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The impact of social media on emotional health

17 May, 2017
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The change in our methods of communication over the last twenty years have been the most rapid in the entirety of human history. In this short span of time, we went from calling a landline and hoping someone answered, to being able to find out exactly where our friends and family are and how they are at almost any time.

Obviously, this can only be done because we’re also keen to show where we are, what we’re doing and how we’re feeling.

Now that social media is an integral part of our social function, we’ve looked into how it affects our emotional health, and how you can make the best of the positives and manage the negatives.

How does social media impact self-esteem?

What we know:

  • Supportive online interaction on social media can increase self-esteem, with the inverse also being true.
  • People with higher self-esteem post more about their work, family and education.
  • People with lower self-esteem are more concerned about what other people post about them, and continuously monitor their feeds and delete unwanted posts.


The studies:

Way back in the ancient times of MySpace and Friendster, a study was conducted on 881 adolescents aged 10-19. The study, with the catchy headline of Friend Networking Sites and Their Relationship to Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social Self-Esteem, found indirect relations between the frequency of their usage and the relationships they formed and the impact it had on their sense of self.

While this might seem like an obvious conclusion, it gives us the evidence to work towards more positive interactions online; and this might begin with a self-assessment.

According to S. Shyam Sundar of the Media Effects Research Laboratory:

"The types of actions users take and the kinds of information they are adding to their Facebook walls and profiles are a reflection of their identities…You are your Facebook, basically, and despite all its socialness, Facebook is a deeply personal medium.”

Sundar also talked about what kind of different actions people make on social media depending on their feelings of self-worth, e.g., positive self-esteem relating to updates on education, family and successes compared to people looking at what’s being said about them and deleting unwanted posts.

What you can do: Your ability to curate the environment of your social media gives you the ability to control who and how you interact with others. Finding, friending, and interacting with those who support you has the potential to aid your self-esteem.

Further, to aid your feelings of self-worth, it could be beneficial to post as those with confidence do, and focus on positives like your achievements and your loved ones.


How does social media impact happiness?

What we know:

  • More time on social media is correlated with lower life satisfaction
  • Social media interaction produces dopamine
  • Using social media to connect in the real world is positive
  • Overall online networking is negative for individuals

The studies:

So, let’s break this down piece by piece.

The first study comes from measuring social media’s impact of life satisfaction on the lives of children.  According to the study, which has a spider’s web of variables and data points, it only took an hour of chatting on social media to reduce the probability of satisfaction with life overall by 14 percentage points. This is an even larger negative affect on wellbeing than both coming from a single-parent household, and playing truant.

Our second studies come from the worlds of both science and psychology. As you can guess, these different sectors view findings a little differently – the American Marketing Association, referencing a study on Australian consumers, say that social media likes are the same as getting a ‘hug’. They go on to quote a professor of psychology from Rutgers University, Mauricio Delgado, who describes the physiological reaction to social media engagements:

“The same brain areas [that are activated for food and water] are activated for social stimuli…This can be a smile, someone telling you you’re doing a great job or you’re trustworthy, or you’re a nice person, or even merely cooperating with somebody. All of these social ‘reinforcers’ are abstract but show similar activity in the reward centers of the brain. This suggests that, perhaps, if you’re getting positive feedback in social media—‘likes’ and shares and retweets—it’s a positive ‘reinforcer’ of using social media, and one that allows you to, a.) get the positive effects of it, and, b.) return to it seeking out more social reinforcement.” 

Dopamine, the reward hormone, is what can get us addicted to things or activities. Susan Weinschenk, a behavioural psychologist, presents us with the dopamine loop we get from social media causes and is activated by anticipating a reward and causes us to seek further anticipation.

Our third study was conducted in Italy on around 50,000 people, and it found that social media, when used for physical interactions, played a positive role in well-being, whilst the use of social network sites lowered social trust. The persons behind the study, Sabatini and Sarracino, have stated that the “overall negative effect of networking on individual welfare is significantly negative”.

What you can do: ‘Reward’ isn’t the same as ‘happiness’ – a good idea might be to cut down on social media and use it to aid meaningful real world interactions.

How does social media affect loneliness and companionship?

What we know:

  • Young adults report highest levels of perceived loneliness
  • Higher social media use correlates with higher levels of perceived loneliness
  • Older people are less depressed and lonely when they’re active on social media

The studies:

According to a study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the more time young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to perceive themselves as socially isolated. This reflects the findings of a survey performed by Relationships Australia in 2011, which found that it’s predominantly young people that are feeling lonely.

This might be further compounded by self-esteem issues, as those with low self-esteem are more likely to post negative messages, which makes them less likable. In turn, this could lead to people interacting with them less, and lead to a poorer self-image, and so on and so forth.

The story for older people seems to be the opposite, with some research seeing a 30% decrease in depressive symptoms in older people who are more active on the internet. Older Australians are going through the steepest rise in social media usage in recent years, and are finding tech is allowing them to connect in ways they never they never thought possible. While millennials might not appreciate being able to see and talk to their overseas friends every day, the story is profoundly different for those that might only be seeing their intercountry grandchildren for the first time.

What you can do:

There might be a two birds/one stone approach to this predicament – young people can teach older people how to use social media to connect to their friends and family. If you’re interested, you can find online courses or join the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association (ASCCA).

How does social media impact empathy?

What we know:

  • People are influenced by the positivity and negativity in Facebook posts

The studies:

While it might not be an emotion, our sense and empathetic abilities allow us to be affected by other people – and it isn’t limited to the real world.

Facebook, in a move that could be could be described as post-Orwellian hipster, manipulated the amount of positive and negative posts in users’ feeds to see if it would affect their later posts. Needless to say, they ‘succeeded’, and found that seeing more negative posts was likely to influence the emotional charge of your next post.

This phenomenon is called emotional contagion, defined as:

“Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, with people transferring positive and negative emotions to others.”

What you can do: Analyse your social media environment and adapt it to suit you. Being mindful and aware is the first step to taking control of how your online interactions affect you emotionally.

Lessons to take away

  • Limit your social media usage
  • Use your online interactions to facilitate real-world meetings and relationships
  • Post positively
  • Be mindful and aware of your online environments and how they might be affecting you

 All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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