The internet and the advancing digitization have changed our lives and the way we communicate. Instagram, TikTok & Co are the most critical communication channels of our time. But what effects does the use of social media have on our health?
“Social media seriously harms your mental health.”
So is the slogan of a new campaign by the clothing brand Urban Sophistication. Based on the warning notices on cigarette packs, which are intended to warn of the harmful effects of smoking, you can now read this slogan on numerous cell phone cases of Instagram users. At the same time, they are staged in the usual Instagram manner in front of bathroom mirrors for the so-called mirror selfie. But how much truth is behind this warning, and what does social media do to our health and sleep?
According to the current Barmer doctor report, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders or panic attacks are part of everyday life for many people. More and more young adults are among those affected. The rate of 18 to 25-year-olds with mental health diagnoses rose by almost 40 per cent between 2005 and 2016.
Experts consider a connection between the use of social media and the rise in mental illness to be plausible.
#Statusofmind: The possible adverse effects of social media
The #Statusofmind study by the British Royale Society for Public Health (RSPH), in collaboration with scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Belgrade, examined the positive and negative effects of social media on the health of young people between the ages of 14 and 24.
Young people, in particular, use the various social media channels most intensively, says Shirley Cramer from the Royale Society for Public Health. In the fundamental phase of their cognitive, psychosocial and emotional development, they are significantly shaped by these very channels and their value systems.
One thousand four hundred seventy-nine people took part in the study, which appeared in 2017. The participants were asked to classify their feelings while using Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using a point scale. In terms of the sense of community, YouTube was rated the most positively by the respondents, while Instagram came off the worst.
One billion people use Instagram worldwide. A billion virtual lives that are fed and cared for in parallel. The app acts like a digital photo album on which you can share photos or videos with your virtual friends (followers).
In so-called stories, it is possible to upload 15-second image excerpts that are only visible for 24 hours. The number of likes, followers or comments give users quick feedback and can serve as a parameter for popularity and recognition in the virtual community.
Self-optimization and ideal images play a central role, especially on the photo platform. You curate your posts according to Instagram suitability, and at the same time, you are always the protagonist * in your virtual reality.
Similar to creating a photo collage, there is, of course, no room for the moments when you are not happy or when you are going through an emotionally stressful phase of your life. Because very few want to remember these moments or even share them publicly, pictures from their last vacation in Bali or tuned selfies seem more attractive and appropriate for many users.
And so Instagram, but also other social media channels, show a seemingly perfect world that no longer has much to do with our analogue world. The staged and processed images and the idealization of a perfect life without low points can lead to self-doubt and distorted self-perception, especially in young people, says Dr Becky Inkster from Cambridge University.
Constant comparison between self-image and external image with potentially damaging consequences for self-confidence. Above all, however, the duration of social media consumption is decisive when it comes to the effects on mental health, as the evaluation of the #Statusofmind study has shown.
According to Dr Becky Inkster is most likely to have symptoms of anxiety or depression among intensive users. Intensive users are those who spend two or more hours a day on Instagram, TikTok and Co.
If you spend a lot of time on social media, you may also spend a lot of time watching friends or acquaintances who are always on vacation or going out in the evening and drinking cocktails. This can make viewers feel like they are missing out while others are enjoying their lives to the full. A phenomenon that is called FOMO in pop culture: The fear of missing out.
And so users begin to compare themselves with the sophisticated and perfect lives of others. The unrealistic expectations that are fueled by social media and that intensive user expose themselves to over a long period can encourage the doomed striving for perfection.
But self-doubt and low self-esteem can also establish themselves among users. The very feelings that, according to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), can manifest anxiety and depression or worsen existing symptoms.
Social Media Addiction: The Dopamine Kick
The smartphone is a constant companion for many people. Almost reflexively, we pull the smartphone out of our pocket in everyday life and start scrolling and typing. According to the statistical database “Statista”, around 57 million people in Germany used a smartphone in 2018.
Whether in the waiting room or when the train is a few minutes late: the opportunities to use your smartphone are varied and tempting. Especially the social media channels are a welcome pastime here with their direct production of picture and text material. But can social media also be addicting?
The rules of the game on all channels are the same: posting and liking. You share content and quickly get feedback from other users. Accordingly, people like to like, retweet or distribute red hearts.
It is precisely this simple and immediate form of communication and feedback loop that makes social media so attractive and popular with its users. When we get positive feedback, the dopamine reward mechanism is activated.
With the result that the happiness hormone dopamine is released. A state that, as the name suggests, feels good, but can also be addicting. Here alike and there a lovely comment from the friends. A state that stimulates and motivates us to keep sharing content to reproduce this state of happiness.
The pursuit of recognition, praise and confirmation is a behaviour that did not emerge in the internet age. According to the neurobiologist Prof. Dr Joachim Bauer, we strive for recognition and attention from a young age. And so you can already see small children consciously repeating specific actions to be praised by their parents or educators.
However, this behaviour pattern is intensified considerably by social media, since people who are not physically present now have the opportunity to give feedback. Also, the circle of people who can give feedback is larger than that in the real, analogue world.
Social media and sleep
Our emotional and psychological well-being is closely related to our sleep. Negative thoughts, feelings of anxiety, or depressive states are often associated with poor sleep. If we do not feel well on an emotional and psychological level, the first thing that suffers is the quality of our sleep. On the other hand, if we don’t sleep well, our emotional and psychological well-being suffers.
