The ways in which social media effects our health - Baobab Health

The ways in which social media effects our health

As I’m sure you are all aware, health is more than just exercising and eating well. Complete health requires the fine balance of the many factors that contribute to health such as diet, exercise, sleep, mindset, spirituality, environmental and social factors.

There is one particular environmental factor that is relatively new to us humans and unknowingly, it is having a profound affect on our health. This factor is the increased usage of the internet and social media. The growing age of technology and social media is having a profound effect on our brain wiring, self-esteem, lifestyle and mental wellbeing. There have been many studies linking problematic internet usage to various psychological issues, including anxiety, ADHD, autism, depression, hostility, schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, loneliness, and stress.

I want to make it clear that before I get into the crux of this post, I do not think that the use of the Internet and social media is all bad. It does play some extremely important functions in our modern world and can also be used for extremely positive things. I mean, without social media and the Internet, you would not be reading this post. It has revolutionised our world in some very positive ways, however it does not come without its pitfalls.

How can social media negatively affect your health?

A constant distraction that can isolate us:

A definition of addiction: “the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life.”

If we use this definition, it’s fair to say that nearly all of us are addicted to the Internet and social media. What is worse is that this addiction is relatively socially acceptable.

Social media can become a distraction. Think about how often we check our email throughout the day, look at social media accounts, randomly check our phones and spend time randomly browsing the web. Browsing through useless information that adds no benefit to our lives or excessively checking emails/social media distracts us from being on task, decreases productivity and can become a means of procrastination. It can lower our productivity, which can cause us stress when we fail to get things done in our lives.

It can also distract us from being present in our lives. Spending your spare time on social media, looking through random videos and memes can serve a purpose for only so long. So many people distract themselves from critically thinking about their lives and the world around them. Many of us, away from our day job or studies, spend a lot of our free time playing on social media. Now don’t get me wrong, social media can defiantly be used for educational/business purposes (e.g. blogs), however from personal experience, most people I know just scroll through various forms of social media that add no real substance to their lives.

For me, if you are going to use the Internet and social media excessively, why not use it for self-learning and self –development? We are in an age where valuable information is freely accessible and in the time we spend distracting ourselves on unproductive forms of social media, we could be trying to better ourselves at our jobs or just become more holistic humans through self-learning. Why not read more articles/blogs, listen to more podcasts, watch inspiring and educational YouTube videos, learn how to acquire new skills/hobbies? Life is about learning and growing. Don’t become stagnant.

In my opinion a lack of growth/development as a human being is also detrimental to our health and in some aspects, forms of social media is providing a distraction that prevents a lot of people from growing.

Moreover, the overuse of the internet and social media is funnily enough causing social isolation. It is no surprise that recent studies have shown that increased internet usage is associated with decreased relationship quality, loneliness and depression. Not only is it preventing us from actually meeting people in person but it also prevents us from truly engaging with the people who are most important to us (even our kids) when we are with them in person. How often do you see people out at dinner on their phones? Rather than being fully engaged with the people in front of them?

Lots of people say that they can multi task, however, our brain is not capable of multi tasking. Yes we can do two or more things at once, but none of the tasks can get your full attention, which in my opinion is not multi tasking. This is why it is so dangerous to be on your phone while driving!

Social media and the Internet is supposed to “connect us, ” however it seems to me that the net effect of social media has been less connection, not more. Instead of simply being present in each moment and feeling connected with the people around us, our attention is increasingly elsewhere.

Social connection and human interaction is a key part of our health and social media is causing a barrier between true human connection where we actually listen and engage in one another, without getting distracted by our phones. One of the most important predictors of longevity is a feeling of social connectedness and one of the greatest predictors or mortality is social isolation. Importantly, this feeling of connectedness can be actual or perceived, highlighting the effect of mindset on overall health.

I’m no Luddite. I love my phone. But I’ve also come to recognize that how I use it has a tremendous impact on the quality of my life, my relationships, and my health.

