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The complex relationship between social media and mental health

How social media users can keep a healthy state of mind
Posted at 3:50 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 11:17:46-04

Social media can be a virtual window into people's lives, but mental health experts say the likes, comments, and shares can often cause more harm than good.

Questions over the safety of some apps are rising after a former Facebook data scientist testified before Congress that the social network's products can be damaging for kids and fuel polarization in the U.S.

Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges, UW Green Bay chair and professor of psychology, said social platforms provide instant gratification when others like or comment on content.
"That's based on the social psychology of social comparison: You comparing yourself to your peers," Wilson-Doenges said. "And when you receive that positive reinforcement of likes, when you see the number of likes ticking up when you post a picture like a selfie, or something cool that you're doing, that releases dopamine in the brain."

Nicknamed the "feel-good" chemical in the brain, Wilson-Doenges said chasing that same feeling and reinforcement of social comparison can become addictive.

"In some ways, it's good for us: It makes us feel good. But there are also some damaging effects to our mental health that research has shown," Wilson-Doenges said.

Recent articles by Penn Medicine and McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, show social media platforms can cause anxiety and depression.

Rogers Behavioral Health is working on its own research study to examine how adolescents in different clinical populations are using social media.

"In particular when we look at our depressed adolescents and our adolescents who have eating disorders, they’re very concerned with specific comparisons with how people are living their lives," said Joshua Nadeau, Rogers Behavioral Health senior clinical director. "One of the biggest social media platforms that they tend to (mention) is Instagram. I think it’s just because those photographs are there and that's the whole crux or kind of background of that platform."

The filters and careful curation of content can make people feel like they're missing out.

"You're seeing what somebody chooses for you to see. You're not even seeing the real," said Lisa Tutskey, a Prevea Health licensed marriage and family therapist. "Going onto social media and seeing people live what you think is this amazing life that you want to live often doesn’t feel very good, and it sort of sends this message that you’re missing out."

Tutskey said the spread of misinformation on social media can also create discontent among family and friends.

"We're really missing out on that interpersonal connection. We're really missing out on relationships, because relationships are meant to be face-to-face," Tutskey said. "I think many of us, we live in a very isolated world and we're struggling. So while it can feel like you're connected to people on Facebook, or Snapchat, or Instagram, you're not really."

So what can people do to keep a healthy state of mind on social media? Here's what each expert recommends:

Wilson-Doenges said it may not be realistic to cut off social media cold turkey. She said studies show limiting social media use to about 10 minutes per platform a day can provide a more healthy relationship with social networks, although deleting certain apps that cause severe distress is encouraged.

Nadeau said structure is key: He said people will experience less stress with time limits and set boundaries for social media use.

Tutskey said putting down the phone and reading a book, going outside, or getting exercise can give people much needed relief from social media. She said people shouldn't scroll through feeds before bed, because it can disrupt sleep patterns.