Social media is evolving, with the major platforms constantly offering new tools and features to attract and retain their users. Facebook has a live-streaming feature. Instagram has Stories. Twitter has the President’s tweets. Well, maybe that last one isn’t part of the evolution. But it’s certainly one of the aspects of social media that keeps us all spending time on it. In fact, the amount of time people spend on social media is consistently increasing. Teens spend a staggering 9 hours a day using social media – and some 13-year olds even check their social media accounts 100 times a day. A report from earlier this year noted that 69% of all U.S. adults are now social media users, often making social media a core part of their daily routine.
It’s understandable why social media has become such an integral factor in our day-to-day lives. It’s become the de facto way that many of us seek news updates, find entertainment, and even communicate with each other. But does all of the “liking,” “following,” and “commenting” means we are truly connecting with each other?
Social connection is a healthy and necessary part of the human experience. A number of studies have examined the benefits of social ties, finding that people with strong social connections have lower levels of anxiety and depression, a stronger immune system, faster recovery times from illness, and even an increased chance of longevity. And on the flip-side, studies have also shown that a lack of social connection is correlated with lower self-esteem, a lower sense of empathy for others, vulnerability to disease, higher blood pressure and an increased risk of depression.
But where does social media fit into all this? Does it count as a legitimate means of connection to others? Or is it actually isolating us even more than we even realize?
WHAT WE KNOW ALREADY
There have been a number of studies examining the consequences of social comparison – something most of us have experience with. One moment you’re scrolling innocently through a friend’s feed, then next thing you know you’re 4 months deep looking at their tropical vacation photos, wondering why you haven’t gone anywhere in years and why it’s taking so long to get your life on track so that you can actually take that trip you’ve been talking about for nearly a decade now.
Social comparison can also rear its ugly head when we start to compare our bodies and appearance to others, tearing ourselves down in the process. A study out of the UK surveyed 1500 Facebook and Twitter users, finding that 62% of the group reported feeling inadequate and 60% reported feelings of jealousy from comparing themselves to other users.
Even though we all know people strive to create that “picture perfect” life on social media, only posting photos that they want others to see – we still judge ourselves against that standard.
Previous research has also revealed that social media could potentially:
Of course, there are some skeptics who maintain that only those with lower self-esteem will be negatively impacted by social comparison. And some studies found social media has benefited relationships by reinforcing connections made in real life – which makes sense, particularly when you are staying in touch with old friends whom you would otherwise have little to no contact with.
Still, a recent study that examined Facebook use and well-being suggests that social media, in large part, may be doing more harm than good.
The study looked at over 5,000 adults from across the country to see how their mental and their physical health changed over time in association with Facebook activity over the course of two years. Their metrics for well-being included: life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health and BMI (body mass index). Their metrics for Facebook use included: liking posts, creating posts and clicking on links. The researchers also had measures of the participant’s real-world social networks.
The study distinguishes itself from past research by its comprehensive analysis and multi-dimensional approach – using three waves of data over a period of two years, implementing objective measures of Facebook use, and integrating information about the participant’s real-world social networks which allowed them to directly compare face-to-face networks and online interactions.
What they found was astonishing: where face-to-face social interactions were positively correlated with overall well-being, Facebook activity was negatively associated. The results were especially telling when it came to mental health:
“Most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health and life satisfaction,” said the authors of the study, Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis.
The verdict on just why this correlation exists is still out. Researchers cannot say definitively why it occurs. But while prior research argued that it’s the quality of time spent on social media that really matters, Shakya and Christakis showed that it’s also the quantity of social media interactions that play a role. So it’s not just screen time that impacts our well-being, but the fact that we replace meaningful social interaction with social media.
In short – social media is not a substitute for real world, face-to-face interactions with others.
With the average Facebook user spending nearly an hour on the site every day, and many of us checking social media apps almost immediately after we wake up every morning – it’s time we start assessing the influence social media is having in our lives. While it certainly has its merits and its allure, it may be hurting us in ways that we have yet to actively realize. But by becoming more aware of its impact, we can begin to take more proactive measures that allow us to be more in control of our health and our well-being.
All of this is not to say that there’s no benefit to social media—obviously it keeps us connected across great distances, and helps us find people we’d lost touch with years ago. But getting on social when you have some time to kill, or, worse, need an emotional lift, is very likely a bad idea. And studies have found that taking a break from Facebook helps boost psychological well-being. If you’re feeling brave, try taking a little break, and see how it goes. And if you’re going to keep “using,” then at least try to use in moderation.