What a last 12 months that was! The Corona Virus spread around the globe like wildfire and it felt like there was an immediate and existential threat to the human race. Now the vaccines are being rolled out, not quite at the speed we would all like, but at least it is started. A year ago it felt like we were all staring down the barrel of a gun. We all stayed at home a lot more and we all had a lot less human contact. No hugs, no kisses, no hugs, no handshakes. Did I mention the lack of hugs? Even the free ones? On the flip side, we all spent a lot more time on social media. This article and Q+A with a local psychologist aims to look at our social media use and to identify potential mental health issues that link to usage. So meet Amanda who will help us to understand better the issues between psychology and social media, and mental health.
As mentioned above, we really all had a lot more time at home and many of us were a lot more present online. We shared our baking successes. Many families made videos and shared them in order to relive the tedium. It was a time when everyone was in the same boat in every sense. Gone were the photos of people jumping on planes or photos of their toes by the swimming pool.
Time on line
Priorities changed and that was reflected in what people were posting online. The pressure to stay safe, to hold onto a job, to remain financially stable and even to put food on the table. All of this have been a huge strain on all of us. It is those pressures and strains that I want to look at with the help of Amanda Vannucci. She is a highly experienced psychologist who works in Amsterdam and has agreed to give us more insight into the issue of psychology and social media and mental health.
Psychology and Social Media in the era of Corona
I wanted to explore more with Amanda’s help the use of social media during the crisis and in our general lives. Just how ingrained are platforms like Facebook and Instagram? What is the mental effect of all this sharing? Are we fully aware of how it is changing our lives for better or for worse? Thanks Amanda for taking time out from your schedule to answer our questions about psychology and social media and mental health.
Q1. Before all this happened, life was already full of pressures and pitfalls in ‘normal times’. Once you add in the stresses and strains of the last few months, the pressure builds. How do you see people using social media as a coping mechanism?
We turn to social media to simulate connection when we possibly can’t connect in the real world. It helps us stay in touch with friends, family and people we meet throughout our lives. As the world started going into lockdown, we saw people turn to social media, the interaction often becoming the only social engagement a person would have in a day. It also became a way of escaping the house, finding entertainment when there was nothing more to watch on Netflix, or even catching up with drinks via Zoom. Social media in this way became helpful by giving us virtual spaces to share and be social, while keeping us safe during lockdown.
Knowing (and seeing on Instagram) that others have similar difficulties to you and your family, helps in validating our feelings and frustrations. If you have 3 young children running around the living room while you try desperately to get through a Skype meeting, it helps to see another mother on Facebook asking for tips on how to keep kids busy during lockdown. It acts as a support network and can provide a sense of normalcy when things feel unpredictable and scary.
Q2. What is really happening when talk about psychology and social media? We all have different aims and purposes. For some it is to communicate and for other to project and image of themselves. How do you view it all?
There have been numerous studies on the effects of social media, both positive and negative. On the positive side, engaging on social media can be help us:
- Stay in touch with loved ones close and far
- Connect to individuals who are similar to us in some way (Cycling community, LGBTQ community, other parents etc.)
- Find empathy for others and ourselves
- Improve our mood (animals being their adorable selves)
- Feel more inspired or learn new things/obtain information
- Promote or even run a business
However there are also downsides to engaging on social media platforms, in that they may:
- Make us feel isolated
- It makes us judge ourselves harshly when compared to others online
- Make us feel anxious, overwhelmed or overstimulated
- Take a lot of time out of our day (have you observed the time and energy some put into making a TikTok clip?)
- Exposing us to things that may negatively impact on our wellbeing (fear mongering, disturbing content)
While the aim of using social media for most individuals is about staying connected and sharing experiences, it has become so much a part of our identities. Even choosing not to engage on any social media forms part of who someone is as a person. For this reason, our online experiences have a big impact on our everyday mood, thoughts and self-esteem. An important consideration would be how engaging in social media affects you personally.
