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Social Media and Psychological Health - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

This month I made my first social media post from the psychology practice I’ve operated for the last 11 years. Joining social media under the practice name was not a decision I

made lightly and I almost felt guilty as I pressed post.

A part of me loathes social media and in the therapy room I can almost feel like social media has become my nemesis. A usual week at the practice can bring about frequent

reference to the degree to which social media has impacted someone’s psychological well-being for the negative.

For some people, simply logging onto Facebook can be unsettling. On Facebook one is often inundated with images of smiling people who appear to be happy and have “apparently” perfect families, beautiful homes and exciting holidays.

Whether such posts are authentic or not, for someone already struggling with depression seeing such posts is often a recipe for feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

What about the thousands of people that struggle to accept their bodies and constantly stress about the food they eat? Just imagine the unhealthy comparisons that take place as they scroll from image to image of athletes and models on Instagram not to mention the constant stream of food porn reinforcing rules about what one should and should not eat. For some individuals this experience is overwhelming and emotionally exhausting.

Many social media users can relate to the excitement of posting an image and anticipating a flow of likes from others. Each like resulting in a dopamine hit to the brain. It is almost addictive isn’t it? It is not uncommon for parents of teenagers to raise concerns about the degree to which their teenager is on social media. Parents can be in constant conflict with their teenager attempting to set limits on social media use. Yet it is not just teenagers that develop obsessions with social media. Most adults admit to checking their Facebook or Instagram the moment they wake up. Further, many of us can relate to urges to check their status or newsfeed even when engaged in satisfying and meaningful tasks such as spending time with friends, working, or playing with their children.

The responses and lack of responses we receive from posts are powerful and can affect our mood both positively and negatively.

Even the regrettable posts that feature poorly articulated comments or unflattering images have the potential to haunt the reputations of people professionally and socially indefinitely.

In many ways I have also found that FB and Instagram can complicate relationship breakups. Even if you know it is unhelpful to look at your ex’s profile many people do and some things are simply just better unseen. Adequate space and time allows wounds to heal more effectively and this way a platonic friendship with an ex has more of an opportunity to develop in the future. However, for many it is just too tempting to not check an ex’s profile although rarely ever helpful.

Social media can be a platform that appeals to many people including the more self-absorbed and narcissistic among us. We know that narcissists can be quite apt at creating a persona of charm and skilled at manipulating others. Sometimes these individuals portray themselves as philanthropists online which tends to shock and equally aggravate those who know a less charming, less kind side of the individual not reflected by their social media profile. In fact, distortion, deceit and a lack of credible advice is rife in social media and often the source of great stress and confusion for social media users.

The way social media platforms present a person’s profile also has the potential to cause ego injury. After all the number of followers and friends are proudly on display … you can hardly miss it right? This number, however, is not a reflection of a person’s true self-worth or value. Yet sadly when you’re struggling with low self-esteem these numbers can taunt the most rational people.

Even the most innocuous posts can sometimes cause distress. For example, the proud parents who post constant baby spam can trigger, albeit unintentionally, grief reactions for those pained by miscarriage, still-birth and infertility. Further, what about the sting from seeing your friends out together having fun when no one invited you to the event. In fact anyone fortunate to have (and excitedly post about) good health, caring family members, children who meet normal developmental milestones, the privilege of a legal marriage, a loving spouse, fun times, a successful business and endless other achievements risk paining someone less fortunate.

While many posts are not intended to harm sadly, the reality is some posts are. We know that behind one’s computer or phone screen people can feel bolder and say hurtful things that they normally would be reluctant to say in person.

Cyber bullying whether it takes the form of covert, passive aggression or overt nastiness is a serious issue. For school aged children, this can mean that teasing, excluding and taunting does not stop at the end of the school day but can continue online for hours. Further, bullying is not only reserved for schoolyards but can be rife in workplaces, families, and recreational organisations making victimisation by cyberbullying a genuine possibility for everyone. Words cannot adequately comment on the sobering circumstances where victims of cyberbullying have felt their only option to escape the constant victimisation was to end their life. Such loss of human life, in any circumstance but especially this one, is utterly tragic.

Can you relate to any these negative experiences with social media? Most of us can to some extent even if it is to a lesser degree. I am no stranger myself to social media and have a personal account privy to a small group of friends. I have without a doubt posted tedious comments, endless pictures of my children, shameless selfies and

rosy outlooks on my life... after all...when in Rome. I have also been stung at times by comments and posts, even when I know the person had no intention to hurt.

At this point, having painted quite a bleak perspective, you might wonder what is good about being on social media. For me, one of the wonderful qualities about social media is that it connects people often in quite positive ways. It allows us to communicate about our lives and share our ideas with people all over the world. We can reconnect with old friends, share our pictures with overseas family, showcase our creativity to the community, and develop connections with like-minded people. Small business can now be heard and seen and given the opportunity to compete with larger organisations, which previously would never have been the case.

With respect to mental health, social media allows us to educate and inform the community about psychological issues, treatment approaches and how to seek help. It allows people to feel more understood and less alone.

It helps us destigmatise mental health through awareness and understanding. Now this is something to get excited about!

A google search on the terms “social media” and “psychological health” made me realise that many people are curious to know whether social media is considered good or bad for us? However, in my opinion the bigger question is not whether social media is good, bad or even outright ugly but rather.......

Can we use social media and respond to it in a way that is psychological healthy for us?

Below are a few tips that have been developed through my work with clients at the practice who have all been keen to develop a more psychologically healthy relationship with social media. I am trying to bear them in mind myself, especially as I navigate social media as a business.

1. Strive for balance – while social media can be fun everyone needs to have some time where they log off from their social media apps and focus on what is happening in the moment and the relationships around them. Setting boundaries around time spent on social media is healthy. 2. Know when you are vulnerable and stay away – when you are tired, have been drinking alcohol, are going through a relationship breakdown, or are experiencing a number of symptoms of depression or anxiety it is often best to stay away from social media all together. Be wise. Find a way to soothe yourself and have your actual needs met in a more constructive way. 3. Integrity of the source – not everything you read on social media is reliable, accurate, and evidence based as reflected by research studies with appropriate statistical power, validity, and reliability. Double check your sources and when confused seek further information by trusted organisations and professionals. 4. Try not to personalise and when unsure assume others mean well – after all not everyone intends to hurt, everyone makes mistakes from time to time, and sometimes giving others the benefit of the doubt is best for everyone involved. If you feel hurt by a post or comment consider talking to the person and clarifying if there has been a misunderstanding. 5. Keep perspective – recognise that social media posts are prone to exaggeration, inauthenticity, and overly glossy, rosy outlooks. Remember your worth is far greater than how many followers you have or likes you receive on any social media post. 6. Discover the art of unfollow and delete. Some things are best not seen. Sometimes people will not accept you as you are. Some relationships are toxic. I repeat…. discover the art of unfollow and delete! 7. Be kind. If only everyone followed this suggestion there would be far less online nastiness and cyberbullying. In the words of Ian Maclaren.....

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

Good luck and hopefully both you and I will be inspired and continue to grow in abundance socially, professionally and psychologically by what we discover, connect with, and contribute to, on social media.

- Kristy Attwooll

Kristy Attwooll is a Clinical Psychologist practicing at Kristy Attwooll & Associates, a Clinical Psychology Practice in St Leonards, New South Wales.

Kristy has 16 years of experience providing psychological treatment to adults and couples with a range of psychological difficulties. She is a passionate advocate for mental health issues and is dedicated to helping people improve their emotional wellbeing, pursue their full potential and live more satisfying lives.

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