted to know what our Topic Experts think.

Here’s what they had to say:

  • Karla Helbert (grief, loss, and bereavement): “I often work with people who have extreme anxiety surrounding issues about social media or who struggle with the need to compulsively check texts, email, and social media. We are exposed to more information daily than we have ever been. Multitasking is a way of life for many, but studies using functional MRIs show us what happens in the brain when we attempt to do more than one thing at a time. Excessive multitasking results in more errors, mental fatigue, and creates a buildup of cortisol, the stress hormone. Increased cortisol can dampen our immune systems, disrupt sleep (as can “screen time” before sleep), and lead to mental and physical problems. Social media can be a great way to stay connected to friends and family, but being aware of how we are affected and remembering that we control it and not the other way around is key to healthy use.”
  • Stephen Salter (values clarification, eating and food issues): “Unfortunately, advances in technology don’t guarantee any advance in knowing how to use it well. We haven’t figured out what a good relationship to social media looks like.”
  • Marian Stansbury (imago relationship therapy): “I’ve always maintained that it’s not the ‘thing’ but how we use it that determines the quality of its effect on our lives. If we follow the principles of good relationship behavior, we are not likely to get in trouble with it. If we don’t use it for gossiping, complaining, and criticizing, we will be much better off. It is also not a place to discuss our relationships, past or current. It is never a good idea to discuss our relationships with someone other than our partner or our therapist. If we are not happy in our relationship, it’s tempting to look for others who seem to understand us in the way our partner doesn’t. It can become an external behavior solution that doesn’t really resolve our major internal core issues. If it’s used for good, to complement and acknowledge others or even ourselves, it can have a positive effect.”
  • Christopher L. Smith (spirituality): “Social media, like many tools, have the potential for being positive or negative forces in our lives. It all depends on how we utilize them and the contexts we create for that use. Consider the health of a relationship and the way this affects an individual’s health; correlate this with the way you might foster your relationship with God. Consider three scenarios around your prayer life. First, think about a situation where you simply keep telling God what is going on in your life and perhaps making request, but you never really listen for a response. Second, consider when you provide these broadcasts about what is going on but also balance this out with time spent listening for what God might be saying to you. Third, consider if you become focused on the way of praying—paying more attention to how you pray than to the content of prayer or who you are addressing. Which helps your relationship with God? Which causes you problems? Similarly, if all you do is broadcast information out there for those close to you to know about, there will be something missing in your relationship. There is a place for these communications (whether they are brief, like tweets or texts, or more like broadcast social statements as in Facebook) but they need to be balanced with more substance. This balanced communication can assist in a relationship. At the same time, you need to make sure that you don’t get so caught up in social media that you forget the human part of what you are doing and that is important in your relationship. Remembering the human part will help you to foster other parts of the relationship and not develop inappropriate connections as you get excited by using the tool(s).”
  • Michael Fraser (Internet addiction): “Just as with anything else in life, social media can be a healthy way of staying in touch with people in our lives, when used with discretion and balance. Technology allows us to conveniently connect with others in an unprecedented way. The flip side of that coin is that often such communication misses a personal, individualized touch. It remains to be seen how or whether this means of communication—void of important nonverbal cues—will ultimately affect the way we relate to each other. Social media, per se, are not bad for mental health. However, when an individual gets to a point where they feel anxious and keyed-up, feeling like they have to ‘check’ frequently and ‘reply’ instantaneously, it can be disruptive to activities and relationships. In such cases, it can cause problems that adversely affect mental health.”
  • Traci Ruble (pragmatic / experiential therapy for couples): “Social media can stoke our inner fires or scripts that say we need to be better than everyone or included in everything to prove we are lovable. Our dopamine receptors certainly get plenty of juice to addict us for more. But if used mindfully, social media can be an additive to our lives by helping us stay connected. Where I do get concerned, as a parent and clinician, is how all this screen time, texting, and tweeting impacts the development of a kid’s brain. Early research shows screen time negatively impacts child development, and that is bad for mental health. How, we can’t yet fully know, but the dialogue should continue. I went camping a few weeks ago, and many 5-year-olds on the trip had an iPad with them. Instead of weathering boredom or conflict with a new developmental leap, they checked out in front of a screen.”
  • Diann Wingert (biofeedback / neurofeedback, adjusting to change / life transitions): “Most of my twenty-something clients respond ‘yes’ when asked about close friendships during the intake assessment, but upon further exploration, some admit that most of their ‘friendships’ are actually online relationships with people they have never met and probably will never meet face to face. The more sophisticated and high-functioning clients will make a distinction between ‘Facebook friend’ and ‘friend friend,’ but the more anxiety-prone, socially phobic, less-functional clients may be less able to do so. The online community can offer a sense of intimacy and connection with others, but do cyber friends provide the same protection against depression that a ‘live’ social support network does? Somehow, I just don’t think an online buddy or even a Skype chat will be the same. For individuals with social phobia, I see social media as a great place to start making connections, but not a destination.”
