We often hear about the negative effects of social media on our well-being, but we don’t usually think about it the other way around – which can affect how we feel about how we use social media. Huh.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I examined the relationship between social media use and well-being in more than 7,000 adults over four years, using survey responses from the Longitudinal New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study.
We found that social media use and well-being interact with each other. Poor well-being – specifically higher psychological distress and lower life satisfaction – predicted higher social media use one year later, and higher social media use predicted poorer well-being a year later.
a vicious circle
Interestingly, wellbeing influencers use social media more than other methods.
Being distressed from “no distress” to “some of the time”, or from “some of the time” to “most of the time”, was associated with an additional 27 minutes of daily social media use a year later. These findings were similar for men and women of all age groups.
This suggests that people who have poor well-being may be turning to social media more, perhaps as a coping mechanism – but it is not helping. Unfortunately, and paradoxically, turning to social media can worsen the feelings and symptoms one is hoping to avoid.
Our study found that high social media use results in poor well-being, which in turn increases social media use, exacerbates existing negative emotions, and so on. This creates a vicious circle in which people seem to be trapped.
If you think this may describe your relationship with social media, there are a few strategies you can use to try to break out of this vicious circle.
Reflect on how and why you use social media
Social media isn’t inherently bad, but how and why we use them is really important – even more so than how much time we spend on social media. For example, the use of social media to interact with others or for entertainment has been linked to better well-being, whereas comparisons on social media can be detrimental to well-being.
So chat with your friends and watch funny dog videos to your heart’s content, but just watch out for those comparisons.
What we see online is also important. One experimental study found that exposure to “fitspiration” images (such as slim/toned people in exercise clothing or engaging in fitness) for just ten minutes compared women exposed to travel images. I have a bad mood and body image.
And mindless scrolling can be harmful too. Research shows that passive use of social media is more harmful to well-being than active use (such as chatting or chatting with friends).
So be careful how and why you use social media, and how it makes you feel! If most of your use falls under the “harmful” category, that’s a sign to change or reduce your use, or even to take a pause. A 2015 experiment with over 1,000 participants found that taking a break from Facebook for just one week increased life satisfaction.
Don’t let social media displace other activities
Life is all about balance, so make sure you’re still away from your phone doing important activities that support your well-being. Research shows that time spent outdoors, on hobbies or crafts, and engaging in physical activity can help improve your well-being.
So put down your phone and organize a picnic with friends, join a new class, or find a pleasant way to move your body.
address your poor health
According to our findings, it may be useful to think of your own habitual social media use as a symptom of how you are feeling. If your usage shows that you are not in a good place, perhaps you need to identify and address what is bothering you.
The first, very important step is to get help. A great place to start is talking to a health professional such as your general practitioner or doctor. You can also reach out to organizations like Beyond Blue and Headspace for evidence-based support.
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