By Rachel Welch
In 2021, it is likely that most of us will spend time using social media. From Facebook to Instagram, to Twitter, Pinterest, and beyond, strong attachments to social media have increased in recent years. This increase in popularity has led to an increase in social media research, and with all of the information that exists on the topic, it brings forth a pressing question: how can we have a healthy relationship with social media?
Social media affects the brain in interesting ways. For example, we know that our brains treat our phones and devices like dopamine machines! Dopamine is one of the chemicals in our brain that is released when we engage in something rewarding (1). This is important because, in the case of our relationship with social media, dopamine is released when we are "rewarded" by the likes and hearts of Facebook and Instagram. Thanks to dopamine, those colorful little buttons and accompanying “dings” trigger the rewarding feeling of social approval.
Unfortunately, social media isn't all happy brain chemicals and rainbows. One study found a strong correlation between depression and time spent on social media. Included in this was the effect of "FOMO" (fear of missing out), and critical self-comparison. This correlation did not exist when analyzing time spent doing other things, like watching television, for example (2). Because we know that social media use can have a dark side, it is important to be thoughtful when using our dopamine machines. How can we maintain a healthy relationship with social media?
Researchers agree that the amount of time spent on social media makes a difference. Limiting our use of our dopamine-rewarding apps will help lessen some of the negative impacts of social media. In addition to causing self-comparison and stress, excess screen time is also known to cause headaches, migraines, and vision issues (3). There are some nutritional approaches that can combat this, such as taking supplements. (Electrolytes, magnesium, sodium, and potassium can help). Behaviorally, to reduce the likelihood of headaches and migraines, we should reduce overall screen exposure (4). One study suggests that 30 minutes of screen time per day might be a good balance. Within their group of participants, there was "significant improvement in well-being" noted for those who reduced their social media time to 30 minutes a day or less. This included a reduction in participants' loneliness, anxiety, and depression (5). It seems that limiting time spent online may be key when it comes to the health of our relationship with social media. In addition to the amount of time that we spend online, we should also be mindful of what content our apps expose us to.
Maybe using social media is a way that you like to unwind. Perhaps playing games, scrolling through feeds, and looking at friends' wedding photos brings you joy. If so, then wonderful! 30 minutes or less of that can be relaxing and rewarding. However, if what you find in your social media feed is causing stress, anxiety, or negative emotions, it may be time to consider stepping away.
You may have heard the phrase, "garbage in, garbage out." We know that the foods and drinks that we consume each day have great potential to impact our health and how we feel. For instance, if we take our vitamins and drink enough water, we will be healthier than if we only drink soda and eat fast food. Similarly, our consumed social media content can directly impact how we feel.
I’m sure there are many times that we have all found heated and emotionally charged debates on social media platforms. We can guess from reading the comments that the individuals involved were likely experiencing some very real, psychological stress while they typed up their words. We have all also probably encountered an article on current events or a controversial post that stirred up stress within us while we were scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. Perhaps social media alerted us to a dear friend who lost their job during the pandemic, causing us to feel sadness or stress for their situation. While content online can serve us well with positive news, a fun game, or enjoyable communication with friends, it is important to remember that the content that we consume also has the potential to disrupt our peace (6). We should remain mindful and in control of the online content that we consume and step away when it is causing more stress than peace.
Social media can be a helpful and fun way to connect with others and stay up-to-date on current events. While we can appreciate the benefits of our digital age and the worldwide connection that it can bring, we also must remain mindful about maintaining balance. To ensure our overall health and wellbeing, and to ensure a healthy relationship with social media, we may need to make some adjustments. Limiting our screen time to 30 minutes or less per day may help reduce the likelihood of migraines, headaches, FOMO, and stress. Considering and controlling the quality of content that we consume may help us to keep the relationship positive and relaxing. By implementing these tactics, we can help to ensure a healthy relationship with social media. Hopefully, with these mindful practices, we can reap the benefits of social media, while we maintain our overall health and balance.