  • Joyce Henley (codependency): “It is ironic that with so much new technology for communication that some people are even more lonely. Although texting, email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are convenient and give us a lot of info and benefits, they are also less intimate. At least with the phone, we can hear the caring, love, or empathy in a friend’s voice. Recently I was on Yelp looking for a nail salon that can do gel shellac. I found several options, and it was quick and convenient. In the olden days when I was young, I would have had to call several friends and hear their voices and catch up with them to get the info. Yes, it would have taken longer, but I would have felt more connected. When I was actually at the nail salon, I looked around and everybody there was on their smartphone. Before this technology, people would have been talking and interacting, at least with their technician.”
  • Melinda Douglass (communication problems): “I can remember when companies started using email, online calendars, mobile phones—constant availability. Remember the painful ‘reply all’ mistake where sensitive information got shared office-wide? Over time, we learn and block out uninterrupted time on our calendars or turn off the cell phone. What boundaries have you set with technology? With social media? Some tips: Turn off notifications, have a purpose when you log in (e.g., share information), then turn the platform off. For feedback, stick around and respond to replies. Ask afterward, ‘Is this satisfying? What would better support my purpose? Am I looking for more in-person support?’ When engaged purposefully, there is a lot to gain: cross-pollination of ideas, networking, feedback on new projects, self-expression, customized communication lines. It is a new toy—see what it can do, put it down and pick it up, find out if/how it fits with your vision for living.”
  • Roni Weisberg-Ross (abuse / survivors of abuse): “Melinda Gates, when addressing the class of 2013 at Duke University a week ago, spoke to a variation on this theme. Her questions was: Does social media disconnect us? It is no surprise that Mrs. Gates is a firm believer in the positive power of technology. However, in her summation, she said, ‘Technology is just a tool. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s just a tool.’ The Internet and social media have informed and connected us in a revolutionary and exceptional way. The concept that we are one world and that all of us are in this together—whatever this is—is suddenly and absolutely a reality. The world will never be the same. … Mental health is adversely affected by a sense of isolation and hopelessness. The Internet and social media can mitigate that sense, even if it feels like a passive medium. We never have to be emotionally isolated or alone again. We can always find someone who agrees with or ‘gets’ us online. I realize that means that antisocial behavior can be perpetuated as well. But good and evil always walk hand in hand. Technology—and by extension social media—does not encourage mental illness or aggression, it just doesn’t filter it out. Technology does not encourage hatred, bullying, or social anxiety, it just doesn’t filter it out. But technology also allows us to connect to each other’s humanity and to find solace in communication. Technology informs and opens up the world and all its possibilities to us. Technology allows us to be heard and to feel empowered, and it can lead us to reason when we are feeling desperate. We just have to remember that technology is only a tool.”
  • Deanna Daniels-Jacinto (narrative therapy, adjusting to change / life transitions): “Social media are the double-edged sword of the 21st century. Social media are useful and welcomed in connecting and reconnecting people to those they love. Geography isn’t quite the barrier it used to be in our efforts to keep in touch. The ease of ability to be connected to those we care about and to ‘feel a part of’ is good for mental health and may be the primary reason social media have succeeded and become a routine part of 21st-century life. However, social media have had an adverse effect on setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. People seem to share without regard to potential effects or consequences. Exercising some self-control (something we were taught at a very young age) may be one way to avoid some of the adverse effects of social media.”
  • Lynn Somerstein (object relations): “Social media are neither bad nor good for mental health—it depends on how they are used. Do they promote distractibility and attention disorders? Can they be used to catastrophize and make people feel worse about themselves? Absolutely. But they can also provide valid information that can help people understand themselves better and even feel less alone. If you are looking for help, you can find it on the Internet. But don’t just follow anyone—look for quality, and stick to well-known sites such as WebMD or GoodTherapy.org so you won’t be led astray.”
  • Cedar Barstow (right use of power): “I come from an era of written letters. It would be a waste of a stamp to write a social media-size letter. The time between writing and receiving a letter could be weeks or even months. This gave plenty of time to think about a response. Letters were used by me and my friends as way of expressing deep thoughts and feelings. I miss this. What I do value is the ‘everyday’ way I can scan Facebook and stay in visual and basic informational touch with a vast number of friends and a vast number of activities. Through this, I feel miraculously globally aware. Cell phones make connections so much easier. Google offers an astounding amount of information in seconds. Like all technology, we need to bring our consciousness, values, and choice-fulness to our use of it. Without these three, we become addicted, and like the saying goes, ‘The chair begins to sit on us, rather than us on the chair.’ My experience is that, while people seem to be constantly practicing complex multitasking, this may not be a good thing. Social media can overwhelm the senses and consciousness with information, can focus away from right now and right here, reduce creativity because creativity doesn’t happen in ‘instant-response’ time, and produce an unlimited number of shallow relationships because depth simply can’t happen through 20-word public notes. My most useful two ideas for being wise in my use of social media of all sorts are: 1) I have come to understand that because all email messages come in the same font and the same size, they naturally seem to be at the same level of importance, but they are not. They must and can be sorted by importance, and although it may seem that instant responses are required to all messages, this is not the case for most messages once they are sorted. 2) I have made a conscious decision that I don’t want to spend more than two to two-and-a-half hours a day doing Internet business stuff. So I go to a coffee shop at 8 a.m. and do computer business until no later than 10:30, and then I don’t look at email or Facebook again until the next day. I feel now more sane and spacious.”
