Five years ago, I deleted my Instagram account and I’ve been much happier ever since. Now, full disclosure, I do have a Twitter account and a LinkedIn account that I barely use. However, those are the only two social media platforms I use, and I don’t even touch those every day. According to Statista, 82% of the U.S. population in 2021 are social media users. A 2021 Pew Research report found that 71% of Americans ages 18-29 say they use Instagram, while 65% of Americans ages 18-29 say they use Snapchat. Facebook and Youtube still have the most users among social media platforms. Most Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram users say they visit these social media sites daily. These statistics at least demonstrate that social media has a significant influence in the daily lives of many Americans. Social media has its tentacles in everything! Even one of my Bible apps has the option to add “friends” and frequently recommends “people I may know” from my contacts. I’ve often rolled my eyes, thinking, “I don’t want to socialize on my Bible app; I just want to read the Bible! Is nothing sacred?” All this to say, after a few years of distance between myself and my personal social media account, I began to realize how it had affected my mental health. In this post, I’d like to share 5 warning signs that helped me realize I needed to cut back on social media because it was harming my mental health.
1. You are obsessed with your social media profile. Have you ever logged on to social media just to look at your profile and see your posts? You wonder what it would look like from another person’s perspective. What would they think of your profile? Would they follow you? Have you ever bemoaned the fact that you are following more accounts than are following you? Are you one of those people who periodically thanks the new followers and touts having reached “14K!”? Most social media feeds are filled with selfies, self-promotions, and broadcasting personal accomplishments. We have to do this in order to gain followers and “make connections” on social media. Other social media users are happy to oblige us by leaving comments like, “Wow, you’re so beautiful!”, “You two are #goals!”, or “What a thoughtful husband you have!” They hope that we will return the favor on their posts. Our hearts skip a beat with each notification, each new emoji-filled comment, and gushing DM. We feel pressure to post the same type of content as everyone else. Before we know it, we have become obsessed with ourselves, or at least the social media version of ourselves.
Even some non-Christians recognize that social media feeds our human tendency to self-obsession. Dr. Elias Aboujauode of Standford University wrote a book entitled, Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of E-Personality, in which he said, “What used to be thought of as narcissistic, vain, and self-centered behavior is now the guiding norm of society. We’re living in an era where humans are putting forth these edited and inflated versions of their lives, this ‘idealized self,’ and then they are, quite literally, falling in love with themselves.” If a non-Christian can see that about social media, then we should be able to see that danger, too. Before we post, we should ask ourselves: “What is the point of posting this? What’s my motivation? Is it about others’ or is it more about me than anything else?” If we find that the sole purpose is to build an online image, or if we find ourselves constantly re-watching the stories we post on Instagram, we should reconsider our use of social media. These are signs that social media is feeding the pride that is within all of us.
2. You have a false sense of community. Have you ever put your phone away after an hour of scrolling social media and felt this strange wave of loneliness wash over you? Ironically, while social media is about connections, networking, friends and followers, spending too much time on social media can lead us to a false sense of community. Our virtual friendships are all based on likes, calling each other beautiful or awesome, and saying ilysm (I love you so much). In reality, we don’t really know them or hang out with them in person.
If we are not careful, we can spend more time “connecting” online than we do truly connecting with real people irl (in real life). As one study found, “Instead we might be occupied with worrying why we weren’t invited to a party we’re seeing on Instagram or making sure we don’t miss a single post from a friend. But if we’re always playing catch-up to endless online updates, we’re prioritizing social interactions that aren’t as emotionally rewarding and can actually make us feel more isolated.” God created us for face-to-face personal interaction. In person relationships are where the strongest connections and deepest relationships are formed. Online relationships are a starting point, but they are not the goal. While it’s not wrong to engage with people online, it’s much more worthwhile to build authentic friendships with the people immediately in your life. Bond with friends over things deeper and more important than that cute outfit or that gym selfie you posted on social media.
3. You have difficulty being in the moment. Have you ever been “talking” to a friend and the only response you get is “mhmm,” as he scrolls on his phone? It hurts to not be listened to, especially when the person you’re talking to is listening to their social media feed instead. Social media is like a magnet for our attention, with every new swipe bringing us another shot of dopamine. We are so busy posting about our experiences real time that we forget to live our experiences real time. We are robbed of the peace that comes from just being in the moment. As one psychotherapist noted in an article, “Young people now seem to be creating an image of who they are in place of becoming who they are, posting their life rather than living it. . . . Life experiences are not lived directly so much as they are used as opportunities for announcing what kind of person you are.” If you find yourself struggling to put down your phone during an event, activity, or some other life experience, that may be a warning sign that you are no longer in the moment. Is your first thought during an amazing experience, “Oh, I have to post this!”? If posting our experiences is keeping us from living our experiences, then that is not a healthy relationship with social media.
4. You struggle with comparison. Social media gives us access to more intimate details about more people than we were ever meant to have. This overload of knowledge shoves comparison in our faces. We automatically size ourselves up next to that young woman who just posted a selfie. We measure our career success according to the job promotion that he just posted. We are content with our lives until we get a glimpse into someone else’s lifestyle (or at least the one he projects on social media). We enjoy our own family until we see that mom post about her seemingly perfect #momlife. According to clinical psychologist, Rachel Andrew, “I think what social media has done is make everyone accessible for comparison. In the past, people might have just envied their neighbors, but now we can compare ourselves with everyone across the world.” But you don’t need a psychologist to tell you that social media can stoke envy in your heart. Have you ever had that sinking feeling in your stomach after scrolling through Instagram and seeing a classmate or a casual acquaintance tout their latest vacation, job promotion, or relationship? With a whole world now open for us to compare ourselves to, the temptation to covet, or became envious and resentful about what others have is strong. Hebrews 13:5 warns, “Let you conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” The truth is that we don’t need our virtual friends’ vacation or promotion to be content. Christ’s constant presence with us is all we need. I Timothy 6:6 says, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” We have something far greater to brag about than our vacations or promotions. How often do we use our social media posts to brag on Jesus instead of ourselves? (You may not get as many likes or reactions.
5. You struggle with anxiety and depression. After an hour of scrolling on social media, do you usually feel more fulfilled, content, and just plain happy? Or is the reverse true for you? Whether you’ve thought about it or not, the influence of frequent social media use on our mental health has been in question for a while. Studies have been conducted that suggest there is a correlation between social media use and anxiety and depression. But a more recent study found a causal link between frequent social media use and anxiety and depression. Researches monitored a group of 143 undergrad students at the University of Pennsylvania for three weeks. These students were randomly separated into two groups. The experimental group was limited to 10 minutes per day on three social media platforms, adding up to 30 minutes a day on social media. The other group had unlimited use of social media. At the end of the study, those in the experimental group who had started with the greatest levels of depression reported the greatest decline in depression. While a study like this does not reveal the reasons for the causal link between social media use and anxiety and depression, we can probably make some pretty good guesses.