Have you ever thought about all the ways social media is woven within your everyday life? This has been especially true over the past year, where social media has proven itself as a valuable communication tool to connect with family and friends, provide social support through online community groups and get a quick response to a burning question from a peer.
Globally, prior to the pandemic, an estimated 3.4 billion people used social media and this number continues to rise annually. Yet the ways in which we use social media may determine whether it has a positive or potentially negative impact on our lives.
Although research investigating social media use among populations including adolescents and young adults show some positive linkages such as a sense of connection and increased accessibility to information, negative associations with mental health including depression and anxiety are evident throughout the literature.
Our research focuses on how digital technologies influence human behaviour, and how we can leverage these technologies to improve overall health.
Social comparison and social media
The phrase “comparison is the thief of joy” rings true for social media use too. Researchers have found a link between social media use and FOMO (fear of missing out) and social comparison.
Because social media itself is relatively new, research that explores how to use these digital communication technologies to support health and wellness is emerging. For example, there is exciting research investigating the use of social media in the form of interactive applications (apps) to engage and support people in achieving personal goals and maintaining a healthy physical and mental state.
With COVID-19 triggering an increase in mental health conditions, it becomes especially important that we become conscious consumers of social media so that we can engage with it in a positive and effective way.
Tips for more positive online experiences
Based on what we currently know from published research, there are things we can do right now to help manage social media in our own lives so that we may use it in a positive and effective way:
1. Social stopwatch: Use a timer or app tracker to help moderate use. This may be helpful for mental health as research has shown that limiting social media use to no more than 30 minutes per day can reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. This can be as simple as setting a reminder to close social media, or choosing an app tracker such as Forest or Space, where setting preferences can assist with monitoring or limiting social media use.
2. Social activity: Remember to take breaks to disconnect from the screen. One way to support this is by following the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Modifying settings and turning off app notifications, hiding apps in folders away from the home screen, or taking it one step further and deleting apps to further reduce temptation.
Incorporate screen-free time by engaging in regular physical activity, which curtails the chances of developing a dependence on social media. Indeed, swapping the use of apps with increased physical activity to meet the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines and spending active time outdoors may also help to reduce stress and depression.
3. Social snacking: We are not talking about snacking while scrolling through social media! Instead, similar to how we think of some foods as nutrient-dense which nourish our body (like apples and carrots), and others as nutrient-poor and less useful for our body (like chocolate cake and candy), social media can be thought of in the same way: engagement that makes us feel good or leaves us feeling unwell.
Aim to use social media in ways that feel good or has a purpose. Examples of productive, positive social media use include connecting with supportive friends and family, or using it to source useful information. Before you engage on social media, be aware not to overshare or post when stressed or anxious as this can result in a negative social media experience.
4. Social accountability: Be accountable to yourself and others regarding your social media use. This could mean reaching out to trusted family, friends and co-workers to ask them to gently remind you when they catch you checking your phone during face-to-face engagement. Or, you can take advantage of built-in social media monitoring applications on your phone to set social media use goals and using the apps to track your progress!
It’s helpful to think of social media as a tool that needs some training to use properly. By finding the strategies that work for us to help manage our social media use, we can welcome a positive and healthy relationship with social media.
Lisa Tang is affiliated with the University of Guelph and Dietitians of Canada, and currently holds a doctoral scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and grant funding from the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research (CFDR) for research not directly related to the present article.
Stephanie K. Nishi is affiliated with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Unity Health Toronto, and Dietitians of Canada, and she currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for research not directly related to the present article. She is also a volunteer executive member for the not-for-profit organization Plant-Based Canada.