  • Ann Marie Sochia (hypnotherapy): “Social media are prevalent in today’s world. Social media are used to promote businesses, talents, and communicate with others. Social media allow for the ability to research potential therapists and concerns before seeking help or even talking to someone. Clients who may not have access to the latest techniques can now read a blog or check out a website to learn more. Social media help therapists target and reach potential clients. … Social media may unintentionally distort the lines and boundaries between public and private information, as well as reduce face-to-face interaction with others. Isolation from others, through the use of social media, has the potential to lead to mental health issues. Thus, we are faced with the challenge of forming firm and effective boundaries and maintaining clients’ right to privacy. People can prevent social media from having an adverse effect on their well-being by balancing social media use and direct interaction with others.”
  • Angela Lee Skurtu (relational psychotherapy, sexuality / sex therapy): “Social media can be used for both good and bad. It depends on the user and his or her knowledge of how to use it wisely. To prevent social media from having negative effects on your mental health, you need to educate yourself on smart practices and monitor the amount of time you spend using them. Educate yourself on the ramifications of certain actions, such as posting pictures and videos. Know that anything you post is there forever, somewhere in a database. So if you aren’t proud of the picture, don’t post it. Also, educate your children and monitor their use by keeping the family computer in the living room. Finally, use social media in moderation. They are an awesome resource for staying connected with friends and relatives, such as in the case of my 80-year-old grandmother who is able to share childhood pictures with 100 family members across the country. However, social media can also pull people away from their everyday lives. If you find yourself spending more time on the computer than with your partner or your kids, limit your time using social media. Social media are meant to enhance our quality of life, not prevent us from enjoying life in the here and now.”
  • Sarah Jenkins (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing): “As I look back on the various ways I wanted to respond to this topic, I was struck by quite a powerful experience I had on the way to work today. I turned onto the road to head into my office, I found myself in the direct path of a young man standing right in the middle of the road, staring at his phone. Skateboard in hand, headphones on, face planted into his phone, he didn’t see me. I politely veered past him, chuckling to myself as I realized that the impact of social media on mental health stood right there in from of me. Social media, as in all things, are neither all good nor or all bad, but I find that they certainly can lead us to miss important moments, opportunities to connect with the ‘outside world,’ even when it is barreling down the road in a large Dodge Ram pickup. … Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of social media. In fact, I have historically found myself peering into my phone and Facebook often more than I would like. But, to me, the shadow side of the social media wave can be the ‘illusion’ of intimate connection in a world that feels more connected electronically. More often than not, I have found that folks may respond to phone calls with emails or texts as opposed to calling. I see clients having ‘text wars’ as opposed to voicing their concerns in person, perhaps even missing the intention behind what was ‘said’ because the tone, incantation, and energy of the person they were texting with was missing. … That said, a recent cleanse that I participated in asked us participants to completely ‘use a phone as a phone’ and to avoid social media. What a freeing experience that was! Many participants didn’t find anything about social media that led them to believe that their mental health was more positively impacted by it being in their lives. It just enabled them to see how much time it was taking in their days, and to identify what choices could be made as a result. For this reason, I often ask clients to experiment by using their phones as phones, and to drop social media for a week or so. It can be a powerful experience to take away the experience of seeing others and being ‘seen’ via social media and instead to reach out to find that intimate connection with others in person or via telephone.”
  • Lillian Rozin (aging and geriatric issues): “I have seen more drama, more unnecessary conflicts, more misunderstandings due to Facebook alone than I ever saw in the pre-Internet era. When working with teens especially, it is frightening that often chatting online is synonymous with ‘talking’ in real life. Very different skills required for each! That said, it is reality and it’s here to stay. I often have conversations with clients about how to manage social media; in a ‘world’ without boundaries, they often fail to realize they still have the opportunity to set them and choose which online sites to engage in. Of course, it may mean publicly ‘unfriending’ someone, and tolerating more drama. … A few positive notes: There are many media that provide support for people who wouldn’t receive it otherwise. A great example is the chronically ill community, who are often invisible and don’t go out much. Outlets such as ‘Phoenix Rising’ and ‘Daily Strength’ enable them to connect with others who share their troubles and exchange information without having to attend a support group. Obviously, these, too, come with all sorts of hazards, as people don’t seem to have any filter when they aren’t face to face.”

