Five Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Mental Health (And Your Character)

Is using Twitter making you feel depressed or chronically enraged? How about scrolling through Instagram? The answer really depends on multiple factors, such as the accounts you follow, the amount of time you spend on these sites, your personality, and your general state of mind.

It’s simplistic to say that social media is entirely bad, when it can give you benefits, such as connecting with people over books you enjoy reading. But it’s also a potential underminer of mental health and character. In what ways can it hurt you?

Helplessness

It’s fine to stay informed about what’s happening in your community and around the world. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything, and there’s a limit to what you can do about the news you hear. For instance, if you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis, you may be able to donate to a reputable non-profit organization or advocate for better policies to prevent future crises. But you can’t physically swoop in and scoop people out of harm’s way.

If you’re on social media for long enough, you’re immersed in updates of terrible crimes, horrific accidents, and large-scale crises, including wars and natural disasters. It’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to be steeped in tragedy for hours on end.

You also get a front-row seat to all kinds of propaganda and dishonesty. Dishonesty isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Many people are eager to spread any information that appears to confirm their beliefs. You watch in real time how someone’s reputation gets trashed based on a lie or a profound distortion. Any corrections you share can feel like drops of water in a flood of lies.

When faced with this horrible torrent, helplessness is a common response. You begin to focus more on what you can’t do and on how much is beyond your help. You experience despair, or you become more numb and apathetic. You become less inclined to act in ways that are in your power. You adopt an all-or-nothing mentality: “If I can’t fix all of this, I can’t do anything. What’s the point.”

Dissociation

Spending a lot of time on social media can create rifts between your body, emotions, and thoughts. The relationships and activities of your offline existence fade in importance or resonance. You use what’s on your screen as a perpetual distraction from serious problems, such as chronic loneliness. You become alienated from your body, fixating instead on cartoon avatars or painstakingly tweaked and heavily filtered photos. Good health involves an integration of body and brain, and care for both. When you’re dissociated from yourself, you feel less real, less important.

Social Contagion

Various behaviors, emotions, and psychological conditions are subject to social influence. Suicidality and anorexia are two examples. “Tourette-like behaviors” is another one.

On different social media platforms, there are communities that encourage a lack of well-being. Years ago on Tumblr, for example, I saw groups of younger people fill their bios with lists of mental health problems, developmental disorders, medical issues, and obscure identities. Many times, these would be self-diagnosed, and there was a competitiveness to it. A longer list meant that you were more interesting and more authoritative; people had to listen to you, and you could tell them how they should think and feel about a particular issue. Taking steps to become mentally healthier was a sign that you had no serious problems to begin with. It was a sign that you were boring and “normal.” (Nobody in these circles wanted to be normal.)

This type of behavior isn’t limited to Tumblr, but what I saw on Tumblr was an excellent example of unwellness being turned into an identity. If you were depressed, you weren’t meant to think of depression as a part of your life that you treat and cope with. You’d make it part of your more permanent identity.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

On social media, you can always find people who are better-looking than you, more talented, more intelligent, and more popular. Many also seem to have a lively social life and strong relationships. Are they actually happier than you? Who knows. You’re looking at curated images and narratives. Some people may be genuinely happy, while others smile and pose through terrible pain. Regardless, a steady stream of posts and images can intensify feelings of dissatisfaction with yourself and different aspects of your life. And you may be fixated, stuck on scrolling past image after image of a happiness that appears to be unattainable to you.

Emotional Manipulation

Social media presents a skewed picture of people and life more generally. Posts that are more extreme and lacking in nuance generally get more views, clicks, likes, shares, and comments. The people most active on a site often behave in obsessive or abusive ways, without a sense of perspective.

You get into heated arguments with bots. You feed on a steady stream of what an algorithm sends your way. The stream of information contains lies and distortions, and how much do you absorb without fact-checking or questioning?

