Scroll Smarter to Protect Your Mental Health

Social Media Networks May Have a Dark Side
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Social media platforms offer a way to connect with others -- long-lost friends, busy family members, and neighbors. So, why do you sometimes feel deflated after spending time online?

Social media might not be the problem. The issue might be how you're using it, says Jacqueline Sperling, the co-program director of McLean's Anxiety Mastery Program and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.


Research has found associations between social media and negative mental health effects in youth, says Sperling. Although there's less research in adults, some shows similar links, she says.

One November 2021 study, published online by JAMA Network Open, found a connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in adults. Researchers looked at Internet survey data collected between May 2020 and May 2021 among more than 5,300 adults (average age about 56). Participants filled out at least two surveys. None of those included in the study reported symptoms of depression in the first survey. But those who used social media were more likely to report an increase in depressive symptoms on subsequent surveys than those who didn't.

"Although the research found associations and not causes, it's possible that some types of social media use are linked with negative effects on one's mood across a wide range of the life span," says Sperling.


Although social media may take a toll on your mood, it doesn't always do so, says Sperling. There is evidence that online social interactions even have mood benefits for some users. The question is, why is social media harmful in some instances but not in others?

The difference may relate to whether you engage in active, self-oriented activities or those that are passive and other-oriented, says Sperling.

Activities that are active and self-oriented, such as sending a direct message to a friend or updating a profile picture, are less likely to have worsen mood, says Sperling. But the opposite might be true for passive or other-oriented practices, such as looking through social media posts. This type of scrolling creates opportunities for social comparison, she says. Did someone else's photos get more likes? Did their post attract more positive comments? Why do they get to experience exciting travel adventures while you're sitting at home?

If you've noticed that you feel worse after using social media, there are things that you can do to improve your experience without giving it up entirely, says Sperling.

Track your feelings. First, identify how social media use makes you feel, says Sperling. Rate your emotional state on a scale of 0 to 10 before and after using social media. (A 10 signifies the most intense emotion, for example, extremely happy, anxious, or sad.) Also, note whether you engaged in more passive or active use during the session.

If you find that your online time left you feeling more upset, angry, or worried than you were beforehand, it might be time to make some changes, she says. Here are some possibilities:

Frame the experience. People typically don't post the full range of their real-life experiences on social media, says Sperling. People can use filters on photos to make themselves appear more attractive than they are in real life, and they may carefully curate their online image. When you find yourself feeling jealous, remember that there's likely a lot that you're not seeing. Although someone may post pictures of her recent trip, you won't see the fight she had with her partner at the airport, or the strained relationship she has with the daughter she was visiting. Reminding yourself of this can help limit the urge to compare yourself to others.

Curate your feed. Consider being more selective about what you expose yourself to. For example, do you have a friend whose posts consistently make you feel jealous or angry? Instead of enduring content that bothers you, use the "unfollow" or "mute" option that's available on some social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This allows you to stay friends, but you don't have to see the person's posts, unless you deliberately view them. Sometimes removing a few problematic people from view makes the experience healthier, says Sperling.

Activate your experience. Instead of passively scrolling, use social media to bolster your real-life relationships. Send direct messages to friends or family members to stay in touch. Also, use social media to identify opportunities to socialize in real life. For example, if you see a post about an upcoming event from a restaurant you follow, invite a friend to attend, says Sperling.

Choose your battles. Social media sometimes becomes a forum to hash out contentious subjects, and emotions can quickly boil over. Consider having these conversations in person instead of online, says Sperling. Tensions tend to escalate more quickly when people are communicating electronically. People may say things while using a keyboard that they would never say during a face-to-face interaction. If the person you are engaging with isn't a close connection, consider whether it's worth discussing a controversial or emotional subject at all, says Sperling. Sometimes it's better to walk away.

Keep perspective. Be conscious of how much energy you're devoting to social media. Some people spend an excessive amount of time creating the "perfect" post. If this sounds like you, consider setting some limits or modifying your use. For example, if you really like to share photos of restaurant meals that you enjoy, take the picture, says Sperling. But don't post it until you get home. Time spent posting the photo at the restaurant and checking for "likes" takes away from time that is better spent focusing on your dining companion.

Examine your motivations. If your online habits are detracting from your personal relationships, consider the root cause.

"What is it that you're seeking? Are you looking for validation that is missing from somewhere else in your life? Is something missing from your real-life social connections?" asks Sperling. "The answers to these questions may help you take steps to enrich your in-person interactions and rely less on those on social media."

This article was originally published by Harvard Health.

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