How do social media affect your life? Have you found them to be a positive force, a negative force, or both? Do you agree or disagree with our Topic Experts? Please share your thoughts below.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 8 comments
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  • Brian Dear

    Brian Dear

    July 9th, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    There’s an element of correlation and causation at play here. Does social media cause new problems or simply reveal old ones that already exist? Have real depression and anxiety rates increased since social media has emerged or are those and similar issues simply more visible? It’s almost like asking if the internet has caused more pedophiles. Anecdotal evidence about social media anxiety doesn’t control for the level of anxiety that person would have experienced from other causes in the absence of social media.

    On balance, in my opinion of course, social media has a net zero effect on mental health — no harm and no benefit, when averaged.

  • Jess

    Jess

    July 9th, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    I have a very hard time believing that this bad for you, after all it’s not like someone is hoding a gun to your head telling you to log in to facebook or else! This is a choice that someone is consciously making- it’s not like you know that life will be over if you log in. Good grief, we are always looking for someone or something else to blame and never taking the time to look in the mirror and ask what we could be doing to contribute to the problem. I hope that I have raised my own kids better than this because there comes a time when it is time to own up and face up. This is one of those times. If I am depressed or experiencing anxiety or whatever, I probably won’t blame it on facebook. I might take the chance to get to know myself a little better and ask what are the thigs that I could weed out of my life to help control my pain. I might have to takea little time off line, but not because I think that it’s bad, only because there is something there that I need to learn how to handle a little better.

  • dan

    dan

    July 9th, 2013 at 9:30 PM

    was addicted to Facebook myself..I decided to get away and deleted my account.thankfully I have stuck with the no Facebook rule I set for myself and I feel much better..it felt like it was taking my life away.but I don’t preach,for people who can handle it well – all the best!

  • aaron

    aaron

    July 10th, 2013 at 4:15 AM

    But look at the support that many are finding online and within certain social medi forums. This can’t be discounted.

  • Yuri

    Yuri

    July 11th, 2013 at 4:18 AM

    Like anything else, if you are healthy before this then this is likely not going to do any harm to you. If you have some issues going in though, then yes, it could negatively impact you. You could get sucked into thinking that every other online friend has it better than you do, and that could cause a downward spiral. No one likes to think that they are doing worse than others, but social media can serve to highlight just how wide the disparity can be. And if someone is already depressed this could only make it worse.

  • Marion sloan

    Marion sloan

    July 12th, 2013 at 6:09 AM

    Again, I think that we are looking at this from the wrong approach. We are lookmg to external “things” to blame, while forgetting that we are the ones who set all of this in motion.

  • Mkhululi

    Mkhululi

    July 12th, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    There is nothing wrong with most things, but the usage of them. Moreover, I don’t think there is anything wrong with social media or the internet in general,however, people tend misuse things and then they blame things for their misfortune. Everybody has different experiences with Social Media, other get the help they need for others it manifests the existing problems that having been there in the 1st place(loneliness, addictions,obsessions etc) Personally, I am not big on the Social Networking scene – and I would encourage other to look for other alternative hobbies e.g Yoga, meditation, exercise etc…

  • Logan

    Logan

    July 15th, 2013 at 4:29 AM

    I shudder to think of how many important family events many people are missing out on because they have a hard time putting away the devices

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