Plugging into social media twists your emotions around. You feel angry and outraged for hours. Or you ride on waves of vengeful pleasure. Or your stomach twists into anxious knots, and fear settles cold and heavy in your belly. The emotions stay with you long after you’ve looked away from the screen (and it’s so hard to stay away!). You’ve plugged in and received currents of algorithm-driven feelings, and it’s addictive – the emotions, the potential responses from people to your posts. Do you sense that you’re in control of your social media use?

The E.R. and Society

I was talking recently to someone who works in an emergency room as a nurse, and she told me about all the non-emergencies at the E.R. – among them, people seeking drugs, people sleeping off drunkenness, people with untreated mental illness.

What she described reminded me of this excerpt from a short story, “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” by Lucia Berlin (published in an anthology, A Manual for Cleaning Women):

“Fear, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness are terminal illnesses. Emergencies, in fact.”

Influencers Don’t Need to Be Political Commentators or Activists

Should people who have a large online platform comment on political events or become activists for a particular cause? Some would argue yes: Whether you’re amassing Instagram followers or picking up thousands of subscribers on YouTube, you’re obligated to say something about current events and take a stand. Preferably with the “right opinions,” whatever those happen to be.

But is this necessary or desirable?

In many cases, I think it would do more harm than good.

  1. I don’t like the idea that people should feel compelled to discuss a topic. For instance, if someone wants to post tons of awesome photos about gardening, just leave them to it. I can get political commentary elsewhere. There’s no shortage of political commentary online.
  2. The pressure to speak on a topic is often driven by momentary trends. It doesn’t account for what someone may care about most deeply. For example, an influencer may be dedicated to protecting endangered species in the Amazon Rain Forest. It’s a topic she’s researched and can speak about with some depth. But it isn’t necessarily what’s trending on Twitter.
  3. People don’t have the time or inclination to research every topic that dominates the news cycle and social media. If they feel pressured to state an opinion, they’ll often just try to figure out what’s expected from them. (What are their peers saying? Their offline social circle? Their audience?) The opinions they express often aren’t based on careful thought or facts. Most of the time, their main concern is to be socially acceptable and to not get piled on by some of the more fanatical activists. Furthermore, if they’re pressured to comment on breaking news, they may wind up sharing unverified stories and rumors, adding more falsities to the internet.
  4. Following up on the third point, the pressure to speak out often results in superficial gestures. Those gestures mean little in the face of deep-rooted, long-standing problems. You insert a hash tag in one of your posts or chant a slogan at the end of a 15-minute video, and that becomes activism.
  5. I don’t think it’s good for our psychological health to have every channel, every forum, become a battleground on different political topics. If I’m looking for a drawing tutorial, or if I’m watching a video about how to keep plants alive indoors, I just want to focus on art or on nurturing plant life. Being plugged into political issues round-the-clock doesn’t help people become more effective citizens or advocates. If anything, immersion in social media can give people a skewed picture of a topic. It can also warp emotions, putting people in protracted states of rage or despair.

If people want to talk or write about a topic, they can. My concern is with the social pressures, the expectations that someone with a platform needs to use it to broadcast certain opinions. For multiple reasons, pressuring influencers (or anyone online) to take a stance often isn’t a good idea.

Two Major Challenges in Mental Health Healing

Here are two big ones that make people feel discouraged after they’ve already started addressing their mental health issues:

Progress isn’t linear

When they start working on their mental health, people often expect (or hope) to experience steady progress. Whether they’re finding ways to manage anxiety or confront the effects of sustained abuse, they hope for a clear, stable path to success.

The reality is more messy, and the messiness can be discouraging.

You deal with difficult situations, the fragility of new habits, and the persistence of long-established patterns of thought and behavior. Just when you think you’re doing fine, new problems crop up. Long-buried emotions demand attention.

That’s not to say that you aren’t making any progress at all. It’s just that healing can be uneven and patchy. It often involves backsliding and reversion. Some areas of your life may improve dramatically and within a relatively short amount of time. In other areas, you may still feel shaky, like you’re fumbling in the dark.

