Between COVID-19 lockdowns and nail-biting elections, 2020 is certainly driving many of us to spend more time on social media than ever before.
We all know this habit isn’t necessarily a good thing, with studies suggesting it can have negative impacts on our mental health, especially in young people. In turn, this can affect our ability to perform well in our daily lives and impact our physical health.
A new study from the University of British Columbia backs this up, finding that passively scrolling through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds negatively impacts our wellbeing.
“The more respondents had recently used these sites, either in aggregate or individually, the more negative affect they reported when they responded to our randomly-timed surveys over a 10-day period,” said psychologist Derrick Wirtz.
A big part of this seems to be due to social media users comparing themselves to others.
“Viewing images and updates that selectively portray others positively may lead social media users to underestimate how much others actually experience negative emotions and lead people to conclude that their own life – with its mix of positive and negative feelings – is, by comparison, not as good,” he added.
The results were even starker when Wirtz and team compared interacting via social media to offline interactions (including phone calls), finding the latter increased participants’ positive emotions.
The team surveyed university students, so their results may not accurately reflect experiences of the wider community and there were only 77 participants in the end. But it adds to other research that’s shown passive social media use has a negative impact on wellbeing.
In contrast, a larger study with 400 participants that took place over a year, found using such virtual technologies can enhance young people’s mental health.
Also, while taking breaks from social media sites, such as Facebook, has been shown to reduce physiological stress levels, this is not necessarily matched by how people feel, with study participants reporting lower levels of wellbeing.
Such mixed results have researchers arguing that how social media is used is the biggest factor in its impact on wellbeing. And understanding how to best connect with others virtually is particularly important now as we try to maintain physical distance from each other to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Wirtz believes the key may be to use these platforms to enable direct interactions – something participants in the new study were rarely doing.
Things that enhance social connectedness, like talking to each other synchronously, could reduce these negative impacts, he said, explaining that as well as focusing on interactions, we should also try to resist comparing ourselves to other social media users.
“If we all remember to do that, the negative impact of social media use could be reduced – and social networks sites could even have the potential to improve our well-being and happiness,” he added.
Other studies have suggested positive interactions and participating in collective action through social media can enhance wellbeing. But only when participants actively posted publicly – again supporting the idea that active-interactive rather than passive use might be most beneficial to our emotions.
The team said further research is required to better understand if social network sites that promote relatively greater direct social interaction can increase wellbeing.
In the meantime, avoiding endlessly scrolling through our social media feeds will surely help.
This research was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.