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Mental health and social media

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Managing your mental health in the age of social media

Social media is the great paradox of this generation, one that inspires intense debate and emotion. I, myself used to have a complicated relationship with it. Social media is a cornerstone of modern communication, one that makes networking easy, and connecting to friends all over the world a reality. It empowers movements and provides free publicity. A game changer that’s given so many people a voice.

Yet, it also has the power to make us feel like complete rubbish!

When I read the report commissioned by Lifeplus regarding metal health, I wasn’t surprised to learn that four in five respondents believe social media has played a role in the increase of depression. Technology is something that the majority of the population engages with, so it’s bound to have an impact on health.

According to many online reports, to date, Facebook has the most active users, followed by YouTube and then Instagram. However, TikTok, the app favoured by younger generations has seen a rapid increase in users and engagement during lockdown.

The great villain?

Social media is demonised for many reasons. The addictive element alone is cause for concern. On average, I check my phone thirty times a day, often out of habit without even registering. My brain is subconsciously drawn to certain favoured apps. Simon Sinek highlights this issue in his infamous ‘Inside Quest interview.’ He claims that social media usage produces the exact same chemical (Dopamine) in the brain that is triggered when we drink alcohol, take drugs, or gamble. E.g. Whenever we get a ‘like’ on a photo, that’s a dopamine hit. Or gain a new follower. Dopamine in its purest form is ‘pleasure,’ and humans notoriously can’t get enough of that! Whereas, other potentially addictive substances have safeguards and restrictions, social media has practically zero. We can engage whenever we what, wherever we want, at any age. This never ending consumption is not considered healthy.

“The ‘Like’ culture of social media can be brutal for our mood and self-esteem, not to mention FOMO (fear of missing out) and the pressure to have an active ‘highlights reel,’ (photos showing you at your best). Then there’s the temptation to snoop on people from our pasts and finding out that your ‘ex-partner’ is dating a model. Sometimes not knowing a piece of information until we’re both ready and strong enough to hear it, helps to aid the healing process. Social media doesn’t allow for this. We have access to a world of knowledge, good or bad.”

In the past I have fallen victim to the need to project a ‘perfect life’ online. I was unable to just enjoy a delicious meal or hang out with friends, I had to document it and wait for others to validate my experience by clicking the heart emoji. If I noticed friends or colleagues doing something that seemed more exciting, my mood plummeted.

Eventually it was my relationship with Instagram that started to affect my sleep. The light of my phone held so close to me face would suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel tired. Sometimes I found myself awake until 2am, scrolling through endless feeds.

This lack of sleep made me feel lethargic the following day and I lacked the energy to engage in basic self-care such as eating a nutritious meal, or drinking enough water. Instead I craved sugar and caffeine to balance out the fatigue. I felt powerless and frustrated by the cycle I’d become trapped in.

Find positivity in balance

So, what’s the answer? Should we delete all of our apps immediately, then destroy every trace of social media from the world? Of course not, for starters that would make me a hypocrite. I’ve made a career out of it after all! For many, like myself, social media is a fundamental tool for business promotion. One that’s cost effective and reaches an audience targeted to my brand.

Despite the pitfalls, social media can be an incredibly positive and powerful thing, when managed correctly. For many people living with mental illness, (myself included), it’s both an outlet to vent and a means to receive support from others in similar positions.

During some of my darkest moments, I reached out to my online community and received waves of support and advice from people I’ve never even met. I was bowled over by the love I received, and this in turn, galvanised my recovery. Trolls are prevalent it’s true, but so are decent and caring human beings.

Throughout the stricter stages of lockdown, social media became a lifeline for many people, particularly those living alone. Facetime, Skype, Zoom, House party etc. allowed families/friends to physically see each other, thereby boosting morale.

Said apps also enabled many businesses to function without too much disruption.

Top tips for staying sane online

1. Mindful usage – It’s important to be conscious about our social media engagement, just as we do when enjoying other volatile substances. For instance, we wouldn’t wake up and chug a glass of vodka in the morning, therefore checking our phones shouldn’t be our first priority either. Allow the mind to warm up naturally, before assaulting it with stimuli.

It’s perfectly fine to enjoy social media, but like all good things, too much can make us sick. Therefore, managing usage is important. However, it shouldn’t feel like a punishment. The brain rarely accepts abstinence without a fight, or a replacement. I liken it to a child having it’s favourite toy taken away.

Therefore, when you’re having a break from your phone, plan another fun or relaxing activity. Relax in the bath, go for a walk, have a Netflix marathon, or better yet, go retro and play a boardgame with family! Show the brain that dopamine can be triggered by other, offline things.