A while ago, I came across an interesting, hopeful quote about how healing is more like a spiral than a straight path:

“We swing around again and again to the same old issues, but at different turns of the spiral. Each time we confront a similar feeling or reaction we have yet another opportunity to learn and to heal. Each time, we bring with us whatever new understanding we have gained since the last time we cycled through this particular difficulty.”

– Nancy J. Napier, Getting Through the Day

It helps to not see healing as the attainment of a perfect state. Healing gives you more strength and resources to deal with the inevitable messiness of life. It also opens up new possibilities for what you can do with your life and what you can experience.

regrets are powerful

Healing often brings with it greater self-awareness. In many ways, this is beautiful. You’re in a better position to make good choices. If you’re more aware of your emotions, you can also be more open to joy, excitement, and love.

But awareness can also bring with it pain. You realize that certain relationships in your life are damaging. You become acutely aware of things you’ve missed out on. Even as you grow stronger mentally and emotionally, regret may blindside you. Grieving what’s lost and coming to terms with regret become part of your healing.

There are different ways of dealing with regret – like focusing more on the future, focusing on what you’re doing with your life now, and changing the story you tell about your life, so that it’s more about what you’re overcoming and what you’re working towards, and less about wasted time and loss. Still, regret is undeniably difficult to deal with.

Can You Experience Seasonal Depression in the Summer?

There’s a short and funny YouTube video, Finnish Seasonal Depression, that compares a Finnish man in the despairing depths of winter to what he’s like on a summer day with some rare sunshine. (Clearly there are enormous differences, like the flower tucked behind his ear. As for the beer – it’s good for any season.)

Anyway, a question came to mind when I watched it: Can people get seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, during the summer?

Apparently yes, though it’s not as common (or at least not as well-documented) as winter SAD. As discussed in Psychiatry Advisor, overbearing heat and humidity may trigger the summer variation of seasonal depression, and high pollen levels may be another environmental trigger. Also, it seems as though summer SAD is more common in tropical climates.

I wasn’t aware of this at all. Aside from sensing that intense heat and protracted exposure to sunshine can make someone feel sluggish (or put them at risk of dehydration or heatstroke), I never thought of SAD as an issue in the summer. It probably almost never is in Finland.

Why I Love “A Word on Statistics”

The poem, which you can read at the Poetry Foundation, starts with:

Out of every hundred people

those who always know better:

fifty-two.

Unsure of every step:

almost all the rest.

– from “A Word on Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak

I’ve been revisiting Szymborksa’s poem over the past year, and I like it for multiple reasons:

  • Her poem offers a strange comfort. Partly, it’s the dark comfort of thinking, “We’re all doomed together.” But it’s also the comfort of connection with other people.
  • It’s a poem that helps make me more patient.
  • Even though statistics are impersonal, and this poem isn’t about any one person in particular, it still feels deeply human and personal.
  • The poem inspires compassion. Statistics often desensitize (remember this quote attributed without evidence to Stalin?), but this poem does the opposite. It makes you keenly sensitive to people: what they face, what they do, how they fail themselves and others, how they inspire.
  • There’s sorrow in the poem, because we’re a sorry lot. The poem helps make the sorrow more bearable.
  • It captures some of the limitations of statistics, including the imprecision. There’s a lot that’s unquantifiable about us.

TV Writers Coming Up With Ideas for a New Show

Three TV writers (known from here on out as T1, T2, and T3) get together to brainstorm ideas for a new crime show.

T1: Ok, we want a show with some originality, but not too much. It needs to appeal to a lot of people. We want to give them something new but not too strange.

T2: How about we make the two leads a man and a woman? They don’t have to sleep with each other right at the start. We can wait a few episodes.

T3: Or maybe a few seasons. Ratchet up the sexual tension for years. Throw in all kinds of drama to keep them apart.

T2: To really keep them apart, we need to make sure they act out of character. They need to sometimes act much dumber than they are for reasons that don’t make sense.

T1: How about they never sleep together. They’ll be played by attractive actors who have a lot of sexual chemistry, but they’ll never have sex, ever.

