Excessive social media usage correlates with declines in students’ mental health

April 25, 2019 — by Kaitlyn Tsai

Before a majority of households could access the internet because of Tim Berners-Lee’s 1990 invention of the World Wide Web, most teenagers spent their free time on sports, reading, watching TV, creating art or doing other forms of leisure activities. When they wanted to socialize, they called their friends or arranged hangouts at each other’s houses, the mall or the park.

While adolescents today still partake in such activities, their social lives and means of communication are a  stark contrast to those of the years before social media. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of U.S. teenagers use Instagram, 69 percent use Snapchat and 51 percent use Facebook.

Though such platforms allow adolescents to communicate more easily and frequently, various studies have exposed the darker aspects of extensive social media use. These drawbacks include an increase in toxic behaviors, such as cyberbullying, as well as a lack of in-person interaction, which by extension, harms certain aspects of their social intelligence.

Social intelligence, the ability to build successful relationships and handle different social situations, includes both interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Those with high social intelligence understand how others may interpret their words and actions, attune themselves to others’ words and body language and are able to quickly and accurately pick up on others’ emotions.

Communicating primarily online causes adolescents to miss out on the personal and sometimes intimidating aspects of face-to-face communication, according to Rachel Ehmke, senior editor of the Child Mind Institute. Consequently, many teenagers have reduced in-person communication skills and lower social intelligence, and are less able to read others and handle confrontations away from a screen.

That dynamic is also showing up on campus.

“Since you’re seeing so many people’s profiles and friends of friends, there’s more opportunity to correspond with people, but what needs to follow that is in-person interaction,” CASSY therapist Kaitlin Eastland said. “The level of depth of the connections of the conversations on social media aren’t as deep as face-to-face connections.”

Eastland added that although the effects of social media on self-esteem varies from person to person, seeing the highlights of others’ lives online can make it easy for students to compare themselves to others. This can create a “skewed perspective” of a student’s life compared to his or her peers’.

Some students who don’t use social media frequently feel these effects less acutely. Sophomore Isaac Sun typically spends most of his days on school work and extracurriculars, such as symphony orchestra and basketball practice, checking  social media during small pockets of time in between activities. Although Sun said social media has little effect on his self-esteem, he knows people who compare their bodies to those of friends or celebrities they see online.

Several students, especially those who use social media more frequently, admit to feeling such social pressures. Senior Kay Jewler admits she often checks her social media apps simply out of curiosity about other people’s lives, averaging three to four hours daily of social media usage.

Because of exposure to posts of others’ seemingly picture-perfect lives and bodies, she often catches herself comparing herself to them.

“It’s hard to remember that everybody only posts the best pictures of themselves,” Jewler said. “Even when I’m sitting at home and just taking random snaps, they’re always from angles that hide my insecurities.”

Junior Connor Oaklander, who once used social media excessively, cut his daily usage to less than an hour after realizing that looking at others’ filtered lives on social media contributed more harm than good to his life. It especially hurt his self-esteem, making him feel like he was someone “of a lower class than others.”

Even though social media worsened Oaklander’s mental health, he still found himself spending seemingly endless hours scrolling aimlessly through his feeds. While Oaklander is still unsure as to why he spent so much time on social media, he attributes this addiction to how easy it is for someone to lose themselves in a sea of posts.

“When you scroll, there's always something new, which is what makes it so engaging, and it’s often is the easiest thing to do,” he said. “Sometimes we follow the ‘path of least resistance’ when we are living, and oftentimes that path is scrolling around.”

According to a 2011 study by the National Center for Biotechnology and a 2017 study by International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, few people are genuinely addicted to social media; however, since many people habitually use social media, it can easily affect aspects of people’s everyday lives. These effects can range from minor ones, like checking phones during meals with others, or more dangerous ones, like checking social media while driving, wrote Dr. Mark Griffiths in a Psychology Today article.

Experts say instant gratification from receiving likes and comments can release feel-good chemicals from the brain. However, those feelings are fleeting, leaving students craving more when they really need deeper senses of connection, Eastland said.

Oaklander admitted that social media helps students stay more connected, especially over long distances. Direct messages, as well as relatable posts and memes, create a sense of community, but this virtual connection comes at the expense of maintaining relationships in real life.

“I’m thankful that I haven't really had time to focus on social media,” Oaklander said. “Now, I am trying to make an effort to physically meet up with people when I'm bored. I realize I've been socially disconnected for a while so that's a change I'm trying to make.”

Regardless of how often they check their Instagram feeds, tag each other in memes and communicate with friends, most students agree that adolescents should use social media in moderation to avoid the social pressures and mental health impacts that arise with excessive usage.

“Social media has its benefits like being connected with people, but we should ask ourselves, ‘Am I happy doing this?’ because the most important thing is to be happy using it and not to get stuck on it while being bored,” Oaklander said.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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