Just recently, Instagram sensation Essena O’Neill announced that she was quitting social media. In her official Instagram statement, O’Neill says, “I’m quitting Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Deleted over 2000 photos here today that served no real purpose other than self-promotion. Without realizing, I’ve spent majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance. Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, and success in followers.”
O’Neill had a following of more than half a million people, and could make nearly $2000 a day from her various posts. She says that she made the decision to quit social media because she felt a life built on getting ‘likes’ was harmful and became too much to handle. “I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention,” she stated in an emotional video thanking her followers and telling them there really is more to life than likes.
O’Neill’s journey from a young and popular social media influencer to someone who now identifies with the symptoms of depression and anxiety really raised the question- is social media harmful to our mental health?
Like O’Neill, today’s teenagers spend hours a day on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Can these sites be harmful to the average teen? “It’s inevitable that anxiety is going to be there, especially with young people who don’t have a clear sense of identity. If you grow up knowing ‘this is what I’m good at, this is what I’m not, or this is what I like about myself’, you’ve got that stronger baseline of characteristics to define you. If you don’t have that, it makes you feel much more insecure,” psychologist, Dr. Linda Papadopoulos says about the use of social media. When you put yourself out there as a teen, you open yourself up to extreme scrutiny. This can be harmful to the still developing teen mind.
Social media is also a contributor to emotional stress. A study done in Australia revealed that the fear of missing out, or “FOMO,” and the anxiety caused by our constant attachment to social media, is sending social media users stress levels sky high. The Stress and Wellbeing in Australia Survey 2015 found that around half of Australian teens feel their peers have more rewarding experiences than them because of what they post on social media, which cause them great anxiety. A report from the Australian Psychology Society said that close to 60 percent of teens have difficulty sleeping and relaxing after having accessed a social media site and a similar number are feeling burnt out from the constant connectivity.
In the UK, at the University of Glasgow, researchers provided questionnaires to 467 students between the ages of 11 and 17 regarding nighttime usage of social media. The researchers also probed the students regarding their habits through tests that assessed the quality of sleep, self-esteem, anxiety, depression and emotional investment in relation to social media use. They also concluded that FOMO was a serious issue amongst teens. According to their findings, the “pressure to be available 24/7” and the perceived necessity of “responding to posts or texts immediately can increase anxiety.” This team found that the teens who were more active and emotionally invested in their digital worlds were reporting that they had lower self-esteem, a poor sleep quality, and a higher amount of depression and anxiety when compared to their peers who spent less time on social media sites. Basically, they found that spending more time on social media sites made teens more susceptible to increased anxiety and depression.
So, what can be done to help our teens navigate the social media world in a more mentally positive way? Here are some tips:
1. Stop the use of social media at least one to two hours before bedtime. Dr. Heather Cleland Woods, one of the lead researchers on the University of Glasgow study, stated that “while overall social media use impacts on sleep quality, those who log on at night appear to be particularly affected.” She continued to say, “This may be mostly true of individuals who are highly emotionally invested. This means we have to think about how our kids use social media, in relation to time for switching off.” The brain needs time to disconnect from the digital world. Take the time to read a book, write in a journal, or simply relax to some of your favorite tunes.
2. Experience life in real time, not through a screen. When you make plans with friends and family be sure to stay present. Keep off of your smart phone, tablet, and computer and spend real face to face time with the people in your life. Have you been to a mall lately? How many times have you seen a group of teens all hanging around together, but most have their noses in a phone rather than interacting with the people around them? Teens today are missing out on the world around them because they have their heads buried in their digital world. By living life in real time and not through a screen, you are more connected with how you are feeling and what you are doing – which will relieve any feelings of anxiety or stress you may be hanging on to.
3. Know what is appropriate and inappropriate to share on-line. Make sure that kids and teens understand what is safe and appropriate to post on line. It is important that they understand that once something is on-line, it is on-line to stay. Teach them the value of positive and kind words and tell them if they need to vent out frustrations, that is probably best done in the privacy of a journal and not on Facebook or whatever site they are on. Make it a priority to be a part of their social media life so you can help them if/when they or someone else crosses a line.
4. Take a day or two a week to disconnect completely. Keep all temptation tucked away. Get a group together to go places where hiding on-line isn’t an option. Escape to the wilderness, take a hike, have a picnic. You could even try one of these fun group date ideas, just remember, no social media, really go out there and live life! Psychology Today states that. “We all need a little room to breathe and get a fresh perspective now and again. Give yourself space to grow, and discover who you truly are. Remember that what you see on social media isn’t necessarily a true depiction of a person’s life.” When no longer distracted by social media, you will be happier, less anxious and more motivated to get out and enjoy real life.