T3: Because one of them is married?

T1: No. Because male-female friendship can be one of the things that makes our show fresh. The idea that men and women can be friends.

T2: In that case, let’s also have them be different races.

T3: Yes! Diversity cred.

T2: Though, whatever the woman is, we should make the man white.

T1: Yes! He’ll be an arrogant know-it-all who’s really smart and has a good heart, deep down.

T3: And if any of the fans want to see them have sex… that’s what fan fiction is for.

T1: The woman has to be smart but not unattractively nerdy, and assertive but not too pushy, and independent but also really self-sacrificing, and gorgeous but sometimes she eats hotdogs and her hair is a little messy.

T2: If we ever show her sleeping, she’ll need to have a full face of makeup, even in the middle of the night.

T1: Of course.

T3: She has to be like a mother to the male character. Like, she keeps reminding him to eat his vegetables and be nicer to people. She shouldn’t really have a sense of humor. Just a lot of fond and exasperated eye rolling at his shenanigans.

T2: Ok, but if they aren’t going to sleep with each other, who will they sleep with?

T1: The man will have some tragic ex-lover or ex-wife who died or betrayed him or something. The ex will be blonde.

T2: And fair-skinned.

T3: And if he gets together with anyone else on the show…?

T2: Also blonde and fair-skinned.

T3: Right, and she’ll be different from his ex in important ways. Like the fact that she’s alive and not evil.

T1: What about the female lead? She sleeping with anyone?

T3: Maybe she can have a sexual hangup. One that makes her super cranky. Sound good?

T2: Who cares. I’m getting kind of bored thinking about her.

T3: She’s an important part of the show. We need to give her stuff to do.

T1: She’ll be doing a lot. She’s supposed to be smart and tough. We’ll also put her through some traumatic moments.

T2: Trauma can get boring if it drags out too much.

T1: Don’t worry, we won’t follow up on the trauma. Something terrible will happen to her, she’ll have a nightmare or two, and then, you know, she’ll be ok again two episodes later.

T3: We need to make her complex. She needs to be as interesting as the male lead.

T1: That’s what fan fiction is for. Some of the fans get cranky. They say the characters are underdeveloped, the ethical issues are unexplored, the plots are underbaked. So they write their own versions of the story or fill in missing scenes.

T3: Oh, I know! The female lead is kind of a tomboy. But she also wears stiletto heels everywhere, and her hair is always long and lustrous.

T2: There you go. See? It isn’t hard to make her complex.

A link between depression and inflammation?

A recent Science Alert article announced the results of a large study involving close to 86,000 people in the UK: There’s an association between a higher risk of depression and a higher level of bodily inflammation.

What does this mean?

We don’t know. I love how, like most of science journalism, a bold and promising headline gives way to paragraphs of doubt and descriptions of methodological limitations.

An association between depression and inflammation in the body may mean that one increases the risk of the other, or that there’s another factor (or factors) contributing to both.

You can think of some plausible scenarios that tie the two together. For example, someone with depression may eat more poorly, and maybe their poor diet elevates their levels of bodily inflammation. But we don’t yet understand the mechanisms at play, and jumping to conclusions may put people in harm’s way (for instance, if they try to treat their depression with anti-inflammatory meds).

That said, eating a more nutritious diet is a good decision to make regardless of the relationship between depression and inflammation. And it’s interesting to follow research that explores the interaction of mental and physical health. Many people impose a barrier between brain/mind and body, but our brain is a part of our body, and our systems are complex.

In defense of the ordinary (responding to a comparison of Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre)

I was recently talking to a friend about books, and she said that Jane Eyre (of Charlotte Bronte’s novel) has a much stronger character and more interesting story than Elizabeth Bennet (of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). What’s the point of reading about an Elizabeth Bennet, when you can read about a heroine like Jane Eyre?

It’s true that Jane Eyre overcomes more difficulties than Elizabeth Bennet and has more self-possession, perceptiveness, and moral integrity. But why even compare these two characters? I’m not sure.

