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Change is a good thing. It brings fresh perspectives and challenges us to approach our lives in new ways. In the past few decades, the emergence of social media has brought huge changes to our society and culture. These changes have had a drastic impact on the way we communicate with others and how we view ourselves. There are many positives to these changes, including maintaining relationships, finding support, and sharing information. However, there is also a dark side of social media that we have to be aware of.
It can cause feelings of jealousy, allow us to hide behind our screens, and distract us from our real lives. If we use the positive opportunities that social media provides, avoid its negative effects, and use social media in moderation, it can be a powerful and convenient tool that we can use to boost our mental health and happiness.
I know from personal experience that social media can be beneficial if used in the right context.
As a college student, social media has helped me stay connected with my friends and family. Last August, my best friend moved to Boston, Massachusetts to attend Harvard University. We went from living a mile away from each other our entire lives to being separated by twelve-hundred miles. Fortunately, we live in an age where this did not mean our friendship was hindered or had to end because of poor long-distance communication. Through apps like Facetime and Snapchat we have been able to communicate with each other daily and our friendship is still thriving because of it.
Being able to maintain our relationship has greatly reduced the strain of moving to college for both of us.
Even though “getting real social support is important,” social media can “[keep] us connected across great distances” which allows us to stay close to our friends and family (Walton). Preserving these important relationships definitely makes us happier. Social media can keep us connected with our family and friends, but we have to be careful that we do not get false impressions of others’ lives through their online profiles. Studies have shown that social media “triggers feelings of jealousy” (Walton). As we scroll through our social media feeds, we see pictures of others going on vacations, celebrating birthdays, or enjoying time with family. We begin to wonder why everyone else looks like they are having so much fun, but we seem to be just barely getting by. When we begin to think like this, it can lead to depression. But this depression can be avoided by realizing that social media does not show every aspect of people’s lives.
Steven Furtick, New York Times best selling author, says that “we are [struggling] with insecurity because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel” (Parnell). When we realize that everyone struggles, has bad hair days, has problems in relationships, and is not always the perfect person they appear to be on social media, it can bring our expectations back down to reality and we will not be harmed by what we see online. We really have to be conscious about how we perceive our bodies after going on social media. Social media is flooded with images of thin models and filtered selfies. Seeing all of these images that show flawless and often photoshopped bodies can have an effect on our self-esteem. In 2013, researchers “Tiggeman and Slater … found that teenage girls who used Facebook were more concerned about monitoring body appearance, idealizing thinness, and pursuing thinness”.
These issues can lead to the development of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. When we start to compare ourselves to the unrealistic expectations that are set online, it can be detrimental to our self-esteem and lead to unhealthy habits. Again, we have to remind ourselves that social media is not a true representation of reality. Doing so will help us to keep more realistic views and avoid this negative effect of social media. If used in the right way, social media can even have a positive effect on our self-image and personal health. There are various movements on social media “that [encourage] adolescents and teens to have a healthy body image and relationship with food”. There are hashtags such as #foodisfuel and #edrecovery that enable people to form communities as they go through the process of developing healthy eating habits and recovering from eating disorders.
Through these online communities, people are encouraged to be happy with their bodies and live healthy lifestyles. This positive support can boost our self esteem and thus is good for our mental health. Understanding how to deal with social media is a necessary skill because social media is impossible to escape in today’s world. I do not have a Twitter account, but I still hear about what happens on Twitter constantly and there have been times when Twitter posts have affected my life. Last year, I made it to the state finals of the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament. The night before my big match, one of classmates tweeted at my opponent saying that he stood no chance against me.
My opponent tweeted back at my classmate, and they got in a “Twitter fight” which elevated the already bitter rivalry between my opponent and me. I ended up losing, and my opponent intentionally kneed me in the face and then refused to shake my hand after the match. My classmate then fired another shot at my opponent for his unsportsmanship saying he was a “scumbag.” Another “Twitter fight” unfolded over the next few days and eventually, school officials got involved to calm the situation down. I had to go into the principal’s office several times to explain things because I was involved in the situation. Even though I do not have a Twitter account, I still see, hear, and am affected by what happens on Twitter.
