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Social media plays a large role in society today.
People use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok and many other platforms as daily sources for education, entertainment, work, and more.
However, can spending too much time on social media have a negative impact?
Researchers have continuously studied how social media affects mental health. While the results are mixed, heavy use of social media can contribute to negative factors including cyberbullying, low self-esteem, and social isolation.
This is important for Latinos, 98% of whom own a smartphone and who are the highest-percentage users of Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and WhatsApp among racial/ethnic groups.
“Hispanics spent almost two more hours per week watching videos, streaming audio and social networking on their smartphones during COVID-19, as a way to bridge the social distancing gap,” according to the Nielson Company.
What are still ways individuals can practice healthy habits when using social media?
1. Limit Screen Time and Social Media
The average American spends 7 hours and 4 minutes looking at a screen each day.
For many, social media is used as a way to unwind and relieve stress.
However, spending too much time on social media can also lead to unproductivity.
“In other words, time online takes away from time you could be spending with others, being physically active, or doing a hobby. These are things that help protect your mental health,” according to an article on the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Setting time limits to one’s screen time can be beneficial for users.
With features like Do Not Disturb on Apple products, users can turn off notifications, including social media. Other features like Sleep Focus or Work Focus allow users to specify what notifications pop up on their phone.
2. Connect Responsibly to Social Media
Social media can create communities and connect people from different cities and countries.
How important is it to make sure you’re connecting with others safely?
“Many meaningful and beneficial connections can be made online,” said Dr. Katherine Keyes at Columbia University. “This is especially true for teens who have more marginalized identities. Sometimes they can find community and connectivity online that they can’t get in their day-to-day lives.”
However, users should be careful not to connect with content and others that could expose them to harmful health behaviors.
“Passive behaviors on social media were related to higher likelihoods of starting to use ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery systems) and other tobacco products. Additionally, active behaviors on social media were related to higher likelihoods for the initiation and persistence of tobacco use,” according to a 2021 study.
Seemingly normal ads that push alcohol and tobacco can easily pop up on people’s everyday social media feeds.
“My concern is that social media can make substance use behaviors seem normal,” said Dr. Patricia Cavazos-Rehg at Washington University. “That can affect both teens and adults.”
3. Take Breaks from behaviors.
News and world events are accessible with the slide of a finger.
While some may find it helpful and important to stay informed, spending too much time online can lead to media overuse. Studies are linking smartphone usage and increased anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of car injury or death.
A simple answer could be to take a break.
“If you notice that using social media has made you feel anxious or depressed, it’s a good idea to take a break for a few days. Unplugging helps you recharge your batteries and helps you refocus on what’s most important in your life,” according to Cone Health.
Taking break from social media can include:
- Having an app tracker or timer
- Deleting social media apps
- Turning off push notifications
If a friend or family member is struggling with media overuse, it could also be helpful to join them in taking a break.
“Once you’ve decided to create healthy social media habits, a great way to start is to set goals that are attainable and use tools to help you stay on track,” according to JED Foundation.
4. Question Your Social Media / Smartphone Habits
Some experts warn of the impact of social media on people’s brains.
Dopamine as a chemical produced by our brains that plays a starring role in motivating behavior, according to an article from the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The human brain contains four major dopamine “pathways” between different parts of the brain that act as highways for chemical messages, called neurotransmitters. Three of the pathways are considered the “reward pathways.”
These “reward” pathways are responsible for the release of dopamine in various parts of the brain, with all three becoming active when anticipating or experiencing rewarding events.
“Positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it,” writes Trevor Haynes, a research technician in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. “Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways.”
Therefore, notifications of a new message, like, or follower on social media can be a positive social stimulus and cause dopamine influx.
Social media seeks to establish rewards patterns as a trigger.
“Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold ‘likes’ on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on. Your dopamine centers have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond robustly to the sudden influx of social appraisal,” Haynes writes. “This use of a variable reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimizes the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users.”
It’s clear the social media will continue to play a large part of people’s everyday lives. It’s up to the individual to monitor how much they scroll through.
“Unless the advertisement-based profit model changes, companies like Facebook will continue to do everything they can to keep your eyes glued to the screen as often as possible,” Haynes writes. “And by using algorithms to leverage our dopamine-driven reward circuitry, they stack the cards—and our brains—against us.”
Haynes urges people to proactively recognize the time we spend on smartphones.
“Above all, mindful use of the technology is the best tool you have. So the next time you pick up your phone to check Facebook, you might ask yourself, ‘Is this really worth my time?’” he said.
5. Use Your Phone for Social Justice!
As we think critically about our social media and smartphone use, we recognize they are powerful tools for empowering people, advocacy, and social justice.
For example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement began on Twitter in 2016 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Amid the subsequent deaths of Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others at the hands of police, the movement has reached and engaged millions of people across America. The organization has chapters in over 30 US cities.
You can use your phone for good, too.
One way is to download your own Salud America! Health Equity Report Card.
The Report Card explores local data, maps, and gauges several factors including:
- Physical and Mental Health
- Healthcare Access
- Social Economic Status.
In your report card, you will see maps, data, and gauges to compare your local health equity issues to the rest of your state and nation.
Then email your report card to local leaders and share on social media to raise awareness and action for change!