They come from very different novels. Different in tone, style, subject matter, scope, time period, and authorial intention. Also, the fact that Elizabeth doesn’t have Jane Eyre’s moral or intellectual stature doesn’t matter. She isn’t meant to be like Jane Eyre.

Elizabeth has ordinary imperfections and leads an ordinary life for a woman of her social class. That’s part of what makes her story interesting.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

One of the reasons I appreciate Jane Austen’s writing is because she understood that the ordinary can make a huge difference. The commonplace decisions you make and small-scale dilemmas you face are part of the moral fabric of your life.

Austen understood the power of a remark spoken in a thoughtless or bad-tempered way – how much it can hurt someone, damage a relationship, or project a bad impression of yourself. She understood what can happen when you fail to put your pride aside, when you give unhelpful advice, or when you form an impression of someone’s character too quickly and in a limited context.

Something small-scale can still produce a good deal of misery. Or it can bring joy to people, if you behave with integrity and with consideration for them.

Austen’s novels do have some heightened drama as well – like Wickham running off with Lydia. But even the more dramatic incidents stem from so-called small or ordinary decisions.

For example, Lydia gets into the sort of trouble she’s in partly because of her parents’ carelessness in letting her travel when she’s clearly not mature and well-behaved. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet aren’t abusive parents. They aren’t extreme in their behavior. They’re silly (Mrs. Bennet) and largely uninvolved (Mr. Bennet). These milder weaknesses in character still have a huge impact on Lydia’s life, and the lives of all the Bennet sisters.

Similarly, when Austen explores marriage compatibility, she doesn’t focus on the more extreme cases of terrible marriages (like when a wife is locked in an attic). She presents more commonplace problems, like when a spouse is consistently selfish, coldly overbearing, or gratingly pompous (so they’re monologuing at the table while you try not to carve out your ear drums with a dessert spoon). Or maybe your spouse is more shallow than you or shares few of your values, to the extent that you can barely have a conversation with them or see eye-to-eye on anything.

Most people aren’t going to face the kind of dramatic decisions that Jane Eyre needs to make. And even if they do, most of their lives will still be made of more ordinary but still meaningful moments.

A lack of appreciation for the ordinary can lead to callousness. For instance, there are people who say they love humanity and want to aid humanity – but they’re rude to their waiter, unfair to their employees, dismissive of their friends, and indifferent to their spouse and kids.

I’m not writing this post to criticize people’s feelings about fictional characters. It’s fine to have a preference for different kinds of novels, or to love more than one kind of fictional character. You don’t have to read and enjoy Austen. As for Charlotte Bronte’s works, I prefer Villette (largely because of how she wrote the first-person narration). In any case, I think Austen’s understanding of human nature in more ordinary contexts is one of reasons her books are enjoyable and valuable.

(The image is from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the left is Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle. On the right, the inimitable Mr. Collins, played by David Bamber.)

10 Writing Nightmares

A version of this was published on an older (now defunct) blog of mine. Enjoy! And let me know if these bring up any bad memories.

1) Misspelling the name of the person you’re writing to in an email or cover letter.

2) Producing an embarrassing typo for a word like ‘batch,’ ‘feckless,’ or ‘public.’

3) Putting the finishing touches on a 10-page essay, only to re-read the essay question and realize you didn’t answer it.

4) Repeatedly misusing ‘matriculate,’ ‘genuflect,’ ‘obfuscate,’ or any other polysyllabic word that was supposed to make you sound smart.

5) That brilliant manifesto/sonnet/one-act play you wrote last night? What it looks like the next morning.

6) Working on a 5000-word paper that’s due in less than 24 hours and based on volumes of source material you haven’t yet read.

7) Forgetting to delete something from your submitted work, such as a note you left for yourself. (“What am I even talking about?” or “Find source to back up this nonsense.”)

8) Basing the central argument of your essay on a logical fallacy or on your misreading of another person’s work.

9) Running out of ideas.

10) Submitting a piece of writing before you’ve fini