This story shows two things. The first being that social media will affect your life in some way. The second being how anonymity has changed the way we interact. The ironic part about my story was that my classmate, the “bully,” weighed a measly ninety pounds, was an avid video game player, and had never stepped foot in or probably even seen our school’s weight room. Whereas my opponent, the “victim,” was as strong as an ox, extremely athletic, and committed to a division one wrestling program. I can guarantee that this confrontation would have gone down differently in person. But behind his computer screen my classmate felt completely safe.
There is a large amount of negative interactions online because it is so easy for people to say bold and harsh things through online messages. In a study conducted by psychological science researchers, it was found that eye contact plays a huge role in how people interact with others (Dawson). When eye contact is not present, verbal aggression is high. It is much easier to send negative messages when we do not see the harm that we are causing to another person. This shows in the statistics for online harassment. Forty percent of adults have experienced online harassment and seventy-three percent have witnessed online harassment. When we are feeling angry with someone, online messaging should not be our first choice of communication. Instead, we should try to meet in person or even video chat online.
When we have eye contact, our interactions will be more personal and we will be less likely to say bold things that will harm others. Understanding when to use different forms of online communication can help us to have better online interactions. The lack of personal connection that comes with online messaging is used in very positive ways by some people. Many people use social media to find online support groups where they can discuss sensitive topics like depression. In these groups, people do not feel embarrassed or anxious because they have a sense of anonymity and “research has shown [that anonymity] can … make people unusually forthcoming”. People do not have to be scared of being judged, which allows them reveal emotional thoughts that they feel too embarrassed to say in person.
Rather than keeping all of their sensitive thoughts inside, they can get them off their chest and find help if they need it. Making use of these important, supportive communities can definitely have a positive effect on mental health for those who need it. We not only have to be cautious about how we use social media, but also how much time we spend using it. When we become obsessed with social media, it can lead to less happiness. I realized this after I went to Riviera Maya, Mexico on a family vacation in high school. On this vacation, while my family and I were doing exciting activities like parasailing, scuba diving, and swimming in the ocean, I was preoccupied with taking videos with my GoPro video camera. I wanted to have awesome shots that I could post online after my trip.
Though I ended up with cool videos that I could show to my friends and look back on and enjoy, taking these videos definitely took away some of the enjoyment that I could have been having in these real-life experiences. Instead of soaking in the awesome views and warm Caribbean air, I was more concerned with making sure I was getting the right angles and that my battery was not going to die. I was forgetting to live in the moment and be happy. When we begin to value social media over real-life experiences, it can be a sign of social media addiction. According to a study from Nottingham Trent University, people who use social networks excessively meet many of the criteria for addiction, “such as neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, … and concealing the addictive behavior”. Every time we gain a like, follower, or are entertained by social media we get a shot of dopamine (a bodily-produced chemical that makes us feel good) which leads to social media addiction.
The instantaneous and easily accessible satisfaction that we can get from social media can drive us to do things we would not regularly do, like obsess over cameras instead of enjoying swimming in the ocean. We have to be cautious that we do not let social media take over our lives. There are ways people can fight social media addiction and learn to use in moderation. As Bailey Parnell, who was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, says in her TEDx Talk about social media, “Recognising a problem is the first step to fixing it”. Many people do not realize they are addicted to social media, and therefore do not take any steps to counteract the addiction.
Recognizing when we are addicted to social media is an important first step, but then we have to take action to stop the addiction. One of the ways we can break our addiction is by simply taking a break from social media. Stepping away from social media for a week, day, or even just an hour can help us to reconnect to the real world, break our social media addiction, and boost our psychological well-being . Social media addiction can be avoided, but we have to recognize it and take action against it.
Social media can have huge benefits on our mental health, but we just have to know how and when to use it. When we want to catch up with friends, share our awesome life experiences, or find help when we are struggling, social media can allow us to do that. But we have to be careful that we do not overuse social media or use it to hide from the consequences of our actions. Take time to ask yourself where social media is positively or negatively affecting your life. And if needed, make changes. Get rid of the negatives and start making more use out of the positives. Learn how to use this powerful tool in the right way. Because one thing is for sure; social media is not going anywhere soon.
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