Three ways social media can be good for your mental health…I guess….

Despite my own personal obsession with social media, I have written repeatedly about how bad it can be for your mental health. That being said, I remembered something the other day: Social media changed my life in a very important way. It was through someone else’s stupidity, but that still counts!

Allow me to refer to a blog entry last week:

Let me go backwards. Robin Williams completed suicide on August 11, 2014. He had long suffered from a slew of mental health challenges, including depression and substance abuse. However, Williams was suffering from “diffuse Lewy body dementia,”which ultimately contributed heavily to his suicide.

William’s suicide ultimately inspired me to go public with my story. That started when some idiot on Facebook decided to spout off shortly after Williams’ death by saying something along the lines of, “So sad Robin Williams committed suicide. He just needed to pray to Jesus more!”

No, you schmuck, that’s not how it works, and that ignorant comment got me so damn fired up that I wrote an op-ed in my local paper, detailing my own struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. That, in turn, set my career in motion in a very different way, making me become much louder about mental health issues. I’ve spoken at events detailing my own struggles, cofounded a mental health caucus, appeared in PSAs and introduced legislation designed to help those who are suffering from mental health challenges. I know that the work I’ve done in this realm has helped people – and I know I have a lot more to do to help more.

As much as I hate to admit it, while thinking of this moment the other day, I realized something: It happened because I was on Facebook at that one specific moment. If I hadn’t been, I would never have had this very positive, life-changing experience. My life would be dramatically worse.

So, even I must admit: Social media can be good for your mental health.

How else can it be helpful? Here’s a few thoughts, but with an important caveat: It all depends on the users. Social media can be good for your mental health, but that only occurs if you are willing to approach it from a certain perspective and/or change your way of thinking.

1) Social support: I firmly believe that social media cannot replace real-world interactions – but that’s not to say that they don’t have a place. Social media can help people feel connected to each other if people join supportive groups, develop healthy relationships and give as much as they take over the course of regular conversations. It can also make it easier to discuss important problems:

A common dilemma among people with mental illness (including depression) is the reluctance to talk to people closest to them about their problems. More and more young people are turning to the Internet for health advice, including topics such as contraception, acne treatments, etc. Far from being a singularly-destructive force in their development, social media can, in fact, do quite the opposite.

This is the opposite of the unrealistic expectations that haunt so many on social media. Instead of making people feel more isolated, it makes them feel more connected – and less alone.

2) You can get closer and learn more about people you’re already friends with: My wife and I have a running joke that, whenever we go to a public event, someone will say something to me about my most recent Facebook post. I try to return the favor whenever possible. Social media – when used to strengthen real world relationships – can be very helpful.

3) You can actually learn something: We’ve all seen it – the political conversation that isn’t really so much a “conversation” as it is “two idiots yelling at each other and accomplishing nothing other than polluting your Facebook wall with their mind garbage.” Social media isn’t always the most conductive place to have a political conversation – but, imagine, for a moment, that you approach a political debate with a different perspective. A willingness to listen and to learn. It is possible to actually learn something from social media debates if you can change your mindset and approach these conversations with an open mind. Maybe you won’t be convinced of someone else’s viewpoint, but hopefully, at least, you can better understand their perspective, and that’s exceptionally important in today’s fragmented society.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. What am I missing here? Let us know in the comments!

Put down the damn phone

The above picture was taken the other day. My wife and I were lucky enough to go see Haim (my favorite group!) at Radio City Music Hall. I’ve been reading this fascinating book lately: How To Break Up With Your Phoneby Catherine Price. It is, as the name says, all about learning to live your life with less reliance and obsession with your phone. To be clear, it isn’t about stopping phone use, but being more conscious of it’s use.

At one point, the book offered this: Take a look around, wherever you are. How many people are on their phones? I’d never really done it, so I thought, sure. I looked and saw this picture. All those little lights? Phones. And the picture doesn’t do it justice – there were plenty more. Granted, this was a relatively young audience and it was before the concern started, but I was still floored. Most of the folks on their phones seemed to be sitting with other people. Were we all really ignoring our friends and loved ones to stare at a shiny box?

I’ve written about it before, but it seems worth saying again: Put down your phone, if you can and if you don’t need to have it in your hand. I have to admit that I can’t believe I’m typing this, because I am notoriously bad with phone use, but it is something I am trying to change because I have to.

Why should you try to use your phone less? Well….

