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    We spend an average of 2.5 hours per day on social media in the US. And that’s up 31% from 2015. According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of adults and 81% of teens in the U.S. use social media daily. And of course, we all post our best - the best vacation pics, the best party pics, the best outfit pics - it's a recipe for unrealistic comparison on a daily basis. 

    Why do we do it? To boost self-esteem and feel a sense of belonging in our social circles, we post with the hope of receiving positive feedback. But there’s a downside - research shows that time spent on social media has an adverse effect on mental health. The effort spent to achieve and maintain the ideal body so that we look “as good as” others we see on social media, can trigger significant anxiety and depression. In this article, we dig into the research and share suggestions to mitigate the negative impact of social media.

    What the science says about social media and mental health1825650243_SocialMedia_5-01.png.8af1ccc07b5ee71aa15c05ca1082574d.png

    Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and more recently TikTok (whose use is up 800% in the US since 2018) - all provide an easy means to post, view, and compare ourselves to others, 24/7. Filters that provide the ability to airbrush photos, whiten teeth, and more, are easy to find and use. Now, it’s not only celebrities who look perfect—it’s everyone. In fact, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests in recent years from patients who want to look like their (unrealistic) filtered Snapchat or Instagram photos.

    Logically, we know this can’t be healthy behavior. And the science backs this up. Research has linked social media use to decreased sleep, increased anxiety and depression, and significant body dysmorphia - which often leads to eating disorders. 

    One study, published by the Public Library of Open Science (PLoS One), found the prevalence of depression and anxiety to be over 48%, for those of all ages and genders who looked at social media frequently. Another study, published in Computers and Human Behavior, found that individuals who used social media over 2 hours per day reported significantly higher body image concerns and internalizing symptoms than peers reporting no use of social media. A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased or disrupted sleep, which can be associated with depression, memory loss, and poor work or academic performance.

    One study, published by the Public Library of Open Science (PLoS One), found the prevalence of depression and anxiety to be over 48%, for those of all ages and genders who looked at social media frequently. Another study, published in Computers and Human Behavior, found that individuals who used social media over 2 hours per day reported significantly higher body image concerns and internalizing symptoms than peers reporting no use of social media. A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased or disrupted sleep, which can be associated with depression, memory loss, and poor work or academic performance.

    How social media’s ‘ideal body image’ portrayal impacts different communities

    Some communities are impacted more than others - for various reasons they are more likely to feel pressure to look good on social media and/or more vulnerable to the effects of constant comparison. For example, studies have found that social media use has been linked to higher rates of depression in teens, which in turn has lead to a higher suicide rate among the age group. When there’s a ‘filter’ applied to the digital images, it can be hard for teens to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which comes at an already difficult time for them physically and emotionally.

    2079387207_SocialMedia_2-01.png.208131b910b6423ad3f12bbfd9078c8c.pngA Pew Research study of teens, technology, and friendships revealed a range of social media-induced stressors:

    • Feeling pressure to post attractive content about yourself

    • Feeling pressure to get comments and likes on your posts

    • Seeing people post about events to which you weren’t invited

    • Having someone post things about you that you cannot change or control

    Another community adversely affected by the need to achieve a perfect body for social media is the LGBTQ community. For example, research published out of Dalhousie University found that social demands placed on gay men, based on social media images, to achieve a perfect body, have serious mental health consequences. The men in this study talked about how “constantly thinking about food and body ideals often lead to losing themselves in feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.” The National Eating Disorder Association similarly found that those who identify as LGBTQ+ experience unique stressors that may contribute to the development of eating disorders - these stressors include the inability to meet body image ideals within LGBTQ+ cultural contexts that are promoted in social media.

    1261054018_SocialMedia_3-01.png.8ffff9743572b4f8b8a1a7987ddb8df7.pngWomen in general, and young black women in particular, are also at greater risk for developing mental health issues due to unrealistic body image portrayals on social media. One study found that celebrity culture, as portrayed on social media, perpetuates the ideology that young black women can only achieve beauty through changes in skin color, extended artificial weaves, and a thin body frame. Another study out of Yale University School of Medicine found that as black teen girls navigate social media, “they are aware that they are seen as less desirable than their white teen counterparts.” Of course, all of this leads to significant mental health issues.

    How to mitigate the negatives effects of social media

    Can anything be done to mitigate the downsides of social media? While the biggest changes need to come at a societal level, it turns out that there are some tactics that individuals and families can take - starting with something as simple as monitoring social media use. In an article from Harvard’s McLean Hospital, psychologist Jacqueline Sperling, Ph.D., says “it’s probably unrealistic for most social media users to quit completely. However, they can monitor their behavior to see how their use impacts them.” She adds, “if someone notices that they feel less happy after using social media, they might consider changing how they use the sites, such as viewing them for less time and doing other activities that they enjoy instead.” 

    2056284571_SocialMedia_1-01.png.5e2e66edaaf91f4a852f277eed6c3112.pngExperts also suggest the following options:

     

    • Find and follow body-positive accounts and influencers, or join support groups - this can help shift our mindset about the ideal body image set by society.

    • Take an ethical stand and refuse to read, or view media, or buy advertised products that do not promote a healthy and diverse body image.

    • Use your own social media accounts to become an advocate for positive body image. Give a shout-out to retailers, advertisers, or celebrities who promote natural looks, healthy body size, and diverse body shapes.

    • Consult with a behavioral health specialist if you or someone you love is finding it hard to disconnect from social media overuse.

    If you recognize some of these signs for anxiety or depression, consider consulting a behavioral health professional

    Request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals understand the link between social media and mental health. Seeking a meaningful career in behavioral health? Consider joining our national team of providers making a real impact on the lives of thousands, learn more about the benefits here.

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