When I imagine myself at 100 years of age in a rocking chair, looking back on my life, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t regret not having spent more time on my phone.

But I’m absolutely certain that I would regret having missed opportunities to spend quality time with those I loved because I was constantly distracted by technology. Once those years are gone, I can never get them back.

This is why I’ve made an effort to minimize my phone usage as much as possible when I’m with loved ones.

Disrupted sleep:

Increased screen time and blue light exposure from electronic devices throughout the day and especially at night, has an influence on the human body’s circadian rhythm. Unnatural light exposure, especially during the evening when light exposure is supposed to be minimal, can delay melatonin secretion (the hormone that primes you for sleep). Melatonin is secreted in response to darkness on the retina. When this doesn’t occur, sleep onset hormones are decreased. This can lead to sleep issues, which has many associated chronic and acute health consequences, including weight gain, reduced immunity, cardiovascular health, metabolic disease, cancer, and reduced motor skill function.

Lack of exercise and getting outdoors:

Increased use of the internet and social media usually promotes sedentary behavior. It is well established that sedentary behavior is linked with many chronic health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Recent studies demonstrate that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for hospitalization, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality, independent of the amount of exercise one gets.

People who spend a lot of time on social media and the internet also tend to get less fresh air, sunlight and spending time in nature. All of these things are known to benefit our health in various ways, such as decreasing stress.

Negative vibes:

We as humans have an innate, self-sabotaging tendency to compare ourselves to others. We use others to evaluate our own abilities and performance. In the absence of objective information about our performance, we will compare ourselves to others to see how we stack up.

Comparison is helpful when it inspires you to strive to be the best version of yourself, to maximize your potential and make the very best of what you were given in life (e.g. genes and environment). It also becomes a necessity for the functioning of society because if there is no comparison, you might be doing something silly in your life and you would think you are doing great. If we do not have benchmarks, we cannot improve our activity. Not everyone is driven by passion to do what they are doing, where they will anyway do their best. They need some benchmarks. This comparison is needed and it is not about you. It’s only about your actions. In activity, all of us are differently capable.

Comparison is an issue when it becomes obsessive and negatively affects your opinion of yourself or makes you feel inadequate and depressed. This is known as the “compare and despair” syndrome.

The human tendency of comparison is a good explanation of why statistics show that increasing use of social media seems to make people more depressed and anxious. This is because in our new age of social media, people are constantly exposed to everyone else’s lives and once again, humans get envious and jealous.

However, firstly, we must understand that social media is not real life! It is a snap shot in time of a person’s life and basically a highlights reel. People only show what they want to show because for many people, it seems the only way they can validate themselves is through a screen, a habit which is just as bad for your health as over-indulging in drink or drugs and just as addictive. No one posts their beans on toast, the fights they have with their partners, or the other 40 selfies that they took before they got the “right” one.

The brag culture of social media is so that people can present a false picture of their lives to the online community; with flattering selfies and faux-glamorous images of holidays, parties and meals. It’s as if they’re starring in a movie of the life they would like to lead because they believe status and material things are what we should aspire to. Also, an underwhelming lack of shares or ‘likes’ can lead to debilitating feelings of inadequacy. People post intimate fragments of their lives to total strangers, falsely believing that a ‘friend’ online is a real friend whose opinions matter. What is also interesting about this is that we often post on social media in order to find validation in likes and comments. Social media seems intrinsically linked with our self-esteem, which is fragile and damaging.

It’s incredibly common to feel inadequate or sad about our own lives after a few minutes of social-media scrolling. Studies show that Facebook can cause feelings of depression and loneliness. A new study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that comparing our lives to the others “better than us” on social media may be what causes the depressive symptoms associated with Facebook browsing. It leads to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.

Basically, the longer you stay on social media, the more likely you are to become envious of the things and status that you don’t posses. A person with a larger network of ‘friends’ will be more likely to experience ‘the grass is greener’ symptoms than a person with a smaller network.

