Social Media Impacting Health and Behavior

Social media is a type of digital technology that propagates the distribution and exchange of opinions, information, and ideas using words, and all manner of visual representations. Arguably, social media offers a provoking pathway to human connection/interaction, community, and influence.  The health science literature tells us that we are made well by intimate social relationships such that we are more likely to have an improved quality and length of life when we have access to human connections. In concept, social media could be a place to cultivate health-enhancing associations with others—only, of course, if this is in fact happening. Currently, it is estimated 4.7 billion people use social media worldwide with an average usage of 2.5 hours per day. In the U.S. 95% of adolescents are accessing social media at an almost constant rate, and 40% of children ages 8-12 are on social media. The average viewing time for children and adolescents combined is 3.5 hours per day.

This begs the question, what are the short-term and longer-term health effects resulting from both the barrage of technology-based interaction and input, and the actual content sans the fact checking or science-based authentication. The research demonstrates that 45% of adults report being discontented when they are not able to access their social media sites. Neuroscientists tell us that we are not paying attention, our minds are wandering, for at least 47% of the time we are awake. The diagnosis of attention deficit disorder is now four times higher in adults than in children, and the overall prevalence has doubled from 2007 to 2016. The health content on social media is rife with pseudoscientific claims, such as faulty dietary or exercise advice, substance-use recommendations, or risky “health” practices, leading to dangerous, even deadly outcomes.

Actual interpersonal skills may suffer as a result of a heavy emphasis on these “distant connections.” A study out of Yale University suggests that social media dispenses angry thoughts the fastest, thereby supporting the loop of outrage and aggression. The lack of face-to-face contact through social media can give rise to the creation of a persona that is disingenuous or somewhat contrived. Fueled by the desire to have others’ approval in the form of followers or likes, an individual may become less self-aware and self-compassionate, and more driven outwardly towards securing the endorsement of strangers. The theory of social proof suggests that some people look to the responses of others to ascertain appropriate behavior, thought, or action. Social proof combined with intensive social media influence can diminish individualized thought and understanding and give rise to “group think” no matter how false or misleading.

During the intensive period of growth and development that occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, research shows that utilizing social media more than three hours per day increases anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, poor self-esteem, and suicide.  Youth entrenched in social media are reportedly at higher risk for exposure to severe harassment and cyberbullying. The Surgeon General of the United States has announced, “we are in the middle of a youth mental health crisis” and recommends delaying the use of social media until at least middle school.

Discussing social media, it may appear we have more questions than answers—more problems than solutions. As we seek to optimize our health and well-being and contribute positively to our world, we can start by connecting inward and pausing to understand what we feel, and how we act and react. Identifying the pillars or foundational tenets informing our moral compass will impact our behaviors and choices, whether face-to-face or online.  As a parent, teacher, friend, leader of self and others, we have the potential (opportunity—responsibility?) to share authentic, hard-won wisdom and knowledge with a hearty dose of kindness throughout our human-to-human interactions, no matter the platform.