It seems like people are on their phones doing something everywhere you look. Most of the time, it’s related to social media. While the concept of social media was to help people remain and create connections with others, the data shows that spending time on these platforms might actually be bad for your health. What are these concerns? What can you do about them?

Over the past two decades, social media went from being basically non-existent to becoming a fully accepted and integrated part of everyday life. Across the country, 69% of adults and 81% of teens use social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Globally, more than 4 billion people use it, with most people spending 144 minutes on it every day.

There are many positive aspects to social media, such as staying in touch with family and friends around the world. However, there are some drawbacks to using social media, especially with the amount of time we spend on it.

One of the main concerns is social media’s reinforcing nature. When you use it, your brain’s reward center gets activated by a release of dopamine, the “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities, like sex, food, and social interaction. So, the more time you spend on it, the more dopamine is released.

This coincides with what social media companies want…you to spend as much time as possible on their platform because they’re able to sell advertising dollars based on the level of engagement they have. So, they purposely design their platforms to be addictive. For example, to boost their self-esteem and feel a sense of belonging, many people post content hoping to receive positive feedback.

However, one doesn’t know how many likes a picture will get, who will ‘like’ it, and when it’ll receive likes. The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome keep users engaged. When an outcome is unpredictable, a person is more likely to repeat the same behavior.

People are searching for validation on the internet, replacing meaningful connections they might otherwise make in real life. People are staying home and not interacting in the community. Another component is that you don’t know what content you’ll see until you open the app; the spontaneous results also contribute to the dopamine release.

An additional aspect is the fear of missing out (FOMO). Since almost everyone uses social media sites, you might be concerned about missing jokes, connections, or invitations if you don’t. When people see they’re excluded from an activity, it can affect not only their thoughts and feelings but also affect them physically.

A further area that’s a huge problem is social media puts a distorted lens on appearances and reality. While filters, especially silly ones, can be great for a laugh, the ability to easily whiten teeth, airbrush body parts, and hide imperfections can create false illusions. The use of social media increases the likelihood of seeing unrealistic, filtered photos. No longer is it just celebrities who look perfect—it’s everyone.

One way it’s evident this is a problem is that plastic surgeons have seen a rise in requests from people who want to look like their filtered photos in recent years. In 2021, Instagram made headlines because it suppressed likes in an effort to reduce comparisons and hurt feelings associated with connecting popularity to sharing content. However, experts point out that even if the likes are removed, there will still be comparisons and feedback.

What is the result of this constant checking and scrolling?

It leads to procrastination, less retention of information, and higher stress levels. People also report experiencing feelings of exclusion, loneliness, or anxiety when they see posts of others enjoying a good time. In 2021, the Reboot Foundation surveyed more than 1,000 Americans on their social media usage. Over half of the people surveyed acknowledged that their social media use intensified their feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness, contributed to their low self-esteem, and made it harder to concentrate.

Since research has shown a connection between the mind and the gut, anxiety, and depression can cause nausea, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors. One British study in 2018 linked social media use to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is related to depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance.

Since 2012, researchers have noticed a rise in depression among young people, during which the use of social media among teens and the amount of time spent online increased. One 2019 study involving 6,595 teenagers discovered that those who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media may have a higher risk of mental health problems than those who don’t. A different large-scale study of young adults found that occasional users of social media are three times less likely to experience symptoms of depression than heavy users.

Social media can increase self-centeredness because people focus on creating the perfect online image by sharing endless selfies and their innermost thoughts. Also, excessive social media use can lead to impulse control issues because you have round-the-clock access to your social media accounts. It can become an unhealthy way of coping with uncomfortable feelings or emotions for some. If you turn to social media when you’re feeling down, lonely, or bored, it can indicate that you’re using it to distract you from unpleasant feelings. Since perusing social media often makes you feel worse, it’s not a helpful way to fight boredom or deal with loneliness.

It’s key to note that other research suggests that “how” a person uses social media is more important than “how much.” The key is your level of emotional investment in the media. Individuals with high self-esteem tend to benefit more from social media, while those who struggle with confidence don’t. People who have addiction-like symptoms, such as feeling bad when social media use is restricted, loss of control over and preoccupation with social media, and conflicts with others because of social media use, are more likely to have mental health problems.

Physical Implications of Social Media Use

One thing is for sure…social media is a sedentary behavior. Use of it often displaces other behaviors, such as sleep and exercise, which are essential for maintaining good mental health. Numerous studies have looked at the differences between people who use smartphones for more than four hours a day and those who don’t.

Smartphone users tend to develop rounded shoulders, spinal curvatures, vertebrate disorders, and associated neck pain and headaches. Also, smartphones emit blue light, which can damage our retinas, leading to macular degeneration. A growing body of evidence indicates a link between smartphone use and cataracts because younger and younger patients are experiencing cataracts. The blue light impacts your sleep because it delays melatonin production and prevents quality sleep.

