February 04, 2018
Megan Fearon’s thumb hovered over the tiny x on her iPhone screen as she considered once again deleting Instagram. She had just scrolled past a post of a girl with a six pack, a picture of her friends going out tonight while she had homework and a picture that got more likes than she ever could. None of this was helping her already stressful day. But like always, she decided against it and opened the app to continue scrolling, overwhelmed with defeat.
Fearon, a junior at Western Illinois University, is not alone in her struggle. Social media has become ingrained in the lives of millennials, and can take a toll on users, some forms more than others. Instagram was ranked as having the most negative effective on mental health, according to a 2017 study from the U.K.’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), which surveyed 1,500 people aged 14-24. Seven in 10 of those surveyed said that Instagram made them feel worse about their body.
Social media has been known to have a strong impact on mental health, especially with its increasing popularity, but there has been no guaranteed solution. “This is a complex issue that has a lot to do with individual differences and social norms,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s no surprise that seeing hundreds of highly edited pictures of people having fun every day can have a negative impact. But that doesn’t mean you should pick up your phone and delete the app. “I would not suggest to quit using it,” said Nicole Amesbury, licensed mental health counselor and Talkspace therapist from Saint Augustine, Florida. “Maybe limit your use, but otherwise you are cutting yourself off from your social circle. It’s about how you use it.” The answer isn’t to abandon social media, but to be conscious of why you are using it. Here are ways to monitor and ease your social media use, without quitting altogether.
Social media is interwoven into communication, and it has become a prominent way of interacting and forming relationships. “To ignore this, and to ignore how it affects mental health, is just silly,” said Amesbury. Online interaction can be positive, but it cannot be the only form of social interaction.
“A good rule of thumb is to try to have the same meaningful interactions offline as you do online,” said Amy Gonzales, communication and social psychology professor at Indiana University. Ignoring your personal relationships and only being social online is one of the reasons social media can be so detrimental. “I often get jealous of people online, but I have learned to focus more on myself and the people in my life and less about what people are posting,” said Jessica Cahill, sophomore at Iowa University. Cahill began this process by unfollowing accounts that made her feel self-conscious. She also stopped letting herself mindlessly scroll the explore page, since it generates highly popular and edited pictures. she says her goal it to make sure Instagram remains only an app, and not an important aspect of her life. If you spend as much time bonding with people in the real world, you can have a healthier social life and feel less isolated.
YouTube was found to be the only platform that had a positive effect on users, according to the RSPH study. It allows for more self-expression, and is more informative and conversational than Instagram, which only allows users to post pictures. “One way Instagram amplifies insecurities is with the like system,” said Amesbury. “It puts people in precarious situations, because you are asking for feedback, and you’re asking for a judgement.”
Instagram’s platform is also somewhat restrictive. “It’s so much about the visuals, and about snapshots of people’s lives, rather than the longer story,” said Alice Walton, freelance writer and PhD in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience from New York City.
“When I see people post the same picture as me, and they get more likes, it bothers me, and almost makes me insecure,” said Fearon. In addition, Instagram has been linked to mental health disorders, such as orthorexia nervosa, an obsession with healthy eating, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Eating and Weight Disorders. Constantly scrolling through pictures and comparing yourself to others isn’t healthy. Other forms of social media are less straight-forward and allow for more interaction, and therefore may lead to fewer negative effects.
“Use of social media tends to take human insecurities and amplify them,” said Gonzales. “Take online content with a grain of salt.” Pictures can be heavily posed and edited, and you are only seeing what people want you to see. “From what I’ve seen, most people portray their lives on Instagram in a way that is not actually how they live their lives,” said Cahill. Knowing the power social media can have is helpful. “Otherwise, [social media] is just using you, and you’re just an unconscious, passive person clicking when you’re told to click,” said Amesbury.
Choosing how to use apps like Instagram and knowing what you want to get out of it is a way to avoid this. “Following fitness accounts always makes me feel worse, so I only follow select accounts, and only let close friends follow me,” said Fearon. You are in control of how social media affects you.
Fearon did decide to continue using Instagram, but more consciously. Maintaining personal relationships in the real world, exploring other forms of social media that are more expressive and reminding yourself that Instagram is only an app, not an accurate representation of people’s lives, are the first steps. It’s not an easy path, but not allowing Instagram to control you is possible.
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