How to improve your mental health with just a click… Disconnect to Connect

By Dr. Julie Radlauer, LMHC

Did you know that recent figures show 88.2% of the US population utilizes social media? Further, 90% of this percentage actively engages with and contributes to multiple social media platforms. Unfortunately, research demonstrates that both adult and youth social media users report greater mental distress.

We’ve all been through a lot in the past few years and for many, social media has been a way to connect with others when we are not sure if we should connect in person. Clinical psychologist and social media expert, Ben Buchanan counsels people struggling to foster friendships, and says social media has helped some of them feel less isolated.

There is important research around the concept of strong ties and weak ties. In order to stay healthy, humans need three to five significant relationships. Strong ties are those three to five significant relationships, whereas weak ties are connections that we build through networking. Social media accounts for a platform to build weak ties.  The danger is when we forsake real-world relationships for virtual friendships.  Buchanan says research indicates those relationships of the highest quality, which last the longest, tend to be the ones where you see each other face to face.

So why is this so important? 

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety have increased by 25% in the past two years. While this is largely due to the pandemic, many of the changes were in motion prior to Covid and resulted in a lack of social connection. In the short term, the social media platform was useful and necessary, however, in the long term, continued heavy usage (more than 3 hours per day) results in the increased mental health conditions we are seeing today. 

People often ask how does social media results in depression? While there are some obvious reasons like strong and weak ties, there are also some physiological reasons that we should be aware of. Not to get all sciency on you, but this is how social media impacts the brain…

  • The average person spends over 3 hours on their phone each day, including approximately two and a half hours on social media (have you tracked your usage lately?)

  • Research shows that doing anything repeatedly for extended amounts of time causes physiological changes in the brain. (That’s how habits form)

  • Social media does something called “capture and scatter” your attention, meaning when we hit refresh, constant new information enters your brain. Thus, you are constantly excited and rewarded to see new information and posts. (This is why we reach for our phone to check our messages so frequently)

  • Studies show this ability to capture your attention is detrimental to your brain. 

  • Heavy social media users perform worse on cognitive tests, lose their ability to multitask, need to exert more effort to stay focused and actually lose memory. In fact, heavy social media use actually shrinks parts of the brain and effects the neuroplasticity of the brain. (Can you remember anyone’s phone numbers these days?)

  • Further, social media makes you addicted to your screens. It provides immediate rewards in the form of a dopamine release (the happy hormone) every time you post or get a notification from the app. (Yay! New input, someone likes me!)

  • This constant barrage of shallow rewards rewires your brain to want more of what caused that dopamine release, which leads to social media addiction. (How many times a day are you checking your messages?)

  • This also means that when your brain does not get the dopamine release, you experience sadness. (Why aren’t people responding to my post?)

There are multiple studies looking at the brain and what social media usage looks like.

Did you know…. Studies show that the brain scans of heavy social media users look very similar to those addicted to drugs or gambling. Further, those who use multiple social media platforms have substantially higher odds of having increased levels of both depression and anxiety symptoms (Primack, et.al, 2018). In fact, “the greater your level of Facebook addiction, the lower your brain volume. MRI brain scans of Facebook users demonstrated a significant reduction in gray matter in the amygdala correlated with their level of addiction to Facebook. The erosion of brain matter is similar to the type of cell death seen in cocaine addicts” (He, Turel & Bechara, 2017).

What Parents should know…

All of this information is overwhelming, and frankly scary for parents as we try to navigate how our children will grow up safely in today’s day and age. Parents need to understand that children watch us to see how to behave. If we are walking around with our phones attached at all times, our children think this is acceptable behavior in the home. It is easier said than done to leave the phones on the counter or away out of sight, especially as many parents continue to stay connected to work in the evening or choose to reach out to family and friends when they are not working. There is no right or wrong about how to manage this time, only what is right for your family. 