2. Have a SM free bedtime – Aim to keep usage to a minimum after 9pm, but again don’t treat this as a punishment. Use it as an opportunity to create a new night-time ritual. For example, hot chocolate and an episode of a certain show, or reading a few chapters of a good book. If however, like me, you use your phone to read eBooks, (not ideal, but they’re cheaper than paperbacks), then at least set the lighting to ‘night mode,’ as this won’t impact melatonin production. Turn off in app ‘notifications’ to avoid any distracting pop us. You can do this either in phone settings or the apps themselves.

3. Always question the context – Photos on Instagram have the power to make us feel like our own lives are inadequate, it’s true. However, we’re so quick to accept the so called ‘reality’ of said photos.

Remember, we all include the very best versions of ourselves online – at parties, on holiday, having fun. It’s instinct.

We don’t however, include our less perfect days. E.g. that Sunday I spent five hours on the couch in my pyjamas hungover, eating cereal straight from the box! This creates an unrealistic representation of the world. Deriving a sense of worth based on how we are doing in comparison to others is not only an unhealthy variable, it’s also completely beyond our control. Reality rarely wins in a fight against fantasy.

So, allow yourself to feel sad/jealous/frustrated for a moment, then think about the lack of context social media provides. Sure, that photo of X person lounging on a beach looks heavenly, but maybe they had food poisoning earlier? Maybe ten minutes before this photo was taken, they were glued to the toilet! Or perhaps, the photo isn’t even current? It could be from a holiday months ago.

One of the nicest selfies of me posted on Instagram, was taken when I was dealing with a horrendous period. I was bloated, tired and in terrible pain. Yet, I looked gorgeous and full of life in the photo.

These days I try to be as authentic as possible to combat this cycle of fantasy, but even I’m not immune to vanity.

4. Engage in positive groups/hashtags/content – I follow the hashtag #dogsofinstagram purely because it guarantees me a daily dose of joy! Seeing pictures of puppies playing, or dogs falling over makes me laugh. It gives me a happy, emotional boost and provides balance.

Social media is an incredible opportunity to surround our virtual selves with the things that we love and bring a dose of positivity to our day.

Along with friends and colleagues, I also follow people who inspire me, or make me feel good about myself. This is advice that I frequently reiterate to teenagers in particular.

I use my social media to connect with mental health, writer, vintage clothing, and feminist communities all over the world! Whatever I’m interested in at the moment.

Thanks to social media, I’ve been introduced to some incredible people whose paths I never would’ve crossed.

Remember, YOU’RE in charge of your feed, so make it a great space for you!

5. Don’t ‘hate follow’ people – We’re all guilty of this to an extent. Following people whose lives make us feel jealous, or who we find infuriating, but can’t help snooping on. It’s deliciously exhilarating in a strange way, but ultimately depletes our energy and mood.

Be sure to have a regular cull of accounts that you follow, to make sure that their content works for you. Think of it as spring cleaning for the brain.

If you’re concerned that a person may notice you’ve unfollowed them, then just ‘mute’ instead. They’ll have no idea and you won’t be subjected to their negative feed.

6. Ghost the trolls – This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people fall into the trap, (myself included). Despite the temptation, try to remember, you will NEVER win an argument with a troll, no matter how witty or intelligent the response may be.

Trolls feed of engagement. Think of them as energy vampires, or leeches. So, safeguard your mental energy and simply click ‘block.’

Be sure to report any accounts that are abusive or threatening.

Social media can be defined in so many ways, often extremes. It’s both powerful and dangerous, positive and negative, communal and isolating. There is no middle ground when it comes to popular opinion.

“The Lifeplus report highlighted some important insights. Social media can indeed contribute to mental illnesses such as depression. However, when managed correctly and used in combination with healthy lifestyle choices, it can also be hugely beneficial. ”

The key is to be mindful, proactive and create new, healthy habits. Have fun with your online experience but be sure to safeguard your mental health.

Claire Eastham is a best-selling author, mental health blogger, campaigner and keynote speaker. Check out her award winning blog ‘We’re All Mad Here.’

Further sources of advice and support …

One of the biggest mental health charities in the UK is MIND. A plethora of information, advice and support, including local offices for local people, can be found on the MIND Website.

YoungMinds is a national charity dedicated to supporting young people with mental health issues. You can access a guide to CAMHS (NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) and view a list of help lines and websites for all kinds of mental health problems including social media, alcohol and drugs.

The Molly Rose Foundation is a charitable foundation formed by the Russell Family after the tragic loss of 14 year old Molly Russell in 2017. The charity has undertaken valuable work in this area and were instrumental in getting Instagram to ban all self-harm and suicide content.