COVID-19 has limited in-person social interactions, but people are connecting online more than ever — for example social media engagement increased 61 percent during the first wave of the pandemic. For many, social media has become a lifeline to the outside world, especially as people look for ways to remain connected and entertained.
So, with social distancing measures in place across the globe, is Instagram really better than our current reality? Not exactly, according to mental health experts. While social media can play a critical role in keeping friends and family connected during times of forced separation, users should be aware of how longer periods of mindless scrolling can have a detrimental impact on their mental health.
Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the Perelman School of Medicine, specializes in the treatment of anxiety-related disorders. Tyler, who often speaks with his patients about the impact of social media, is familiar with the many ways in which it can exacerbate social anxiety, comparison, and perfectionism. He also recognizes that in a pandemic, social media can be an important crutch for those looking for connection.
“The isolation we’ve experienced over the past year really weighs on people,” Tyler said. “We’re all working to understand a new and different sense of connection.”
Navigating Social Media in the Pandemic
The need for increased connection was clear at the start of the pandemic. Screenshots of Zoom parties and new challenges, like the #see10do10 pushup challenge, made it obvious that users wanted to stay engaged as they coped with a new, shared reality. However, more than a year later, pandemic-related challenges have slowed down, and social media feeds are swinging back to many of the same old pitfalls that have made them difficult for mental health for years, such as misinformation and heavily edited photos.
These unrealistic representations have an impact on users, especially those who are turning to social media more frequently. People diagnosed with social anxiety, for example, are already prone to experiencing the negative consequences of social media.
“Originally, it was thought that people with social anxiety might benefit from social media use since it could serve as a stepping stone for social interaction,” Tyler said. “In many cases, however, the pressure of gaining more ‘likes’ or more ‘friends,’ has had the opposite effect. Instead of making people who feel socially anxious more connected, it forces them to realize how disconnected they are.”
What’s more, thanks to feeds filled with doctored photos and sometimes-exaggerated positive experiences, an increase in social media use also provides increased opportunities for social comparison.
“Social media perpetuates the idea that perfectionism is possible and supports the issue of confirmation bias,” Tyler said. “People see other users who appear to be perfect, who are well liked, or who have things they may not, and they start to believe some of the negative perceptions about themselves.”
What’s often posted to social media is inherently biased, as very few people will post photos or updates about their flaws, Tyler explained. It’s important for people to take a step back and recognize that what is being posted isn’t reality.
The impact of increased screen time reaches far beyond those struggling with social anxiety. Because the pandemic provides fewer opportunities for in-person interaction, many feel less connected than they did in the pre-pandemic world, despite their intentions to use social media for more connectivity. In fact, in the first experimental study of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt, PhD, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology department, found that social media use actually increases depression and loneliness.
Impact of Social Media Misinformation
An overwhelming amount of misinformation across social media has also been a major source of anxiety and stress. The spread of potentially harmful information became so prevalent during the pandemic that many sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have started flagging and, in some cases, removing, content not based in facts. Despite these efforts, social media users are still bombarded with images, articles, and posts that spread misinformation and contribute to an already heightened sense of fear.
The impact of this information can be extremely stressful, particularly as users try to get a handle on their own feelings connected to the social and political issues of the past year. To counteract any negative side effects that go along with increased social media use, Tyler recommends a different social media challenge: moderation.
“Challenge yourself to take the day off from social media or commit to turning your phone off during dinner or a movie,” Tyler said. “We can all use and enjoy social media while still working to be more present in our day-to-day lives.”