Does seeing others having a successful day (did yoga, homeschooled the kids, cooked a healthy meal, cardio, 8 hours work from home, walk the dog, date with wife (homecooked I might add!)) make you extra critical of yourself? Or perhaps on a day when you feel relatively good and on top of things, finally settling into a routine, do you find it unhelpful to stumble onto the myriad of international calamities that we are currently experiencing? These are questions we can start asking ourselves and our children to have more helpful conversations around social media use.
Q3. What are the downsides of constant social media use? Is it recognised as a form of addiction?
Pervasive and compulsive social media use is not yet recognized a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, however it is a condition that is being further investigated for future inclusion under the name Internet Addiction Disorder. However, when we look at the mechanisms behind social media use, we do see the same pattern that forms in any kind of addiction (eg. We feel empty, engage on social media, feel rewarded via release of feel-good neurotransmitters). Aspects such as tolerance and withdrawal are still being studied. For this reason, it is best to have continuous discussions about our internet use and what our aims are. Are we connecting or are we bored and procrastinating with something that could potentially leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled? Social media is useful but is not a replacement for human interaction in real life.
Q4.Teenagers and young adults seem to always be on their screens. Also, they do not always articulate or express themselves freely about the pressures they are feeling. What signs should parents be looking out for in order to identify potential mental health issues?
Today’s young people grew up with technology, and we often do not credit them enough for being born into something so cognitively and socially advanced. For this reason, they use technology differently, and in ways social media accounts become an extension of their ‘self’ online. The things you post and like and comment say things about who you are as a person and how you view the world. For this reason adolescents and young adults are at greater risk to feeling the emotional and cognitive effects of too much social media use.
If you are concerned about you child’s wellbeing, looking out for the following might be helpful:
- Isolation or being removed from the rest of the family
- Change in eating/sleeping habits
- Erratic or strange behaviour/moods
- Spending too much time online (hours at a time or late into the night)
- Not engaging in any activities that are not online
- Anger or irritation when separated from online spaces for too long
What I always like to suggest is welcoming social media into your home, instead of labelling it as BAD. It is here to stay and can be a very enriching part of our lives. But we need to communicate and talk to our children about it. A way to do that is by having a check-in as a family with each person sharing something from social media. Depending on what you came across that day (perhaps a funny video or important information); share something that made you feel angry/sad/happy; make a TikTok video with your kids. Also doing other activities together as a family (and with friends when it is safe to do so) should be encouraged. We need experiences in real life to be able to share anything on social media.
Q5. What are the best techniques for people of all ages to detox from social media and improve their mental health?
Detoxing from social media is difficult. I recently took a break myself for a week. The thought of it made me worry that I might feel disconnected from others and the world. I was concerned that perhaps I would miss important information or that I might even seem rude for not engaging. The experience was actually quite refreshing. I have been back online now, because I did miss the sharing and connecting in such an accessible manner. It fits well into our busy lives and we need to find ways of keeping our use healthy and enriching.
Less usage time
If you do want to taper off your use, try first determining how much time you are spending on social media sites. Which ones do you prefer? There are helpful apps you can install to monitor your use, some phones have these programmes preinstalled. Once you know what you daily use is, try to cut it down by 25% (if you browse 2 hours a day, try cutting down to 1,5 hours). Use a timer if you find that helpful. If you want you can reduce it even more, or even take a whole day/week/month off. Or as a family decide on a prize given to the family member who spent the least amount of time on social media. Instead of focusing on exactly how much time to spend on social media, the more important task is figuring out what works for you and doesn’t impact you negatively.
And what to do with all the freed up time? Go for walks, water your garden, play a boardgame, do some breathing or meditation, look through old photo albums, read, cook and enjoy all the little things that make us all human. In this unprecedented year social media should be a supportive, enriching space. It can continue to be a helpful way to stay connected in an uncertain world if we use it as a tool to make our lives better, and remain aware of the negative impacts it may have.
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Thank you again Amanda for these very interesting insights into psychology and social media and mental health issues due to its use.
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