NJM Blog

Healthy Use of Social Media: Minimizing the Negative, Maximizing the Positive

By Melanie Konstantinou
Healthy Use of Social Media

Social media can have positive effects on your mental health, but if you're not careful, it can be damaging. Based on research on social media and mental health, here are tips to stay positive online.

Please note that these suggestions have not been scientifically proven or verified as applicable to all personalities or situations. If you have been diagnosed or suspect you may have a mental illness, seek help from a medical professional.

Claim: Social media use will affect your sleep patterns.

The Risk: There is evidence that the blue light emitted from your phone will affect melatonin production in your body. Disrupted melatonin production will affect your circadian rhythms, which dictate when you feel drowsy and when you're wide awake. As a result, blue light could make it harder for you to fall asleep at night.

Additionally, stresses associated with scrolling through a social media feed, like jealousy, envy, frustration or anger, could keep you awake. If you're dozing off to sleep when the selfie of your ex and their new significant other appears on your screen, it will likely jolt you awake. Suddenly thoughts of your past relationship will be running through your head. Even if you turn off your phone at that moment, how long will it be before you can calm your mind enough to drift into sleep?

The Fix: To fix blue light issues, turn off the phone at least an hour before bed. Instead of reading social media posts, pick up a book or a calming hobby. If that doesn't work for you, see your phone has a night mode or consider using an app like f.lux, or purchasing a screen filter or glasses that reduce blue light.

To fix late-night stressors relating to social media, turn off the phone at least an hour before bed. Automate silent mode on your phone so it turns on automatically every night just before your bedtime. Charge your phone overnight in a different room than your bedroom. If you struggle to stay off social media, consider using a productivity app that blocks you out of social apps between certain hours.

Claim: Social media use will affect your self-esteem.

The Risk: Social media carries several risks when it comes to your self-esteem. On one end, it can lead to jealousy and envy over your friends' life events, vacations and promotions.

It can also lead to the perception of being left out or socially isolated. The fear of missing out (FOMO) can spur users to scroll through social feeds for hours, trying to keep up on their connections' lives.

There's also the risk that comparing your life, body or achievements to others' can impact your self- esteem.

The Fix: One benefit of social media is that it can actually encourage you to do more with your life than you would have if you hadn't seen your friend's trip to Japan, skydiving adventure or life change. That's because jealousy can be a powerful motivator. Seeing the exploits of your friends can make you think, "That's who I want to be." Soon enough, you'll be purchasing your tickets and getting on a plane.

If that kind of lifestyle is beyond your means, though, it's likely the jealousy will turn into envy. In this case, it's important to remember that a life of travel and endless fulfillment is a rarity. Whether your friends are hiding their mediocre daily commitments or neglecting them, the fact is that they have them, just like you do. And you'll find that you can achieve a similar sense of fulfillment by participating in local communities, like book clubs, soccer teams, volunteer groups, etc. These kinds of groups will fit better into your daily schedule, while providing the human support that is necessary to your emotional well-being. Once you create a habit of participating in positive communities, you won't feel like you're missing out, because you'll have a place in a group of your own.

And there's nothing wrong with participating in online communities if they're positive and supportive. In fact, social media can be very helpful to LGBT and mentally ill youth, who no longer feel alone when they join an online community of similar people.

If you're really struggling with your online self-esteem, it might help to take note of a study that found that your profile page can boost your self-esteem. Curating your profile page to highlight the best parts of your personality, character, and experiences can be a major mood-booster. The reasoning behind that is that it helps remind you of the positive and filter out the negative. No need to brood on your worst qualities if you're picking and choosing your best. The problem only comes when you start to compare yourself to others.

Claim: Social media use is addictive.

The Risk: This claim is still hotly debated in research communities. Although some researchers claim that internet addiction exists, others note that the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual for mental illness, does not include internet addiction or social media addiction as actual diagnoses.

The Fix: It takes a decent level of introspection to determine if you're actually addicted to social media. Still, it's possible that you've developed a habit that you want to break. So what can you do to fix it?

  • Set your social media feeds to a page-based feed rather than endless scrolling, if possible. This can help by triggering stop points for you when you're scrolling.
  • Delete social media apps from your phone; only allow yourself to access sites via computer.
  • Clear out your subscriptions, follows, or friends lists. On Twitter, use the Lists feature to narrow your focus while scrolling through feeds. That way, you can direct your focus to the type of information you're looking for, rather than having to filter through your friends' venting, brands' advertising and celebrities' Q&As just to find the news about your favorite video game.
  • Use productivity apps or browser extensions that block you from social media after you've spent a predefined amount of time on it.

Claim: Social media use causes anxiety and stress.

The Risk: Besides the fear of missing out and other self-esteem issues relating to social media, social media is associated with increased anxiety and stress.

First of all, there's the constant pressure to obtain approval from your peers. Social media aggravates peer pressure, because every time you post on it, there's a feedback system. Many people will post something and then delete it a few hours later if it doesn't garner enough attention. In addition, some people, particularly children and teenagers, might be motivated to engage in riskier behavior for the "likes."

