Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing?

Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing? 

No, yes, maybe – it’s complicated

This is the seventh in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time in general on our wellbeing, ability to communicate and make decisions.  The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner.

Quality counts

A 2017 study by Duke University found that it wasn’t necessarily the amount of online time, college students experienced, which had a positive or negative impact on their wellbeing, but whether that social media engagement led to more or less interactions with friends offline. People who used social media to connect with people offline tended to have elevated levels of wellbeing, regardless of the amount of time they spent online. Whereas, those who tended to rely on social media for friends and connection had lower levels of wellbeing. 

Distorting the way we see ourselves

Social media tends to condition and reinforce popular perceptions of desirability, attractiveness and what is an appropriate way of acting. In a 2012 study Chou and Edge found that the more time a person spent on Facebook, and the greater the percentage of strangers a person had as friends (vague awareness of how the friend contact was formed), the more likely the person is to perceive others as having better lives than their own. And in a 2015 study Vogel, Rose, Okdie and Franz found that people who had a greater tendency to compare themselves to others  were more likely to be heavy Facebook users and had lower levels of self-esteem. 

In other studies, self-reported self-esteem is correlated with the level of fight flight hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels act to enable the fight/flight system by tensing the body up and enabling energy to be directed to movement and defence and away from higher reasoning.  It helps us react fast. The authors of the book “Offline” point to research which found that body shaming increases cortisol levels and that social media time effects the way we perceive our own bodies. A distorted self-view, that we are not beautiful enough or don’t fit in, may make people feel like awkward outliers from society. This may lead to increased social isolation, or perhaps unusual behaviours with friends or colleagues, as people try to preserve their sense of self.  Social media may increase the amount of comparison with other people we engage in.

Making us less resilient?

In a 2017 study, people who were given a stressful event to experience, had significantly higher levels of stress (cortisol levels) if after the stressor they spent some time browsing Facebook. Facebook browsing seemed to impair cortisol recovery. The research indicated that we may feel the impact of heightened cortisol levels for much longer if we browse Facebook when we are feeling stressed. For example, some of the physical effects of this could include tight neck and shoulders or lower back, shallow breathing or general discomfort. Some of the psychological and social impacts may mean we overly focus on weaknesses, deficits and dangers, feel anxious, experience low levels of self-esteem and be disinclined to meet up with friends and family. 

What happens to us when we experience a long, slow surge of dopamine as we flit from one image to the next on our infinity scrolls? It’s uncertain what the long-term impact of this is.  A survey by the Pew Centre in 2015 of 1,800 people indicated that more social media usage was correlated with more stress. The more usage, the more stress and the greater the negative body self-image.  In addition, the more social media platforms you use the greater the levels of anxiety and depression.

Research from the Sleep Research Society in 2017 on 1,700 young adults in the US indicated that using social media, within 30 minutes of going to sleep, had a negative impact on sleep quality. The heavier the usage, the worse the impact. 

Too early to tell about long term impacts

Smartphones were only introduced in 2007 (date of the iPhone launch). Less smart phones had been around for a little while prior to 2007 but the sharing and roaming technology, that we have come to rely on, only started to become popular with the iPhone launch. It’s still quite a new phenomenon and the long-term consequences of this technology is unknown. What we can do is look at longitudinal studies of behaviour and have an informed conversation about what may be happening.

Once such researcher is Larry Rosen.  He has been studying the impact of technology on children for the last thirty years and therefore we should pay attention to what he says. 

‘Our real and virtual worlds overlap, as many of our virtual friends are also our real friends. But time and effort spent on our virtual world limit the time to connect and communicate on a deeper level in our real world. We face a barrage of alerts, notifications and vibrations warning us that something important is about to happen”. 

Jean Twenge, from the University of San Diego has also noted sudden and massive changes in young people since 2012.

“Young people socialise in completely new ways, reject once sacred social taboos and want different things from their lives and careers.  They are obsessed with safety, focussed on tolerance and have no patience for inequality”.

In virtually all the studies mentioned in this series of articles, splitting out cause and effect is almost impossible. For example, do people who are more prone to depression tend to withdraw into social media and reduce real time friend interactions or does more time spent online, reduce meaningful friend interactions and lead to depression?  It cannot be concluded that A leads to B. Highly stressed people may be susceptible to being drawn in by social media, whilst some heavy users of social media may remain upbeat and energised and use social media to connect to more people in a positive way in real time. However, most of the research concludes that over time we are changing the way we behave and there is a positive correlation between spending more time online, particularly on social media, and significant negative psychological, physiological and social connectivity impacts. 

Takeaways from this post 

  • Set aside specific times for checking social media during the day 
  • Monitor your social media time and aim to reduce from the average of 2 hours per day
  • If possible, turn your phone to airplane mode 30 minutes or more before you go to bed
  • Make social media work positively for you – aim to organise at least one face to face meeting with friends through social media and stick to your meetups 
  • Join a meetup group to practice your hobby or passion
  • Before engaging in social media consider your mood state.  Reflect back on the things today that brought you joy, were meaningful or successful (or all three). Practice some gentle breathwork meditation exercises.


Share these insights with friends and colleagues