Price makes a couple of arguments that never quite occurred to me before as well: Every second with our phones is a moment robbed from doing something else, be it reading a book, taking in nature, hanging with family and friends, whatever. We take our phones out when we are bored, but it is in the moments that we pause for silent reflection that our brains have time to catch up with the world, to process and to develop new ways of thinking and insight into current problems.

Just to be clear, I don’t want to put my phone completely down, and I don’t plan on doing so. A better way to addressing when to pick your phone up and when to put it down, as far as I am concerned, is to make sure you know why you are using your phone. Are you doing it because you are bored? Do you want to get lost in the “scroll hole”? If so, maybe reconsider your use. But is there a conscious reason you want to use your phone? Looking for a fact that came up naturally in the course of a conversation with your friend? Want to show them that hilarious video? Those uses make sense to me, as they are part of an overall social interaction.

Again, I highly recommend How To Break Up With Your Phone. It’s been helpful to me already. It also encourages you to download an app to track your use, and I already did that, going with Moment.

Any thoughts you want to add to this? I’d love to hear them because I want to know if this prospective is one that’s shared. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

The Mental Health Danger of Instagram

I’m a weeeeeeee bit obsessed with social media – though I like to think I don’t let it distract from my life too much – but that’s another story.  Anyway, I’m an old fart when it comes to this universe (at 34, I’m practically ancient), and my social media activity has been primarily confined to Facebook and Twitter.  Recently, I finally surrendered and started using Instagram more.  I’m enjoying it – and I hope I’m able to keep it in perspective.

I think there is a huge danger with Instagram: If you lose sight of what it really means, it can be really bad for your mental health.  I’ve written before about how dangerous social media can be for your mental health, but Instagram is the absolute worst.  That’s because it forces you to make unrealistic comparisons about your life to others, provides a mere allusion of connectivity (it’s no substitute for the real thing) and can make people feel more depressed.

Almost immediately, I found myself falling into this trap.  The recent pictures I uploaded: Me at work in Harrisburg, a awesome ice cream sundae, my son and my dog, etc.  Don’t I just have the perfect life? Things not uploaded: Me getting very upset about recent allegations of rape against a colleague.  My living room being so messy that I thought a small bomb of dog fur and toys had exploded in it.  Me wondering how on earth I would ever pay off my college loans.

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly the problem with social media.  I’m very lucky – I have a wonderful life – but it’s not without its problems.  And, if you believe most people’s social media, you would be convinced that everyone else is having more fun, success, happiness and love than you.  That’s because all of us forget this fundamental truth: Just about everyone uses social media to highlight the best in their life, not the worst.

Despite it, I do love social media.  It gives me a chance to communicate with people who I love – and, in my case, who I represent – about what is happening in my life.  I’d encourage everyone who uses social media actively to remember this critical fact: It’s not reality, just a highly curated version of it.  Everyone uses it to show off the best, ideal version of themselves.  Instagram is particularly dangerous at this because we all love pretty pictures and soft filters that make it seem like our lives are perfect.

If you can keep this in mind when you use social media, you’ll be okay.

Facebook to enhance efforts to stop suicide

I’ve written before about how bad social media can be for your health.  It can be terrible for anyone, but particularly young people.  Unfortunately, there is research which shows that social media may be contributing to a rise in teenage suicides, and that it is almost  certainly contributing to increased depression and anxiety among teenagers.  Those findings are even stronger for woman then men, and teenage women have also seen a higher increase in teenage suicide (please keep in mind, correlation does not equal causation).

There’s some good news on the horizon: It seems that Facebook is unveiling new tools to catch users who may be at risk of attempting suicide.  According to Facebook’s website, it will be doing three things:

  • Using pattern recognition to detect posts or live videos where someone might be expressing thoughts of suicide, and to help respond to reports faster
  • Improving how we identify appropriate first responders
  • Dedicating more reviewers from our Community Operations team to review reports of suicide or self harm

As noted by the Washington Post, Facebook will be using artificial intelligence to scan posts and comments for suicidal potential, allowing posts to be found sooner and addressed to authorities:

Facebook said that it will use pattern recognition to scan all posts and comments for certain phrases to identify whether someone needs help. Its reviewers may call first responders. It will also apply artificial intelligence to prioritize user reports of a potential suicide. The company said phrases such as “Are you ok?” or  “Can I help?” can be signals that a report needs to be addressed quickly.

n the case of live video, users can report the video and contact a helpline to seek aid for their friend. Facebook will also provide broadcasters with the option to contact a helpline or another friend.

