Social media and mental health

Social media has become a part of most of our lives – from Twitter and Facebook to Instagram and TikTok. We’re all (well, many of us) now virtually connected 24/7 with our friends, friends of friends, followers and with many people we may not even know. Anything we say, do, have an opinion on, places we’ve been to or things we’ve done can now be the knowledge of anyone choosing to read it.

We can communicate easily and freely with people across the world in ways like never before – something which has been very valuable in the time of lockdowns and travel restrictions – staying in contact with family and friends, exchanging views and knowledge with people we will probably never meet, engaging directly with well-known persons and holding organisations to account in ways which we would never have had the opportunity to do so – and not so many years ago.

Staying connected and being able to share views and experiences so easily is a positive thing, and for some it can provide a vital lifeline in reducing loneliness, building self-esteem and reducing depression and anxiety – but for others, it can be very damaging if it is misused and abused and used too frequently to the point where the real world and virtual world merge. When this happens, the seemingly perfect lives of others become a point of reference and can give rise to feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Unfortunately, for some the opportunity to comment on someone’s appearance, views or behaviour in a faceless way – and probably things they would never have the courage to say to someone’s face – is irresistible and gives them free licence to say whatever they want and however they want with little comeback and few consequences. What is often forgotten is that at the end of their comments is a human being.

It takes a lot of courage and a thick skin to be able to ignore and shrug off a negative personal comment put out on social media – even more so if it runs into dozens or hundreds of comments. For some, it can prove too much and the effects on mental health can become overwhelming. Cases in point particularly are those of young people, who have tragically ended their own lives because of personal comments or bullying online, and of high-profile public figures such as celebrities and politicians who have either deleted their social media accounts or decided to withdraw from public life altogether.

Social media can be bad for your mental health, but only if it is allowed to be. It can be a very positive thing, but like most things, you can have too much of a good thing and it is important to find a balance. Limiting the use of social media can help to remain grounded in the real world, rather than living in the virtual, often false world of social media for too long. Treating social media as just one way to connect with people but balancing it with face-to-face contact (of course if lockdown restrictions allow) can be a good way of staying in touch but without losing a sense of the real world. And if we do encounter negativity online, there are things we can do to combat the negative effects and maintain good mental well-being: keeping a sense of proportion by talking with a trusted friend; taking control by de-friending those who use social media in a negative and harmful way; and perhaps taking a break from social media or even ceasing to use it altogether.

Sometimes, the old-fashioned ways of interacting face to face or over the phone are best in building and maintaining real and lasting relationships. Embracing the new world of social media and technology do have their role to play in today’s world, but knowing when and how to control their use are key in maintaining good mental well-being.

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