Social Media and Mental Health: Why We Can’t Stop Scrolling

Have you ever found yourself feeling upset at someone on Instagram you don’t even know? Or felt offended that one of your friends did not “like” your most recent photos? Or maybe even felt jealous of a stranger’s feed showcasing their seemingly perfect life?

Social media has created a second world for us to navigate, in addition to our already busy and complicated in-person lives. Navigating world #2 is not only time-consuming, but also psychologically confusing for people.

On the one hand, your online world #2 can’t be touched or quantified – it’s vague, elusive, and exists in your head. On the other hand, the emotional experiences that occur as a result of what happens on social media are completely real; these “events” cause physical and neurological changes in our bodies. What can be particularly troublesome about this type of stress is that it has become a baseline for people that lurks in the background of our day-to-day.

Social media creates a constant anxious and uneasy feeling that can only be quelled by logging in again and hitting “refresh.”

I did a little research on my Instagram stories to learn more about how people are feeling about social media lately. The percentage of my followers who participated was pretty astounding, and was the most responses I’ve ever received when doing polls. This tells me that this topic is definitely on people’s mind.

The results were as follows:

  • 99% of people who participated have questioned if social media is good for their mental health.
  • 76% of people try to set limits on social media.
    • Less than 1% said these limits always work.
    • 39% said that the limits either rarely or never work.
  • Less than 1% of people indicated that they consistently feel good after going on social media.
    • 16% of people almost always feel badly after.
    • Most people experienced a mix of both good and bad experiences.
  • The top two reasons for staying on social media were not wanting to miss out on resources (47%) and wanting to stay in the loop with friends and family (35%).
  • When asked about the biggest drawbacks of social media, 42% identified that social media is addictive.
  • When asked about what gets in the way of spending less time on social, the top choice was that it’s hard to break the scrolling habit (76%).
  • 73% of people feel that the negatives of social media outweigh the positives.
  • 99% of participants were open to hearing about how to meet their needs in ways other than social media.

(Disclaimer: these polls were VERY informal, and by no means are formal research. There are GAPING deficits in this if you were to critique this from a research standpoint! However, the results tell us some things that are worth talking about).

What I gained from these polls was the following: a LOT of people are questioning if their social media use is good for their health.

The biggest issue that people have with social media is that it is addictive and difficult to stop.

Limit setting works for some, but not others. People often don’t feel good after spending time on social media, and this can be luck of the draw. You don’t want to give it up because there are valuable resources they enjoy, and you want to keep in touch with friends and family….But you still feel the negatives largely outweigh the positives. And here is where we get stuck.

Many people asked for boundaries and tips to help with this; and I have good news and bad news about this.

The good news: There are strategies that can be effective. These strategies are going to work well for the personality type that is good at moderation.

The bad news: most of us are NOT good at moderation when it comes to things that are designed to be addictive, thus beginning the Russian Roulette. Most of the time, things might go fine for us; but all that it takes is one scrolling and comparison bender to bring you back to that anxious, uneasy, and unhappy feeling.

Your love/hate relationship with social media is not your fault, nor is it a sign of a personal weakness. It actually makes perfect sense.

Social media is designed to keep us coming back (thus creating addictive habits) through intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is the most likely to produce repeat behavior when we are rewarded only some of the time, at an unpredictable frequency. This is how slot machines operate, to give you context. And most of the time, you don’t win.

Sometimes when you post on social media, you get lots of likes and comments. Other times, you get fewer. And the kicker is, there is no true rhyme or reason as to why. Number of likes is not indicative of value of your post because of the infamous “algorithm.”

The algorithm rewards content that drives more users to their platform – not things that are particularly meaningful, or even true. Whatever is going to keep people clicking and scrolling is going to be showcased. You might be going on social to scroll through what your friends were up to, and all that you see are reels of people doing viral dances or ads for products from celebrities you follow.

This is not to say that there isn’t truly valuable content rewarded by the algorithm – I follow quite a few mental health professionals on Instagram who post some fantastic stuff, and they go viral. They are good at what they do and their content is great. My point here is that this is not always the case. I see a lot of highly questionable and unethical things posted by mental health professionals as well, and some of my trusted colleagues and I definitely raise an eyebrow and sanity check one another about what we are seeing.

Social media has always been problematic for mental health because of the fact that it leads us to constantly evaluate ourselves through others’ eyes.

Add in Instagram changing the rules of the game without giving you the rulebook, and you have a recipe for anxiety and low self-esteem.

Now let’s go back to social media being world #2 for us to navigate. In this world, it’s like a fun house with mirrors all over, and you can’t really tell where you are going. You fumble around, and some moves work, but a lot of moves don’t. You leave feeling confused and unsure if you really want to do that again.

This is inherently stressful for us.

Our brains were also not designed to manage such a large “circle of concern” (aka people and things that matter to you).

So, what do we do about this?

In order to make decisions about our time spent on social media, we need to become clear about what matters to us – and then make decisions based on those values.

I could very easily give you “ten tips to reduce screen time.” But the thing is, you’ve probably already tried these things, and you’re reading this blog because they haven’t worked. That’s because when we implement a one-sized-fits-all approach to our habits without careful consideration of our values, these methods end up falling flat.

When you take inventory of what is important in your life and then decide how social media both adds and detracts from this, you will have a workable foundation from which to make changes.

Next on the docket will be an IG video that will cover the following:

  • How to identify your core values
  • How to decide how to spend your time according to these values
  • Habit hacks and strategies for implementing these decisions

In the meantime, if you are eager to get started on some more material about how to have a healthier relationship with social media, two books that can get you started are Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport, and How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life, by Catherine Price.

Enter your email and hit SUBSCRIBE to receive this directly to your email inbox on a monthly basisand follow me on Instagram @syracusetherapy for more mental health content!