This…well, this is actually great.  I have repeatedly come down pretty hard on technology in terms of it’s impact on mental health, but this is unquestionably a good thing.  What’s most interesting to me is that Facebook is using artificial intelligence to try to reduce suicides; technology causes a problem, and technology is then used to limit said problem.

There are, of course, limits to the effectiveness of this new initiative.  Yes, it can potentially catch a person in crisis and stop them from hurting themselves.  But it won’t do anything to stop a person from reaching that point.  Social media can still do enormous harm individuals from a mental health perspective, and that’s why it is so important that anyone using social media do so responsibly and in a manner which ensures that they won’t make themselves more depressed.

Still, it’s good to see Facebook acknowledge this issue and try to do something to fix it.

How to look at social media and not want to throw your phone out a window

As I’ve written before, social media can be really, really, really bad for your mental health.  This is for a variety of reasons, including:

  • It inspires unrealistic comparisons between yourself and others.
  • It creates unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of how someone should be living their life.
  • It can lead to increased feelings of isolation.
  • It can inspire jealousy.

All of this, and more, are why I am going to be paying particular attention to research and experiences as they pertain to social media and mental health.  I swear, it’s almost like we need a primer on how to teach people to use social media at this point.  I’m looking at my kids – they are 6 and almost 5 – and terrified of the day that I will have to relent, give them a phone, and allow them to be exposed to the world that isn’t real.

Let me go back to what I just said: A primer.  Seriously, we need that when we go on social media!  The world that appears in our newsfeed can be so fake, so overwhelming and so depressing, that I think it’s important that we keep a few things in mind when we use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more.  Some initial thoughts:

First, and most importantly: THIS.  IS.  NOT.  THE.  REAL.  WORLD.  Say it with me now: “Social media is not the real world.”  That happy, smiling family?  Probably upset as often as you.  That sweet looking couple?  They have struggles, too.  Social media allows for a very biased view of the world, where everyone looks shiny and happy and pretty.  It is so, so important to keep in mind that there is very little about social media that is real.  People choose to present a biased picture of themselves, one in which they seem perfect, even if they aren’t.  If you can keep that in mind while scrolling through your newsfeed, odds are good that you won’t be quite as miserable while you scroll.

Second, approach social media with a Dale Carnegie perspective.  I took a Dale Carnegie course about a decade ago and it changed my life.  One of the most important lessons I learned was this: No one wants to hear about you.  In the course of public discourse, instead of focusing obsessively on yourself, focus on other people and how you can make them feel good.  To that end, when you are on Facebook and Instagram, don’t scroll through your feed looking for likes and clicks on your own content.  Instead, approach social media from the prospective of how you can make someone else happy.  Like other people’s comments.  Try to be joyful and happy for their accomplishments.  Instead of comparing yourself to others, try to just be happy for other people.

And yes, I know that is easier said than done.

Third, stop comparing yourself.  Yes, this is directly related to item #1: If you use social media and think, “Why aren’t having as good a time as Jimmy is?” you are going to make yourself depressed.  If you use it and think “Well, good for them, they are having fun!” you’ll be fine.  Remember, in this instance, treat social media like the real world: Do you run around, comparing yourself to random people that you see on the street?  I hope not.

Anything else to add?  Let us know in the comments!

Social media is (mostly) terrible for your mental health

Before I was a State Representative, my full time job was to work for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.  Among other things, I ran the Chamber’s social media, while also teaching small business owners how to make more money by using Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn.  I used to do presentations on a pretty regular basis, and I’d always joke that, when I first started using Facebook in college, I never thought that I’d be teaching people how to use it to make more money!

Yeah, about that: I also never thought it would make people more depressed, but here we are.

First, a disclaimer: I’m still social media obsessed.  Facebook & Twitter are my two vices, with a side of LinkedIn & Instagram.  That being said, there is ample evidence to show that social media is bad for your mental health.

Here’s what the research shows.

First, social media forces others to make unrealistic comparisons of themselves with others.  I always come back to my first days in college, being stuck in my dorm room, crying, and telling my Dad that I was the only one who felt this miserable.  His response stuck with me: Of course that’s what I thought!  I was literally the only one in my room!  Countless others were in their room, bawling their eyes out, and all I saw were people enjoying themselves.

Likewise, people only upload happy, smiling pictures and their successes to Facebook and Instagram.  News feeds can give you a distorted picture of reality and lead to the impression that everyone is much, much happier than you.  That’s because people only show their successes – not their failures.  But this comparison is terrible for your mental health.

