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Susan Says: Effects of Social Media on Our Mental Health



Are we are becoming a society addicted to social media? Keeping up with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a multitude of other connections is a constant, and often stressful, job.  However many people feel lost if they are “disconnected,” even for short periods.  There is no doubt that social media has changed the way people live and interact – for better and worse. We can now remain in perpetual contact with hundreds of so-called friends, even ones we rarely see in person. We are always connected.

Although we are fortunate to live in an age where we have such advanced technology, there is a downside that people need to be aware of. Recently the University of Chicago found that social media is “more addictive” than cigarettes, and harder to abstain from. We may begin to feel like a hamster on a treadmill that we can’t get off.

Teenage boys used to hope they could sneak a peek at a Playboy magazine in a convenience store; now they have much worse available right in their pocket! Interactive video game addiction in both kids and adults is a whole new behavioral health issue that we are now treating. And as technology progresses we will have virtual reality consoles, allowing people to retreat from the real world and live a life within a game.

Besides addictions to video games and pornography, behavioral health providers are seeing an escalation of anxiety disorders over the past 10 years. Currently the most common behavioral health diagnosis in the United States is anxiety, which affects over 40 million adults – 20% of the population. It is also the most common diagnosis for teens, affecting 25-30% of youth, a number that continues to rise. Recent research on the effects of social media show strong correlations with the rise in anxiety disorders.

Pictures on Facebook let us look at other’s lives from the outside and can lead to the “compare-and-despair factor.” Doctored pictures of friends in exciting situations may cause us to compare ourselves in a negative manner and feel “not good enough.” Feelings of self-consciousness or a need for perfectionism can arise, leading to social anxiety. Social anxiety involves a fear of how others will perceive you that can be crippling. Comparing can also induce anxiety as it relates to followers. For example, teens using Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have indicated that it is more about quantity rather than quality; how many followers, re-tweets and “likes” you have becomes a part of your self esteem.

A new behavioral therapy used for stress, anxiety and addiction disorders is “mindfulness” training. This technique has roots in Eastern philosophy and has recently proven to be a very effective treatment. Mindfulness-based therapy involves training in breath work and learning to focus only on the present moment while clearing the mind completely and staying in the “now.”  A person learns to observe a simple experience without trying to change, control, or judge it.  They are asked to focus on the bodily sensations that arise while experiencing anxiety or stress.  Instead of avoiding or withdrawing from these feelings, he or she remains present and attempts to fully experience the symptoms.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, fully realizing the experience of anxiety enables people to release their over identification with negative thoughts. The person practices acknowledging disruptive thoughts without judgement and learns to let these thoughts go.