“Just a quick break,” I would tell myself after a good span of time being productive. As an instinctual reward, I would switch my gaze from my computer screen to my phone screen and click on the little icons of social media.

A “quick break” would then become half an hour (or much more on many occasions) of mindless scrolling, being fed status updates, articles, photos, and videos specifically designed in an algorithm to keep me tethered in.

Eventually, my handy digital calendar would alert me of a meeting, class, or other outside obligation that would force my gaze away from my phone and back into everyday life where I would be reminded that connecting to nature and humans in real life was much more rewarding than staying in the virtual world of social media.

That was, before COVID-19 led to a quarantine and social distancing guidelines which forced us to connect virtually at much higher rates than ever before.

For several months after COVID hit, safety guidelines necessitated that all of my work meetings, dance rehearsals, workout classes, social hangouts, and family gatherings including birthday parties and funerals were virtual. As a mental health professional and wellness educator, I knew the toll this much screen time would have on my mental health. Finding that balance, however, of what to say “no” to was really difficult at a time when meeting virtually was the main way we were able to receive the social connection we were all craving.

Furthermore, while deprived of human connection and frequently resorting to virtual means of communication, we experienced several factors leading to higher amounts of emotional unrest and an even deeper need for validation and connection. This includes the many deaths (COVID related and non-COVID related) of people we knew personally and/or who had significant influence in our culture, a continuation of racial injustices both unseen and spotlighted by re-traumatizing videos followed by a mixture of responses felt and heard across the world, an ever-evolving understanding of the science behind COVID and therefore an ever-evolving set of guidelines to follow, a contentious election year, and a large variety of media headlines and opinion pieces.

It’s the perfect storm of deprivation of in-person connection and increase in emotional unrest that is now bursting at the virtual seams of social media usage.

And it’s imperative for our mental, emotional, and social wellbeing that we redefine our relationship with it.

Let’s go back for a second to a statement from earlier. In my life before COVID, a quick social media break would easily become half an hour or more of mindless scrolling of content specifically designed in an algorithm to keep me tethered in, specifically and intentionally designed to give me a hit of dopamine, quietly becoming addicting and equivalent to a technological pacifier. It seemed innocent then.

But now, after months of relying on virtual connection during an emotional and mental rollercoaster of a year, what has social media become for us? What has it done to us on an individual and social level?

I don’t have the answers of the long-term effects, but I have seen in the short-term that social media has become an unhealthy platform for many of us.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe there are benefits to social media as laid out below. However, like many things in life, too much of a good thing can become unhealthy especially when utilized in ways we know are not good for us.

In case it’s helpful for you to dive deeper into this, let’s take a quick look at some of those pros and cons of social media usage. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list and could arguably be altered significantly depending on individual preferences and experiences.

Pros:

  • It can be a tool for connecting with people who do not live near us and/or for reconnecting with people we have not seen in a long time
  • It can be a source of gathering information about people’s lives, ideas, cares, etc. that they chose to share publicly that we can then celebrate or support in some fashion
  • Likewise, it can be a space for us to share our life updates, ideas, questions, etc. as a means of receiving validation and support from friends and followers
  • It can be a source of joy and entertainment as we indulge in content that makes us laugh or feel good
  • It can be a space of collective emotional and mental healing, learning, processing, sharing, supporting, validating, rallying, surveying, and empowering of one another around a common goal (however, this can be a double edged sword…)

Cons:

  • Outside of privacy settings, we do not have the ability to regulate what shows up on our feeds which has the potential for manipulation, temptation, traumatization, etc.
  • It feeds our need for praise which can lead us to create false virtual personas and say or do things that are harmful to ourselves and others (Examples – display performative actions around real issues, create comparison traps, engage in cyberbullying, etc.)
  • It’s easy to repost alarming and/or false headlines without considering repercussions
  • It can be distracting and addicting while also feeding our need for instantaneous gratification which can lead to a general decrease in focus and increase in adult attention deficit disorder
  • Our brains can’t differentiate between work and non-work screen time which means when we’re “resting” or “taking a break” but still using our computers or phones, our brains aren’t actually getting the homeostasis rest it needs to perform efficiently and effectively later on
  • And, it can be a space of collective emotional and mental learning, processing, sharing, supporting, validating, rallying, surveying, and empowering of one another around a common goal… one which could have the intention of doing harm to ourselves or others (a.k.a. the aforementioned double edged sword)

I’m sure you could add or take away from this list. The point is, are we being intentional and mindful around our social media usage? Are we aware of how we are contributing to social media and if our contribution is harmful to ourselves and/or others? Are our online personas authentic to who we are in person? Will we stand by our posts and online decisions twenty years from now?

These are the questions you and I should probably be cognizant of as we engage with people online. Not just for our relationships and social health, but for our mental health as well.

If you’re not sure how your social media use is affecting you, then over the next week, create regular check-ins with yourself. Here are some items to consider:

  • How did I feel before using it?
  • What was my intention with getting on social media in that moment – to connect with a specific person, to catch up on common public thought around a particular topic, to post something, to take a break from other work? Was there a more effective way I could have accomplished that goal without using social media?
  • Was I using social media as a crutch or pacifier to avoid or sooth away other issues in my life?
  • Did my usage match my intention or did I end up down a rabbit hole? How much time was given to that rabbit hole? Was this how I preferred to spend my time?
  • Were there significant changes to my mood throughout my time on social media?
  • How did I feel after using it and is that a feeling that serves me and others well?

Depending on how you answer these questions, it may be time to engage in alternative approaches in your use of social media such as setting time boundaries or unfollowing pages that negatively affect your mental health.

Remember, using social media is not bad in and of itself. I really believe it can be used in beneficial and meaningful ways individually and collectively, especially in a year such as this with fewer in-person interactions and higher needs for connection. With that said, when it comes to protecting and enhancing our mental health, our social media use may need to be examined. Like most things, balance and intention are keys to building a healthier life, not just offline, but online as well.

Lisa Linger
NCC, Director, Mental Health in Motion