Many people know it: You lie down in bed, and the alarm clock is set, but it still doesn’t work when you fall asleep. So you grab your smartphone and try to scroll tiredly.
In many cases, nightly scrolling is even part of the final ritual before going to bed. According to the current state of science, a fatal error. Using the smartphone in the evening or at night has negative consequences for our sleep phase.
In his book “Bionic Regeneration”, the biologist Dr Ulrich Warnke comprehensively on the subject of melatonin. The so-called sleep hormone melatonin, which is produced in the pineal gland, controls the day-night rhythm of our body.
Now there are some factors and opponents that can inhibit or even lower melatonin production and thus cause us sleepless nights. One of the opponents: our smartphone. In other words, it is the technically generated light on the screens of our smartphones that hurts our sleep.
There are receptors in the human eye that have the photopigment melanopsin. This pigment plays a crucial role in our internal clock and the sleep-wake rhythm of our body, as it reacts to light stimuli. The pigment reacts particularly strongly to very bright light with a high blue component, as is the case with our smartphones.
The light stimulus sends signals to the brain, more precisely to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This is a core part of the hypothalamus and is home to the central clock in our body, the so-called “master clock”.
This “master clock” is responsible for the timing of numerous physiological processes. From this core, signals are then directed to all subordinate clocks, which give our body the order to stay awake. This leads to a suppression of the release of melatonin and consequently to sleepless nights.
According to Dr Ulrich Warnke, however, the technically generated magnetic fields, which are generated by smartphones, among other things, hurt our sleep, as they also inhibit melatonin production.
The sleep hormone melatonin is also an essential element when it comes to our immune system. If enough melatonin is no longer released, our immune system also suffers in the long run. So it’s better to put your smartphone aside when it’s bedtime!
Possible positive effects of social media
Should we now delete all social media accounts for the sake of our health and throw our smartphone in the garbage can? The answer: no.
The study #Statusofmind by the Royal Society of Public Health showed, in addition to the possible adverse effects that social media has on our health, that social media can also have positive effects on us and our lives.
Education and destigmatization of mental illnesses
The advent of social media revolutionized the way we communicated and made it possible for us to interact in a simple and globally networked manner. It also made it easier to find out more about a wide range of topics. It is precisely these aspects that play a particularly important role when it comes to clarifying and destigmatizing mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression.
For many people who have a mental illness, social media is a virtual space in which they can exchange ideas with other people and share experience reports.
To this day, mental illnesses are a taboo subject and unfortunately still have certain stigmas attached to them. Those affected fear social isolation and so often suffer in secret. Instagram, Facebook and Co. are a suitable medium here to overcome this barrier and to join virtual communities.
In these communities, those affected can find support and support without losing anonymity. In the meantime, there are particular mental health pages on various social media channels that promote exchange and reveal to those affected that they are not alone with their feelings and experiences.
Of course, this also applies to all other, non-psychological diseases. Nevertheless, the virtual exchange cannot replace a visit to the doctor, especially since the abundance of online information is not always up-to-date and reliable.
Social media as a form of expression
Teenagers and young adults need to find ways in which they can express themselves personally and creatively. Instagram and Co. can represent platforms on which they can learn and practice this positive self-expression and share their interests and talents with others.
And so social media is also a hostel for talents of all kinds, from singing talents, funny memes, to make-up artists who turn into works of art in a few minutes with the help of make-up. There are hardly any limits to creativity on social media.
To maintain your health, however, it is essential not to make yourself dependent on the validation of other users and not to compare yourself with other users. This can inhibit free and creative self-expression, says Dr Becky Inkster.
Conscious use of social media
All in all, social media enables people to connect and form communities, despite geographical and spatial separation.
Nevertheless, the potential adverse effects of use, especially about the advancement of digitization, must be taken seriously and conscious use of social media is more critical than ever. For a conscious and therefore healthy use of social media, as the study #Statusofmind has proven, the duration of use is the be-all and end-all.
Four tips on how to spend less time on social media
Apps that show you the length of your social media usage
Often we pull out the smartphone intuitively or lose ourselves in the wake of scrolling and do not notice how much time we spend with our glowing screens. For a more conscious use of social media, there are now various apps that show you how many hours a day you are on your smartphone.
You can also see the usage time of unique apps such as Instagram or Facebook. For example, you can set your time limits and control them better.
Apps that throttle or block your social media usage
For those who still have difficulty complying with time limits and keep browsing their favourite channels for news: Some apps reduce the usage time or even block it entirely for a specific time. You can, of course, set the time yourself. Ideal for times when you want to be productive in other areas of your life and social media is too much of a distraction.
But even for times when you notice that intensive scrolling through the various channels leaves you feeling uncomfortable, such an app can be important for our mental and emotional health.
Maintain analogue relationships
According to the results of the #Statusofmind study, social networking with other people is one of the main motivations for using social media. The longing for human relationships is in our nature, but can never be replaced or satisfied by virtual relationships.
By cultivating interpersonal relationships more intensively outside of the virtual community, this longing could be satisfied, and we would possibly spend less time online.
Find activities that force you to spend less time on social media or even put your smartphone aside. For example, going for a walk where you consciously leave your smartphone at home, reading a book or general sports activities that take place outdoors.