A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that college students (between 18-24) who use social media heavily had higher levels of a blood protein, C-reactive protein (CRP), which indicates chronic inflammation. This protein is used to predict the development of illnesses like diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Study participants also reported more headaches, chest and back pains, and trips to the doctor.

What Can Be Done to Change Social Media Use?

The evidence is increasingly clear that our social media usage is a public health crisis. One aspect is to conduct further research into the health effects of long-term usage. A central barrier is that social media platforms refuse to share data will allow a better, healthier approach to its consumption. To do this, it’s essential to understand the different features and design decisions that each platform uses. This can include how information is presented, how the algorithm amplifies or suppresses content and the behavioral engineering involved in how a platform vies for our attention.

In addition, some experts suggest treating the platforms like cigarettes and alcohol by applying warning labels and age restrictions. It’s time we start treating social media for what it is: an addictive activity that can have profound health implications. Changes must focus on both individual and societal levels by improving the social media environment itself and encouraging people to use it in a healthier way.

Research has shown that digital detox can increase a person’s productivity, lift their mood, and help them spend more time with loved ones. The issue is that voluntary breaks aren’t enough because people won’t take them, even though they know social media is harmful to their mental health. Close to 40% of social media users would give up their pet or car before giving up their accounts, and over 70% said they would not permanently get rid of their social media for anything less than $10,000.

However, a 2018 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that self-monitoring can change one’s perception of social media. Researchers took 143 undergraduates and randomly assigned them to two groups. The first was asked to limit Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to ten minutes per platform per day, while the second was asked to continue to use their social media as usual for three weeks. The limited group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression.

It’s essential to realize that people aren’t usually motivated to change their social media use by simply being told it’s bad for them. Instead, they need to see what their limits are and take control of their behavior. To do this, they can rate their emotions on a scale of 0-10, with ten being the most intensely one could experience an emotion, before and after using social media sites at the same time each day for a week. If you notice you feel envious, depressed, anxious, or angry after using them, you might have an unhealthy relationship with social media.

Some other signs can include that you don’t find going through your accounts fun anymore, or you find yourself doomscrolling (mindlessly and continuously scrolling through your accounts, checking on every post, and reading through every caption, not realizing that time has passed, and you are still in the same position). Another indication is if you are constantly comparing yourself to others online and feel worse about yourself after you’re on social media, or you’re spending more time on social media than with family and friends in real life.

Some other things that can signal social media’s negative impact are being trolled or cyberbullied online or engaging in risky behaviors/taking outrageous photos to gain likes and comments. If you have little time for activities like exercise, sleep, mindfulness, and self-reflection due to your social media use, it can signify that you’re spending too much time on social media. Also, if your phone is the last thing you see before you go to bed, you may want to take a social media break.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Relationship with Social Media?

If you are experiencing any of these warning signs, try to decrease your social media time by setting screen time limits, time restrictions for specific apps on your phone, or allocating designated hours for checking your accounts. In addition, be intentional in how you use social media by being careful who you follow, following trustworthy sources (ex. academic journals or trusted outlets), and avoiding clickbait-sounding headlines. Also, be cautious if an article uses words stating that something is “a fact,” and be wary of ideological content (and your own biases).

When using your social media, be aware of your posture. It’s critical to keep your shoulder blades back, chest out, and core engaged—don’t hunch! Take frequent breaks to focus your eyes on something other than the screen because this will help to reduce eye strain. Keep your phone outside your bedroom at night. Instead, use an old-fashioned alarm clock and set your phone to “Do Not Disturb” so that you’ll only receive calls from emergency contacts.

Take opportunities to do things that don’t involve social media, such as visiting friends in person. You can also get out and exercise or find a place to volunteer. If you’re still feeling depressed or anxious after adjusting your social media use, it’s essential to talk with your doctor.

For parents, it’s crucial to develop a plan of how much time family members will spend on devices. When teens start using social media, have them turn in their phones at night with the understanding that parents can review posts and messages. This has a two-fold purpose. First, it helps parents know what’s going on since sometimes young people will share struggles online but not with them. Second, monitoring encourages teens to recognize that everything they share online is a permanent fingerprint.

To help with self-esteem, try implementing a “no selfie” policy, meaning kids can post pictures of tangible objects but no photos of themselves. This allows them to share their experiences without emphasizing a focus on appearance. However, the best way to teach kids good social media habits is to set a good example. For instance, if you want your children to put their phones down at mealtime, you need to do the same. The way parents are using social media is the model for their kids.

All the recent studies show that the effects of social media, or certain aspects of its use, can differ significantly from person to person. So, to help improve the relationship people have with it, it’ll involve a multi-level approach. Since everyone is different, there’s no specific recommended amount of time a person should spend on social media. Instead, everyone needs to evaluate how their social media use impacts their lives.