Furthermore, social media and other forms of media, constantly bombard us with stories, images and videos of humans that are on the extremes of the bell curve. We are flooded with people who are exceptional and not the majority. They are the 99.999999th percentile. Media does this, because it is ultimately what brings in money, however this makes most people feel extremely inadequate as people begin to think it is the norm and it is what we should aspire too.

What most people also don’t realise is that these exceptional humans that we are bombarded with, may be exceptional in one aspect of their lives, but are usually pretty average in other aspects, as it is not possible to become exceptional in a certain area, without completely neglecting other things. As an example, this is usually why sports starts are pretty thick.

Health gurus on social media:

Many of the “health gurus” on social media do not have formal degrees and because they have a lot of followers, they think that they are qualified to give out health advice based on what works for them or based on trendy pseudoscience that will gather likes/followers. Firstly, a lot of them are just promoting certain brands and products because they get money for it and secondly, just because something that works for a genetically gifted model, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Also, some of these people on social media do not even live a healthy lifestyle but what you see them doing on social media is a snap shot in time to promote a lifestyle that is “trendy” at the moment.

It frustrates me because these individuals don’t realize the effect of what they are doing. They may think that what they are doing is seemingly harmless, however they are putting misinformation into the world that people are listening to and it can affect the self-esteem/mindset of others.

These people need to take responsibility for the energy they put into the world. They also take business away from the people in the health industry who know their stuff, have qualifications and genuinely want to help others without promoting themselves in the process or using social media to inflate their ego. By all means everyone is entitled to do what they want. We all have to make our way through this crazy thing we call life. However, when your actions make the lives of other more difficult, then for me, this is a problem.

Issues in kids:

Increased screen time in children has been linked to various behavioural disorders, addictions later in life and obesity. Kids are playing outside less and interacting less with other children/people face to face, as well as their environment around them, which is a crucial part of physical and mental development, proprioception development  self esteem building, risk assessment, social wellbeing,   and learning how to behave/interact in the world. Also, kids become so focused on their screens, they end up lacking awareness of the world/environment around them, causing a disconnect, which in turn leads to a lack of empathy for the natural world around them.

Some parents worry about kids hurting themselves while they are out playing, however statistics show that more injuries occur from children falling out of their beds than out of trees.

In some cases, child and teen use of technology can almost be obsessive and addictive, causing some serious behavioural issues. The destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognised merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.

Tech companies higher a multitude of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to devise products that capture kids’ attention for the sake of industry profit. This is quite sad because psychology — a discipline that we associate with healing — is now being used as a weapon against children and teens.

These fields, known as “brain hacking” and “persuasive design,” are highly developed and actively employed by the tech companies that make the products that kids become addicted to.

While technology has a multitude of benefits and can help prepare a child for the advances of the modern world, we need to also support a healthy relationship with technology—one that recognises the addictive nature of these products, hence setting clear boundaries around its use.

Wrap up.

As I have pointed out, there are some potential health issues surrounding the use of the internet and social media. I am not suggesting that you stop using the internet or that it’s inherently unhelpful. I am merely pointing out that excessive use carries proven and significant risks.

Here are some small strategies to reduce Internet and social media time:

  • Turning off notifications on your phone and mobile devices
  • Only checking email 2-3 times a day
  • Focusing on your most important daily tasks before engaging with email/social media/meetings.
  • No social media or Internet before bed.
  • Using a app called F.Lux on your devices. It emits and dimmer, yellow light from your devices at night.
  • Make sure you break up sitting periods with a walk or some light stretches.
  • Planning to catch up with friends and family face to face, as well as turning off your phone while you are with them.
  • Take time to add outdoor activities into your week.
  • Turn your phone on aeroplane mode or place it far away from you while doing something that requires your full attention.
  • Unfollow people on social media that make you feel complex about your life, self-esteem or body image.
  • Schedule a digital detox period or tech free sabbath. This is where you turn off all technological devices for a given period of time. Most people do this when on holiday or when they go into nature. Digital detoxes are refreshing and rejuvenating. Disconnecting from the internet world can be extremely liberating.