3 WAYS SOCIAL MEDIA AFFECTS MENTAL HEALTH
As promised, I’m beginning a series of posts on how social media impacts our mental state and has the potential to increase mental illness. If you want to start at the beginning and see what led me to start this research and discussion, pause for a moment and read Social Media Addiction: When God Commands You to Fast and Rest.
I’ve gone around and around on where to start with this discussion—do I start with the research on how social media impacts our brain, or do I start with the studies that show there is a correlation between mental health struggles and social media habits? Do I present the information like a full-fledged research paper, or do I just give you the basics of the information I found?
After a great deal of thought on where we are headed, I’ve decided we’ll begin with a basic discussion on mental health trends and social media use. Next week we’ll cover the basics of how it actually impacts our brain. In these posts, we will only scratch the surface of research, but I invite you to dig deeper if you are interested. What you will find may alarm you, convict you, and challenge you just like it did me.
In my research, I found three things that really stood out in regards to how social media can negatively impact mental health. There are more than this, but a long research paper is beyond the scope of this blog. The top three things that I saw recurring in my research on impacts of social media was the increased likelihood of narcissistic traits, the tendency towards depression and low self-esteem, and the life and emotional impacts of distracting nature of social media.
INCREASED LIKELIHOOD OF NARCISSISTIC TRAITS
Let’s be honest here—have you ever posted on social media in an attempt to “toot your own horn?” If so, why do you do it? For attention? To brag? Because comparison led you to feel negatively about yourself and you want to post something to feel better? Whatever the reason, I think there’s a lot of over-confidence happening on social media these days. I mean, think about it, we want to put our best foot forward, to showcase our very best life.
I’m guilty of this myself—taking selfies on days when I feel pretty then posting them with my kids in the picture so it looks like I’m not being vain. Or taking a picture of my house when it’s clean, because I want to boost my “I’m-a-great-housewife” ego. I don’t necessarily think in the moment, “I think I’ll just be narcissistic for a minute,” but it happens because my natural tendency is towards pride. Likewise, I struggle with low self-esteem, and when I feel bad about myself, I want to build myself up and post something that will receive positive attention and affirmation.
How sad is it though that right there I just gave into a tricky scheme of the devil—if he can use social media to encourage my prideful tendencies and make me seek admiration and praise from the world instead of from God, then he’s just distracted me from the Source of comfort, joy, and full-confidence—God Himself.
It’s not just me though. This likelihood of narcissistic traits while using social media has been studied by researchers. One study examined the associations between social media addictions, narcissism, and self-esteem. They found that there was a correlation between addictive social media use and a “need to feed the ego.” Further, they discovered that this increase in narcissistic personality traits was in an attempt to deter negative thoughts about themselves (Andreassen et al.)
Can’t we see that happening all around us even if we personally don’t think we are a social media addict? Certainly you’ve seen the people online who post so much about themselves that you wonder if they truly love themselves that much or if they think so badly of themselves that they are seeking any positive attention they can get. It breaks my heart, because mental health is so crucial to functioning at our peak in life, and if Satan can tear down our mental state and render us less powerful and less able to function at our best, then he can tear apart families, friendships, and lessen the impact we have in God’s Kingdom. With that, if the Enemy can draw us more into ourselves and narcissistic personality traits, then our focus is less and less on Christ and the humble life He calls us to and instead, it’s more and more on ourselves and the idols that we make.
Our mental health could begin a slow-fade in a downward direction if we aren’t careful to protect it and put Jesus first. Just like any addiction has power, so does social media. This study is one of many that shows there is in fact a correlation that should put us on alert and encourage us to keep our guard up.
DEPRESSION AND LOW SELF-ESTEEM
We just touched a little on low self-esteem, but this is a topic that researchers really drive home. That’s because there isn’t just one cause of low self-esteem from media, there’s many. The American Academy of Pediatrics discusses cyberbullying, sexting, and exposure to inappropriate content as ways that the self-esteem of adolescents is impacted by social media (O'Keefe et al.). But do we have to be adolescent for these things to happen to us? Do we have to be adolescent to fall into the struggles of comparison, envy, and greed?