Second, social media can make people depressed. Studies have shown that social networking makes people feel more depressed and have negative effects on self-esteem.  According to this 2017 study, more time on social media is correlated with higher levels of anxiety.  Perhaps most fascinating is this 2016 study:

Users who took a week-long break from the social media site were found to be more satisfied with life and rated their own well-being as higher.

Third, social networking doesn’t necessarily make anyone more social or feel more connected.  According to a study which appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, higher social media use led to increased perceived social isolation:

Young adults with high SMU [social media utilization] seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU. Future research should focus on determining directionality and elucidating reasons for these associations.

Oh, and all of this says nothing about cyber bullying, a major problem for today’s youth.

Not for nothing, but the worst network for your mental health?  According to this Time article, Instagram:

While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”

The evidence also makes it clear that this affect can be magnified in kids and teenagers, who are still developing their sense of selves and frequently have the greatest issues with self-confidence.

All of this being said, I don’t want to make it sound like social networking is all bad for your mental health.  As the same Time article I cited above notes, there are many positives:

There were certainly some benefits associated with social networking. All of the sites received positive scores for self-identity, self-expression, community building and emotional support, for example. YouTube also got high marks for bringing awareness of other people’s health experiences, for providing access to trustworthy health information and for decreasing respondents’ levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Social networking is a tool: It can be used for good or for bad.  The problem, here, is becoming more apparent: Social media is stunting our social relationships, mental growth and ability to truly connect with each others.  While more research needs to be done, and more time is needed, it truly appears that these communication tools are having the reverse effect that they sought: They are making us more isolated and separated.  Considering their rapid and continued raise, this is a disturbing possibility.

Your smartphone may be making you depressed

I remember catching this story ages ago: A study found that the more time you spend on your iPhone, the more likely you are to be depressed.

Then, yesterday, a friend was kind enough to send me this article about how the University of Berkeley was offering students “counseling” in response to a conservative speaker coming onto campus.  I totally agreed with the article’s premise: That it is absurd to offer counseling for an optional speaker who some students may disagree with, and that such an offer does real harm to the mental health world be further stigmatizing and cheapening the need to get help.  However, there was a passage in the article which really caught my eye:

Researchers have, however, identified reasons to be concerned about the psychological health of teenagers and young adults. In her new book, “iGen,” social psychologist Jean Twenge argues that we may be on the brink of a major mental-health crisis among the generation born between 1995 and 2012, a crisis she links to smartphones and social media.

This made me wonder: Just how true is this statement?  As always, standard disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, just an observer with a real interest in mental health.  That being said, it certainly appears that the answer may be yes.

First, there’s this powerful Atlantic piece, written by Jean Twenge, which makes the case that iPhones are, without a doubt, leading to a “mental health crisis.”  It also argues that smartphones are causing problems at rates previously unheard of in past generational changes:

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

The articles conclusions are stark and tie directly to smartphones.  It makes the case that teens are going out less, spending less time with friends, showing less independence, dating less, having less sex and driving less than cohorts from previous generations.

So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.

The case here is clear: Screen time makes teens less happy, and more likely to screen for depression.  Seriously, there’s a ton in this article, so if this is an area of interest to you, I highly suggest you read it.  It made me want to set my phone on fire.

Anyway….

Other articles have confirmed the link between smartphones, depression and anxiety.  What is most interesting to me is the nature of this relationship.  Anyone who has ever taken Psych 101 knows that correlation does not equal causation, meaning that just because two things are connected does not mean that one (smartphone use) causes the other (depression or anxiety).  That may be the case, but it may be that depression and/or anxiety actually cause an uptick in smartphone use; personally, I can vouch for this – when I get anxious, I frequently turn to my phone as a crutch or escape from reality.  It also may be a third item, like lack of self-confidence, simultaneously causes both depression and an uptick in smartphone use.

That being said, the Atlantic article I discussed above makes the case that the relationship is linked, and that smartphone use is causing depression.  That conclusion, however, is not uniform, per this meta-analysis:

…the studies examined were correlational, meaning that it is not clear if smartphone use causes symptoms of mental illnesses or if symptoms of mental illness cause greater smartphone use.

As I said above, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but I do know that smartphones can have a deleterious effect on mental health and social development.  I suspect this is an area that will be the subject of increasing research as time goes on, and I certainly hope that is the case.

Now, go outside!