Then comes the measurable effects of positive or negative social media posts on your mood. In 2012, Facebook conducted a controversial study in which they measured the mood of users who had been exposed primarily to negative posts or positive posts. They found that the mood of the posts users saw ultimately matched the mood of the posts users later shared on their own feeds. This indicates that a preponderance of positive or negative posts on your feed will affect your mood, whether you like it or not.

This doesn't even start to address the anxiety and stress that can come from online arguments with strangers. It's common for users to go to venues like Twitter and Facebook to vent about their lives, recent customer service experiences and politics. Awareness of each other's little stresses in life will make us more stressed in the long run. Additionally, through a text-only medium, it's easy for us to misinterpret each other's meanings and intentions. This can aggravate online arguments and encourage increasingly hostile language and behavior. After all, in an online environment, we may feel more comfortable behaving in ways we would never behave in public.

The Fix: To address general anxiety and stress, some researchers recommend infusing greenery into your daily life. Check out our article on best practices for that.

To break away from the endless feedback loop of social media, consider keeping a digital diary. Any time you feel the need to post something, post it to your private journal first. Let it sit there for a few hours or a day. If you still feel the need to post it for the world to see after that cool-down period, then go ahead and post. This strategy can help you to break the habit of venting online, thereby improving everyone's mood.

Remember that likes aren't meaningful. Engage with close friends about your experiences through face-to-face conversations if possible. Ask trusted individuals to provide honest critiques about your photography, decisions or artwork.

How can you stop yourself from arguing with strangers on the internet when you know you're in the right?

  1. Set your social media profiles to private.
  2. Don't read the comments section.
  3. Don't engage with strangers on the internet.
  4. Don't even log into to websites that have comments sections where you might be tempted to argue with strangers on the internet.

Claim: Social media use will affect your social connections.

The Risk: As mentioned previously, social media presents a fantasy of people that isn't possible in real life. This can lead to the danger of viewing some people, like online celebrities, as more "perfect" than they actually are, and viewing others, like strangers in comment sections, as more "evil" than they actually are. These distorted views can affect your understanding of people, the world and your role in the social order.

It's important to remember that having more online "friends" does not mean you are being more social. In 1998, researchers Kraut et al. found that spending more time online correlated with a smaller social circle. Internet use can make you neglect close family and friends in favor of less substantial digital relationships.

You might also be tempted to demonstrate insecurity in your personal relationships. Many people who use social media will engage in Facebook or other "feed-stalking" behavior toward their significant other. This demonstrates a lack of trust that can lead to relationship conflict.

The Fix: It's important to have close relationships with other people, for the sake of our mental well-being. Decades of research has shown that rates of mental illness, like depression and anxiety, are higher in people without close social relations.

It's also important to note that maintaining close relationships is not as easy as adding friends on social media or liking their posts. Close relationships take effort. So:

  • Make the effort to meet people in real life.
  • Make the effort to discuss your feelings and experiences with other people, beyond surface-level issues. Joining fan communities online is fine for finding people with similar interests as you, but it won't fulfill your need to be truly understood by other human beings.
  • Resist the urge to add your whole graduating class and office staff as "friends" on social media. If you don't know them personally, keep them off your social media accounts.
  • Give, share and support: volunteer in your community and commit to passing on acts of kindness to other people.
  • If you're feeling stressed or down, ask for help.

Claim: Social media use encourages communities to divide into "bubbles."

The Risk: Just like you can curate your profile to optimize the most attractive characteristics about yourself, you can also curate your feed to show information, opinions and ideas that are most attractive to you. In online communities, it's easier to think that "most people" share your views, because in your community they might. However, your community is only a fraction of the world, and this curation can give you a distorted view of how commonplace your views are. This issue is at the root of the "filter bubble." The biggest risk of social media bubbles is that, once you're in a bubble, it's not hard for increasingly extreme factions of your community to move the whole community toward more radical ideas. This can contribute to social polarization.

The Fix: It's important to make the effort not to block views that you disagree with. How to engage with those communities, then? Instead of addressing opposing viewpoints in your social media feeds, treat those people like the loved friends and family that they are. In the interest of reducing hostility between opposing groups, consider the following suggestions:

  • Temporarily mute before you block.
  • Demonstrate empathy and understanding towards others' life situations.
  • Listen to what others have to say; don't shoot them down right away.
  • Express what you have to say without expecting to persuade anyone.
  • Show that you care about others — beyond their political views.

As always, it's helpful to step away from technology and appreciate the real world around you. Go for a walk, learn how to sew, volunteer to coach a local sports team … Even in our rapidly advancing world, our old sources of entertainment are still readily available if we look for them. The key to maintaining a healthy life has always been in moderation. Just as you would moderate your eating or exercising habits, so you must also moderate your social media use.

Nothing in this world is truly evil, no matter how ardently critics might condemn social media. We just need to exercise a little self-control when it comes to using social networking sites.