According to the United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, there are major risks to young people when it comes to their use of social media. One of the notes from his 19-page advisory, “Social Media and Youth Mental Health,” states that during adolescence, “when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison.” These pressures, opinions and comparisons can lead to a decrease in life satisfaction in young girls and boys that can negatively impact their mental health.
This report has been buzzing since it was released on May 23. The focus has been on the impact of social media on children and teens of course, but it left me thinking, Well, what about adults too? While we can put provisions in place when it come’s to youth use of social media, many adults spend just as many hours if not more scrolling through content that’s not always the healthiest.
While our brains are developed and we have a better sense of self than teens, adults can also be negatively impacted by social media in similar ways. Seeing people measure success by materialistic gains can push others to feel like they need to obtain the same, sometimes by any means. Comparison of one’s life accomplishments to that of someone around your age, whether it’s career achievements, love, marriage and family outcomes and reaching certain life markers, it all can also leave us questioning ourselves and what defines our self-worth. And there have been countless people, particularly those in the public eye, who have spoken about the need to step away from social media from time to time due to an inability to cope with what they’ve been exposed to — often unwanted opinions and cruelty.
So while our youth are at greater risk, adults are not exempt to having their own emotional wellbeing altered by what they’re exposed to online. And surveys have found that some types of social media, for adults, are more associated with greater levels of depressive symptoms, including Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube.
But social media is so important in this day and age, whether for its link to upward mobility in career (a robust follower count can make a difference) and it being utilized by many as a source for information, making it difficult to not have. With that in mind, we spoke with licensed social worker Ebony Davis to get some insight on best practices to use social media, but in a healthier way.
ESSENCE: What are some of the positives you see to using social media when it comes to mental health?
Ebony Davis, LCW: When it comes to mental health, I see social media as a positive when it comes to sharing information related to mental health, whether that be information about a particular diagnosis and how it presents and both men and women or signs and symptoms of a particular mental health diagnosis. I find social media to be pivotal when it comes to sharing resources as well. For example, I wonder sometimes where we would be without platforms like Therapy for Black Girls or Black Girls in Social Work. These two platforms have really helped a lot of women and men of color around the world, and they have done a good job at challenging the stigma associated with mental health disorders and what it means to live the life of someone who struggles with their mental and emotional health and wellness.
What are some of the negatives you’ve found?
Negatives. There are plenty. Something that I have observed in our community is this habit to over-identify with mental illness so much so that it becomes a personality for people who are either diagnosing themselves based on what they see online, or who are pathologizing signs, symptoms, and reactions that are totally normal. An example I’ve observed as a clinician is the hiked number of people who believe they have clinical depression because they’re sad for a short or persistent amount of time. As a clinician, there are screening tools and assessments we use before we even get to an actual diagnosis. So, I think this prevalence of wanting to have a diagnosis attached to feelings of sadness has been detrimental to the community. However, I am not a clinician who is trying to invalidate anyone, and I do recognize that there is an increasing number of people who struggle with depression daily. I also think the more and more we have become comfortable with talking about mental health, the more it has also created the space for people to play the role of a clinician even though they are not trained or licensed to practice, which can cause harm.
How can we protect our peace when it seems you have to use social media in this day and age?
Something I do to protect my own peace while living in a world that now advances heavily through social media usage is create boundaries around what I’m absorbing every day. I have myself on a schedule and there is a certain time of day when I choose to turn my phone on DND and no longer engage in any apps. I’ve noticed that when I start and end my day on social media, I tend to feel a lot more disoriented vs. when I have boundaries in place that do not include social media being a part of my routine. So, I would start with setting boundaries around technology as needed. That looks different for everyone. I also recommend doing a cleanse online. There is nothing wrong with unfollowing, unfriending, and blocking out what and who no longer resonates with you. That person you met in 7th grade may not be someone you want to connect with anymore as an adult and that is okay. When it comes to social media, we have to remember that we are still in control of our platforms and it’s not the other way around. Sometimes we have to model being in control of that area of our life too.
What practices would you recommend people put in place to set boundaries in their usage?
Knowing when to mute, unfollow, block, unfriend is like the holy grail to managing an online presence and taking back control over what you absorb. My rule is this: if it offends, it is probably time to mute or unfollow. If it triggers an unwanted emotion or response, then some content may require me to assess the timeline to see what needs to shift or go. I also think it’s extremely important to listen to ourselves when we need a break. Our minds are not meant to internalize and take in the opinions, thoughts, and beliefs of thousands of people every single day, so give yourself some time to rest when you start to feel scattered or as if you can’t think on your own.