Some statistics to pay attention to about how social media impacts the littles

While social networks do connect us, they often also distract us from connecting with those right in front of us, leaving many feeling disconnected and isolated.  In fact, 32% of children report feeling “unimportant” when parents use their phones during meals and family time.

Parental use of mobile devices during playtime with their children can lead to significant levels of child distress. A study of 50 infant-mother pairs indicated that infants showed greater unhappiness, fewer positive emotions, and were significantly less likely to play with toys when their mothers looked at their devices for as little as 2 minutes (Myruski et al, 2017)

According to the National Institute of Health’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, children who reported more than two hours of screen time per day got lower scores on IQ, thinking and language tests. 

Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their media guidelines for younger children taking into consideration that neural pathways are forming in younger years and translate into later developmental results. These guidelines include:

  • For children under 18 months, no screen time

  • For children 18-24 months, parents should choose only high-quality media and watch it with their child

  • For children 2-5 years, less than one hour per day of high-quality programming is recommended with parental supervision.

So, what can we do about it?

Perhaps these statistics make you feel like there is nothing we can do to overcome this fast-moving bullet train of technology? Relax, take a deep breath, because we can always do something. The good news is that in a 2020 study, just one month away from Facebook lead to a significant improvement in emotional well-being. Researchers studied over 1,600 American one hour per day Facebook using adults and deactivating their Facebook accounts led to a significant increase in emotional well-being. This well-being included a reduction in loneliness and an increase in happiness (Allcott et al, 2020).

What I love about this study is that it shows that we can detoxify our minds and then move forward from there. Perhaps this looks like deleting the apps from your phone. Or maybe for you, just removing the notifications will help. For others, allowing themselves scheduled times of the day to check-in on social will do the trick. If these data points have troubled you, make a plan and do something about it. For me, I deleted notifications on all social media. I also have made a commitment to putting the phone away in the evening to spend time with my three teenage boys (you can image how happy they are about that).

Some practical tips:

  • Do a check in to see how you are connecting with social media. For your children, lean in to see how they are connecting on social media. With one of my sons, I started the conversation with “show me what you’re watching on TikTok”.  Then I shared something what I found funny on Facebook (yes, I aged myself) and we had a good laugh.

  • Talk about frequency…don’t be a hypocrite. If you walk around with your phone in your hand most of the time, take stock. Also, don’t expect that your children will do anything differently. Since I have teens, we worked together to identify how much time we should be on social media and then assess your daily intake to see if you are exceeding that standard. Yes… we use it for work, yes….we are adults, yes…we pay for the service and the phones, AND YES….we can all be more present! 

  • Moderation is the key- we are all probably addicted at this point so doing something different will be hard. Go slow, be kind to yourself, be a good role model for the behavior you want to see and celebrate the success. 

  • Try to assess usage and purpose.  Different people are using social media differently. Are you/they watching videos or actively involved and posting regularly. Talk about how social media makes them feel- connected or anxious? Ask them if they wished they were doing something differently around their social media input and output? Is social media taking away from offline activities like exercise or sleeping? Are they online because they want to be or because they feel like they have to be?

  • Identify alternative ways to connect. Rather than everyone going their separate ways in the evening, schedule a walk in the neighborhood or family game night- yes, even my teens were up for family game night with actual board games. 

Ultimately, social media is here to stay so we need to find a way to balance the benefits and risks associated. Our world has become more accessible, and we can connect with people near and far. It’s important to keep in mind that we need to focus on living in the tangible world as well as the virtual world. Having authentic connections with people will support better mental health.  According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “What often matters is not the quantity or frequency of social contact but the quality of our connections and how we feel about them” 

 

Some additional resources about social media:

Family Resource Center (Child Mind Institute)- Media Guidelines for Kids of All Ages https://childmind.org/article/media-guidelines-for-kids-of-all-ages/

NetSmart- Child online safety https://www.netsmartzkids.org/

Parent’s Ultimate Guide from Common Sense Media https://www.commonsensemedia.org/parents-ultimate-guides

 

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