Personally, I’ve had instances of what I would term cyberbullying even as an adult. It may look different than that of a teen, but it’s there. People throwing not-so-subtle jabs when they disagree, heated debates that broke out when I never intended for something to even raise a discussion, or people criticizing my parenting skills—people are much more bold on social media than in face-to-face discussion. As a result, conversations can easily turn ugly, and self-esteem can really take a hit even as an adult.
Adult women get objectified just like teens, nasty comments are left on grown-women’s pictures just like young girls. Comparison takes place among adult women too. Envy isn’t limited to the adolescent mind. All of a sudden we realize that social media can be just as dangerous for adults as it is for teens if we aren’t careful.
One study I found very interesting discussed objectification and the view that women are “acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.” They found that this can lead to monitoring their body and an increase shame and anxiety. The researchers actually propose that build-up of these experiences throughout life may explain the range of mental health risks that “disproportionately affect women.” (Fredrickson & Roberts).
I’d never considered this before, but wow; I see this happen all the time! So many people I love take the comments people make about their appearance and internalize it, letting it affect their self-esteem and body-image. If I’m honest, I was pretty convicted by this because I know I've been guilty of this internalization. But, the word "guilty" makes me feel like I violated some law or something, when really I should be horrified and angry that the Enemy has so sneakily devoured my confidence without me even aware that it was happening.
What happens then as a result of this low self-esteem brought on by social media? The comparison, the objectification, the bullying—all of it leads us to feel worse about ourselves if we don’t stand strong and confident in Jesus Christ. If caught in weakness, I believe it happens just like Fredrickson and Roberts said, we may end up with one of the mental health problems that all-too-often plague women; depression being first on the list.
Friends, I’m not an expert, just a mom who has struggled a lot with anxiety and depression in the past, but don’t you think this is alarming? It challenges me to make sure my faith and confidence is steadfast in Christ, but also to be careful about my social media use. It convicts me and makes me feel like this is one of the many sneaky ways the Enemy is out to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), but now that I am aware, I believe it’s my duty as a Christian to take a stand against this and protect my faith, my confidence, and my relationship with Jesus above all else.
LIFE AND EMOTIONAL IMPACTS OF SOCIAL MEDIA AS A DISTRACTION
What is the common, dangerous link for Christians between the two topics we just discussed? I believe it is distraction. Satan can use social media to keep us distracted from our mission, from the joy Christ wants to give us, from the confidence that is readily available through the Spirit. But this isn’t just happening spiritually, this distraction is impacting many people’s everyday life. That was the whole premise of my original post about God calling me to fast; I was DISTRACTED from the Giver of Life. As a result, I was missing out on the fullest life.
After that post I received multiple comments from people who were convicted and realizing just how distracted they too get from social media. I’m not surprised—isn’t that what we so often use it for? To distract us from our kids when they bug us? To keep us from “boredom” in waiting rooms? To “entertain” us when we don’t feel like doing our work?
I bet if you are in public right now and you look around, you’ll see a lot of people on their phones. When I people-watch, I find that people are distracted while driving, while walking through crosswalks, while pushing their shopping carts. In college, people were on Facebook and Pinterest instead of paying attention, at work people tried to sneak in a few minutes of Facebook browsing here and there. At this point, if I walked into a public place and didn’t see a bunch of people distracted by their social media, I’d honestly be a little concerned that I missed some major political event or something.
One study I found reiterated the fact that the negative effects of distractions on everyday jobs has already been recognized through empirical research. The author, Brooks, also emphasized the fact that many articles already show that social media is addictive and distracting in nature. In the study then, it was discovered that task performance became lower as personal social media usage became higher. Sadly, it also found that lower happiness seemed to be a result (Brooks).
