It's Complicated: Our Relationship with Social Media

For many people, the post-holiday season can be a challenging time of year. For those struggling with depression, loss or loneliness, postings on social media of the perfect gift received or party attended can make these challenges seem even worse. Though social media can help us feel connected or lift our spirits, viewing images of joyful togetherness may increase our feelings of isolation or remind us of what we don’t have.

Some researchers discovered that social networking sites such as Facebook have psychological benefits like connection, communication and a sense of belonging. For example, one study found that internet use decreased loneliness and depression, and increased users’ feelings of social support and self-esteem.

Because all seems merry and bright on social media, it’s easy to get the impression that everyone who shares is joyously happy. This seemingly perfect front may cause you to compare yourself with others. Unhealthy comparisons may lead to feelings of inferiority and discontent and that type of thinking isn’t good no matter what time of year it is.

One study found that people who spent a lot of time on the internet communicated less with family members in their household, the size of their social circle shrunk, and their depression and loneliness increased. Another study found that people who compared themselves negatively with others on social networking sites may worry more and increase their risk for depression. Frequent Facebook interaction is also associated with psychological distress from communication overload and lower self-esteem.

So, what’s a poor social media user to do? Happily, there are many ways to effectively navigate these tricky post-holiday times. The key is awareness.

As mentioned earlier, there are circumstances when social media can help with the blues. However, for those of us who are particularly vulnerable to negative comparing, it’s important to take steps to protect ourselves. Here are a few to consider:

  • Notice when exposure to others’ happiness brings you down. Use the T2 Mood Tracker mobile app to see if your moods change with certain activities (such as using social media).
  • Limit social media use if you see that it affects your mood. Take a break — you’ll have plenty of time to catch up. One study shows that taking a break from social media can help your mental health.
  • Talk with a trusted friend or therapist about your feelings. Reality checks with peers about their experiences over the holidays can also help; it’s likely that others had the same challenges as you.
  • Manage stress by getting enough sleep and exercise. Also, watch what you eat and how much you drink — a bad diet and too much alcohol can negatively impact your mood.
  • Manage your expectations. During the holidays, you were exposed to lots of advertising and other media that implied that all holiday moments should be glorious and beautiful. Remind yourself that these ads are elaborate productions and often don’t reflect reality. It’s OK if your events didn’t mimic them.
  • Plan a pleasant activity that is do-able. Walk on a trail, take a bubble bath or visit a friend. And maybe even post the photos from your event — after you’ve scheduled your return to social media.

Sarah Avery-Leaf, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Sarah Avery-Leaf