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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?