When I talk to friends, family, or really anyone about why I left social media, the usual reaction I receive is a justification for why they choose to remain plugged into their socials. I never ask for this, and I would never want someone to feel like I am judging them for their online habits, which is why in my previous two articles I stuck to my personal experiences and left the scarier aspects out of the conversation.
However, understanding the darker side of social media was crucial to my experience and it deserves to have some time in the light.
Social media always piqued my anxiety and depression through its insistence on comparison and just the sheer percentage of time it insisted on taking up in my life. From both surface and deeper conversations with others I am certain I was not alone in those feelings. For this reason, we must talk about how social media impacts mental health.
The National Center for Health Research (NCHR) has compiled the findings of several studies and found that many young social media users report being online at late hours, which the NCHR points out could be detrimental to a person’s overall well-being by disrupting sleep patterns. There is also shown to be an expectation for people to be online and available constantly, but most often at night before going to sleep.
I certainly can attest to feeling as though I had to keep up with messages and notifications, feeling obligated to respond promptly to anyone and everyone, especially during my free time in the evenings. These feelings add to stress and worries, and an irregular or delayed sleep cycle is known to negatively affect overall health, stress levels, and mood.
Greater use of social media also means greater amount of screen time in general, which can seriously impact our physical health. Being one of the first generations to be constantly on computers and phones, we are guinea pigs for determining the long-term effects of such screen addiction. I had frequent headaches (and sometimes still do after a few hours of Zoom classes) due to the hours I spent looking at TikTok or Instagram.
More screen time also can increase sedentary time and decrease time spent moving and exercising, which was certainly true for me. Several sources, such as Harvard Medical School and the U.S. Department of Health, confirm that exercise and time outside benefits our brains and bodies in many ways: getting fresh air and vitamin D, releasing endorphins and serotonin, improving balance and strength, and decreasing stress, depression, and anxiety.
After cutting out social media, I regained time to be outside, go hiking, and get some exercise. This time has been truly sacred and allowed me to reconnect with my brain and body, where as before, I spent time feeling terrible towards my body due to comparisons promoted by social media.
More evidence compiled by the NCHR focuses on how social media promotes hyperfixation on the body and beauty standards, especially detailing the shame and poor body image that this can lead to, especially for young girls.
I myself was trapped in a constant cycle of feeling pressured by accounts on social media to adopt certain diets or exercise routines or wear certain makeup or buy certain products, all to make myself look more attractive, lose weight, and fit the mold of a skinny, white, hyper-feminine model. The growth away from those cycles and body image issues has been beautiful, and I am positive it would not have been possible while still bombarded with those Facetuned or otherwise plastic images every day.
All of these possible negative aspects of social media must be considered when assessing our individual and collective well-being. Daily habits manifest our daily reality, our daily thoughts, our daily actions. My anxieties and waves of depression have never been less burdening since leaving social media, and my daily habits have never so strongly reflected my goals and values, which I can only hope others try to work towards themselves in any way they can.
In my next and final article for this journey, I will continue to shed light on the darkness that social media carries, but on an overarching scale that includes Big Tech, artificial intelligence, and structures of racism, sexism, and classism.