Like I said, distraction was my greatest conviction when I began fasting from social media and researching its affects. But spiritual distraction wasn’t the only distraction wreaking havoc on my life. And I’m guessing, if you find yourself distracted from social media, it’s not just your relationship with Jesus taking a hit. You can search your own heart and see where there are negative life affects from the distracting nature of social media, but for me it was my relationship with my kids and husband most affected. The state of my home spiraled downward. My dishes weren’t getting done. Laundry piled up. I didn’t have time to exercise. But the one thing I always seemed to have time for was social media and my online “friends.” I probably don’t need to explain the subtle attacks of the Enemy in this by now.
For people who work outside the home each day, the consequences of being distracted by social media could be devastating. I’ve seen people lose their jobs because they couldn’t stay off Facebook at work. I’ve seen people not get promoted because they focused more on their social world than on their work. God tells us in Scripture to use our talents wisely, to invest them, and to grow them (Matthew 25). I know He wasn’t referring to social media there, but are we not in a sense “burying our talents” when we put off working our hardest and instead indulge in social media when we should be focused on the task at hand? Once again, Satan is at work, no doubt.
SO WHAT DO WE DO? IS SOCIAL MEDIA ALL BAD?
Now that you’re all scared and feeling so convicted that you want to delete your accounts forever, let me share my final opinion on social media, and I think you'll like it—IT’S NOT ALL BAD!
What’s incredible about God is that he is far, far more powerful, intensely more creative, and significantly more determined to hold onto his followers. For every way Satan uses social media as a tool to destroy the Kingdom of God, I genuinely believe God is a step ahead, or maybe even 1000 steps ahead, using it as a tool to glorify the Kingdom. I do not believe social media is the problem in and of itself, I believe the real problem lies in how we use it.
Using social media to stay in touch with distant friends and family can enrich a life. Using it to spread the Gospel and to minister to others certainly does a lot for the Kingdom of God. Social media can be used to call people out of sin, to encourage, and to share prayer requests and build community and harbor fellowship. Social media, I believe can be great when used through the lens of Scripture and the purposes that God has called us to.
Social media becomes bad when we are not in close relation with Christ or if our personal areas of weakness are low self-esteem, comparison, pride, or mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. This doesn’t mean that people who struggle with these things can’t safely use social media, it just means that we need to be careful and stay alert so that the Devil can’t attack us and use it against us. We are somewhat more susceptible to his attacks because we already are weak in these areas.
What’s great though, is that when we are solely focused on Jesus and serving Him, we can pray before or during our social media use for protection from the Enemy. We can ask God for wisdom and for the ability to use social media in moderation and for purposes that honor Him and the work that He has called us to. By keeping Jesus and our mission at the forefront of our minds while using social media, the Enemy can’t tear our mental health or our families down. Because GOD. IS. STRONGER.
So, to wrap this up, I want to challenge you to really look deep into your own heart and spend some time in prayer about this. Evaluate your use of social media and see if you need to make any changes. Since I began evaluating my use of social media and focusing more on prayer instead of scrolling through Facebook, God has done incredible work in my heart. He will do the same for you if you ask Him for wisdom and guidance.
What areas of social media use can you work on and what areas are you strong in that you can use to empower others?
Andreassen, Cecilie Schou, et al. “The Relationship between Addictive Use of Social Media, Narcissism, and Self-Esteem: Findings from a Large National Survey.” Addictive Behaviors, Pergamon, 19 Mar. 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306460316301095.
Brooks, Stoney. “Does Personal Social Media Usage Affect Efficiency and Well-Being?”Computers in Human Behavior, Pergamon, 21 Jan. 2015, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563215000096.
Fredrickson, Barbara L, and Tomi-Ann Roberts. “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women's Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks.” Sage Journals , Psychology of Women Quarterly , 1997, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x.
O'Keeffe, Gwenn Schurgin, et al. “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families.” AAP News & Journals Gateway, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011, pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/4/800.short.