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The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health: Exploring the Positive and Negative Effects

Updated: Feb 20

In the modern day and age, we are all, in some way, attached to one form of social media or another. Even websites that were not always considered a ‘social’ form of media–such as Youtube or Reddit–are now a way for people to connect to others, or get their news. This can be both helpful and harmful–social media can be a way for us to educate ourselves, to see the perspectives of others, and to find those alike to us we might not find in our local geographical locations. However, social media can also spread misinformation, plague us with guilt over events we cannot control, and force us to overwork ourselves for the acknowledgement of the masses. Still, as is well-known in dialectics–there are two ends to every spectrum, and the key is finding balance between them.

using social media

In Comparison

Social media shows us the glamor in the lives of others, often without showing us pitfalls or downsides. Much of social media is filled with those who broadcast the lives of carefully curated personalities, rather than honest portrayals, though this does not apply to everyone. Still, it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing oneself to those who seem to have more: who appear prettier, who appear more generous, who appear stronger, and so on. When at the edge of such a trap, remind yourself of how much of yourself you give to the world. A picture speaks a thousand words, but no picture can show every aspect of a person’s life.

Practice acknowledging that the people you feel envy towards on social media may have their own issues, entirely invisible to you, just as you have difficulties those you may know online–or in person–may have no clue about. Be open-minded towards them and yourself–use these moments as an opportunity to consider what you do have, rather than what you do not, and what they may not have that you do. To every demonstration of glitz and glamor there is a darker side, just as in every show of sorrow, a silver lining can be found.

The Joy of Connection

While it is easy to feel jealous of those who may be living easier lives on social media, or to wish we had access to more than we do when we see celebrities posting lives lived in excess, it is important to exercise gratitude. For as many of us who use social media to vent, just as many eagerly share the happiest moments of our lives in social media. In both situations, we can acknowledge gratitude that we are not experiencing the distressing situation, and our gratitude that we are able to share in the joy of what another person is experiencing as well.

Social media may not be mindful in and of itself, but it has certainly broadened our horizons for finding ways to be mindful. Youtube, as well as Instagram, Tiktok, and other apps that have video and audio features, have many short mindfulness practices, and spread knowledge of apps specifically to encourage mindfulness as well.

Social media not only allows us to keep in touch with those we care about even when they are far away from us, it allows us to instantly communicate and discuss a distressing situation with a person while keeping a physical distance, which may help many who find it difficult speaking up in person. It also allows us to have a better perception of the hardships of people whose lives we may otherwise only hear about in passing, or not even be aware of their existence. Compassion is heightened, and as a result, we are more open to understanding the world.

Compassion Fatigue

Social media connects us to the world, which can show us many joyful events, but equally as many distressing events. Over the course of the recent global pandemic, many people were trapped in their homes during lockdown. With nothing to do but access social media, the effects of this were seen more clearly than ever before. While social media allowed us to keep contact with family members we could not see physically, and do our work from home, it also allowed us to share in global distress, joy, anger, and sorrow.

Social media allowed us, then, to perceive injustices both at home and in regions foreign to us, and to share in the similarities between those injustices. Yet social media also encouraged us to care for tragedy after tragedy, injustice after injustice, natural disaster after natural disaster. In truth, though we are meant to care and it is natural to care, a human being is not equipped to empathize with the whole of the world at all times, nor should we.

What is known as compassion fatigue, empathic distress, and a variety of other terms, is essentially the point at which empathy without separation can lead to increased dissatisfaction and eventually, burnout. It is most common in the helping professions–for example, those who are firefighters, social workers, emergency response workers, and nurses. Yet it is now visible in the general public as well, especially as public protests increase in the face of now blatantly visible injustice, because of how easy social media makes it to connect one’s experiences with others’.

A Balancing Act

It is important to acknowledge that caring for others is a valuable and necessary trait, but that it is permissible to distance oneself as a form of self-care. One does not need to be plugged into the world at all times–having your phone on at all times does not equate to being accessible at all times. Keeping track of your nervous system reactions, as well as your sense of social safety and when you may need to engage your social safety system, is one of the many ways to know when you are able to engage with social media in a healthy manner, and when it is time to disengage, without judgment of the self or of others, so that you can recover and readjust your own internal emotional homeostasis.

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