How many times do you check Facebook in a day? What about Snapchat or Instagram? If you were told that you couldn’t log onto any social media platform for an entire day, how would you react?

Today, social media is a fact of life. Most of us are active on various social media platforms and spend a considerable amount of time on it – 135 minutes per day on average, according to some studies! The rise in social media use has naturally led many people to ask the question – what is it doing to our mental health? 

The results have been mixed. On the one hand, a few studies have shown that social media use can help you feel good about yourself and can also make you more creative! Yet, other studies have shown that using social media can actually increase levels of stress and depression.  

To get a clearer understanding of the link between social media and your mental health, let’s go back to the questions in the beginning. Of all the time you spend on social media, how much do you use to passively scroll through your newsfeed or browse through your friend’s pictures?

If you are like most others, it’s likely you do this quite a lot. This is known as Passive Social Media Use (PSMU). Interestingly, it’s this passive use of social media that is bad news for your mental health. Studies have linked PSMU to several negative effects, such as poorer mental health, loneliness, and lesser satisfaction. In fact, PSMU can also create feelings of inferiority, which could contribute to sadness and even depression. 

Have you ever felt a pang of jealousy while browsing through social media, wishing you could do all the fun things that others seem to be doing? Social media platforms make it easy for you to compare your life with those of others – especially your peers. Depending on how fortunate or unfortunate you think others are, as compared to you, you might end up feeling better or worse about your own life. 

Now this could mean that you are as likely to experience a positive emotion as a negative emotion, but the truth is that much of what you see on social media highlights the positive or desirable aspects of other people’s lives. After all, you are more likely to see posts about an exotic vacation, a group lunch, or an engagement party as compared to a dull day at work in front of the laptop. And this is no coincidence: people choose their Facebook and Instagram photos very carefully, in order to feel good about themselves and display a positive image of themselves and their lives to others.

Unless you are very secure and satisfied with where you are in life (and if you are, that’s great!), it is highly likely that seeing such updates can result in a host of negative effects – jealousy (“I wish I had what they have”), low self-esteem (“I’m not good enough”), and even dissatisfaction with the way you look (“I am not thin or fit enough”). These negative thoughts can actually intensify feelings of depression and make it much harder for you to feel better.

In many cases, you may try to curate your own social media feed in an attempt to display a positive image of yourself and to overcome your insecurities. You may take countless photographs and only post those which you think are the best. You may also post your daily activities, thoughts, feelings and opinions on your social media. This can make it hard for you to switch off – even mentally – from such platforms.

Spending all your time scrolling through social media – or obsessively curating your feed so that people think you are living an exciting life – can be exhausting. If you tend to prioritise your social media interactions even when you are physically surrounded by people who may want to spend time with you, you might miss out on the joys of real-life interaction. In fact, studies have shown that high social media usage can actually increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.

So how can you stop this negative spiral? How can you protect your mental health from social media usage? Let’s take a look at some strategies. 

Monitor your usage

If you find that spending time on social media is affecting you negatively, you might want to start monitoring your usage. Keep a track of how much time you spend on social media platforms – from your phone AND your laptop/PC. You can make this process easier by using apps and plugins that are freely available online and that accurately track how much time you spend on different applications on your phone/laptop. Awareness is key; having an understanding of your social media usage can help you take steps to keep it in check. 

Schedule social media time

If you find yourself scrolling through social media at random times during the day, you could benefit from blocking time each day for social media. This can help you strike a balance between being on social media and doing other things in your day. Set aside time to surf your feed – you can even dedicate multiple chunks of time in the day (for instance, 20 minutes in the morning, afternoon, and night). Avoid notifications – and if possible, block them – at other times.

Find time to unplug each day

In addition to scheduling time for social media, be proactive about incorporating multiple “detox” periods in your day. These can be even 10-minute periods in the day where you switch off your notifications/phone or shut down your laptop and do nothing related to technology. Give your mind a break from the constant influx of information that it gets when you are on social media. This can help you protect your mood, energy and productivity levels.

Know why you’re using social media

Whenever you feel the urge to reach out for your phone and check what’s new on Facebook or Snapchat, ask yourself, “Why do I want to go online?” Try and understand your reasons. If you are going on social media because you are bored, find something else to do that can be engaging and requires your active participation. If you are feeling distressed, try to first acknowledge your feelings. While it’s okay to use social media to distract yourself sometimes, doing this each time you are in distress can prevent you from actually working through your negative emotions, which can then build up over time.

Focus on yourself

It’s important to recognise the distinction between reel life and real life. Remember, not all that glitters you see on social media is actually gold. When you find yourself comparing your life to someone else’s, take a moment to pause. Remember that nobody’s life is perfect – and even if someone’s is, your time and effort would be better spent working on improving yourself and your own life. There is always someone better off and someone worse off than you – so the best thing is to focus on yourself instead of comparing your life to that of others.

Seek professional help

If you are unable to make changes by yourself, speaking to a psychological expert might help you. With the support of a professional, you can learn strategies to manage your social media use, build your self-esteem, and work on negative thoughts that might be causing distress. You can reach out to trained therapists on various online counselling platforms for support.

If you find that you have been spending an excessive amount of time on social media, and/or that it’s affecting your mental well-being, then it might be time to re-evaluate your habits and find a healthy balance. Pick the strategies that you think will work for you and take action to keep your social media usage in check.