Nowadays, the majority of us have wised-up to the fact that social media isn’t exactly good for us. But just how does it affect our mental health?
When someone likes or shares a post that we’ve published, neurons in the dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated causing dopamine levels to rise, in the same way as an addictive substance causes us to feel good when using it. And again, in a similar fashion to addictive substances, when we don’t receive the same amount of likes or shares that we’ve hoped for, the neurons in the dopamine-producing areas are not activated and our dopamine levels fall. This pushes us to chase more likes and shares for each post.
An aspect that exacerbates the negative effects of social media on mental health is the fact that in the majority of social media posts (80% actually) we talk about ourselves. This is more than twice as much as in real life. This means that the likes and shares that we receive are directly tied to our value as a person. Not only have social media platforms become a place where we share our fondest of memories, they have also turned us into marketers. In the age of social media, we are all our own brand managers, striving to prove our worth to the person on the other side of the screen. In our attempt to do so, we create a false version of ourselves. We filter out the less noteworthy aspects of our lives and magnify the frequency and significance of the events that we deem to have value. In other words, social media has become our shop window and, as with all shops, there is a less glamorous back office where the real version of ourselves hides. As we release the false version of ourselves into cyberspace, the real version of ourselves is witnessing its impact. When someone interacts with the false version of ourselves, the real version is aware that the interaction is based on a false premise. In other words, even if we receive the likes, shares and comments that we desire, we doubt their value. “They wouldn’t have liked my posts if I showed them who I really was!” This causes the real version of ourselves to resent the false version, creating an inner-conflict as both versions reside within us.
Depression grows in the space between the real version of ourselves and the false version. The further the false version of ourselves is from the real version (the more different it is) the more space the depression has to grow.
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Similarly, when we interact with other people’s posts we are engaging with the false version of them. We are seeing a carefully manicured image, designed to elicit a positive response from us. The problem is that the real version of us is interacting with the false version of them. We are taking their presentation of themselves at face value and comparing it to the real version of us. In other words, we’re not giving ourselves a fair chance. In this case, the considerable difference between the lifestyle that they are presenting and our current situation, is the feeding ground for our depression.
There are other reasons why social media affects mental health negatively, aside from the difference between the false and real version of ourselves. One aspect that is important to consider is social media’s habit of diluting memorable events. If everyone is posting photos and videos of something seemingly memorable, then bar for what is considered memorable gets lowered and the memorable events becomes less valuable. Then there is the FOMO / YOLO aspect of social media. Seeing our friends and loved-ones attending or talking about attending events that we are (for whatever reason) not going to or seeing post where they are shown to be spontaneous, causes us to feel like our life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. Then there is the more overlooked aspects of social media such as it’s negative effect on cognitive control. Many people use social media when trying to go to sleep (SOURCE). This can result in chronic sleep deprivation which in turn will affect our cognitive functioning and our mood levels.
As you can tell by reading this article, social media can affect our mental health in many ways. Whilst it can be hard to cut off social media entirely (unfortunately it is way we do business and stay in touch with people nowadays) it would be wise to limit ourselves in some way. We can also change the way we present ourselves on social media to better reflect the real version of ourselves whilst remaining aware of the fact that the posts that we are interacting with is a false depiction of the people that are publishing them.