At COLUMBIA pure we pay careful attention to one of the biggest public health issues today: the impact of social media on mental health. Socialising with friends and family is a much-loved activity and part of human nature, but today’s overemphasis on social media can have consequences. Social media provides many positives, such as being able to communicate with long-distance friends and family, promoting worthwhile causes and raising awareness on important issues. All these aspects of social media play a very important and uplifting role in mental health by allowing people to always feel connected to others. Unfortunately, social media is also addictive and can create stress and many other negative effects. Too much social media use can lead to anxiety, exhaustion, and an increased risk for depression. The fear of missing out (FOMO) may trigger anxiety and fuel addiction, while cyberbullying can lead to suicide. Sharing endless selfies and innermost thoughts on social media can create an unhealthy self-absorption that may result in isolation and loneliness.

Keeping an eye on the factors that compel someone to use social media is a good exercise in figuring out if there is a risk of addiction. One of the biggest reasons people use social media is simply because it is so accessible. With social media platforms on smartphones, tablets, laptops, even work computers, there is almost no way to avoid it. Like other addictions, there are triggers that feed the brain when a person is engaging in posting or sharing or looking for a reaction online. The more a person gets rewarded, the more time they keep spending on social media and it becomes a crutch that may damage other aspects of life.

Signs that social media is impacting mental health include the point when it causes a person to neglect face-to-face relationships, distracts a student or employee from school or work, or creates anger or depression. A telltale sign is when a person is out with real-world friends but can’t stop checking social media. Another sign is when a person keeps comparing themselves unfavourably with others online, or begins to have trouble sleeping.

Here are some ways to modify social media use and improve mental health:

  • Reduce time online. Some studies suggest spending as little as 30 minutes per day online, but any reduction will be useful. Check for apps that track how much time is spent on social media to develop a baseline, then set goals from there.
  • Turn off devices for certain parts of the day and leave them to charge overnight in another room.
  • Disable social media notifications. It’s hard to resist the constant buzzing, beeping, and dinging of a device.
  • Change the focus of activity: Rather than relying on social media for entertainment, go for a walk, have coffee with a friend, exercise, or volunteer for a local charity or cause.
  • Spend more time in face-to-face activities with friends. Human beings need personal contact.

More than anything, as public health professionals we urge everyone to take time for reflection and for feeling gratitude about the positive things in life. Mindfulness exercises help people focus on the here and now in a positive way that lessens the impact of FOMO and improves overall well-being.