Why Does Social Media Make Us Depressed?
The unhappiness people feel when they spend time on social media relates in large part to social comparison, says psychologist Melissa G. Hunt, the author of the study. “When you look at other people's lives, particularly on Instagram, it's easy to conclude that everyone else's life is cooler or better than yours,” she says.
That’s because, according to social comparison theory, people base their value on how they stack up against others. And this urge to compare goes way back before social media even existed. Long ago, it was key for survival: Humans needed to quickly gauge their rivals’ strengths and assess threats. These days, instead of sussing out others as competition for food and resources, people measure each other's attractiveness, success, intelligence and desirability to see where they rank.
Since comparison is hard-wired, there’s no easy way to completely avoid it. And, unless you plan to move off the grid, a total social media detox is highly unlikely. Even though you may not be able to change your circuitry or dodge every post that makes you feel inferior, you can learn how not to fall prey to the comparison trap.
1. Pinpoint Your Social Media Triggers
The first step to maintaining your sanity on social media is knowing what sets you off. When you scroll, do specific types of posts or certain people always make you feel inadequate or depressed?
To pinpoint which social media experiences pack the worst punch, try conducting a personal experiment, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at UC Riverside and the author of The Myths of Happiness. “Keep track of your social media use and mood, with particular focus on feelings of self-esteem, eight or 12 times per day.”
Given our celebrity-obsessed culture, you might guess that comparisons to your fave stars — with their sparkly bling, rock-hard bodies and lavish digs — sting the most. That’s not always the case, says Erin Vogel, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “Comparisons tend to be strongest when they're made to people similar to us,” she says.
According to this train of thought, you're more likely to covet someone else’s life if it feels attainable — a life path you might’ve sought or achieved but didn’t. That’s why a casual romp through Facebook can leave you in an unexpected emotional funk. “When we see a friend or acquaintance who seems to be doing much better than us, it's hard not to let it affect us negatively,” says Vogel.
Read more: 8 Ways to Use Social Media to Win at Life
2. Practice Mindfulness
So, you’ve identified which social media stir up feelings of envy and inadequacy. Now what? “Mindfulness is a great technique for putting things into perspective and helping us counteract the negative effects of social media,” says Vogel. With practice, you can learn to mindfully observe these emotions without getting lost or stuck in them.
How do you do it? For starters, don’t resist or avoid the uncomfortable feelings, according to Mindful.org. Monitor them. Pay attention to how envy feels in your body. Is your jaw tight? Your cheeks flushed? In addition to learning the physical signs, notice your thoughts. What’s your inner voice saying? Acknowledge these thoughts from a distance like a nonjudgmental spectator.
Once you recognize your reflex responses, i.e., the negative thoughts and feelings that spontaneously pop into your head as you scroll through social media, you can break the unconscious cycle. Instead of passively experiencing an envious feeling on autopilot, you can make a mindful choice to untether yourself from it. Try breathing deeply and saying, "I acknowledge this envy (inhale); I release this envy (exhale)."
3. Give Yourself a Reality Check
Most people don’t share their epic life fails on social media. “People tend to present the ‘highlights’ of their lives,” says Vogel. “So, when we compare ourselves to others on social media, it's not a fair comparison.”
However, sometimes cooler, rational heads don’t prevail when faced with breathtaking photos that simultaneously dazzle and discourage. Even for the most level-headed person, it’s all too easy to forget that social media is a distorted, filtered version of life.
For a reality check, consider your own Instagram feed, says Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston. Does it reflect your life perfectly? Probably not.
If your posts don’t represent a completely accurate picture of your own struggles, odds are other people’s feeds don’t either, she says. Remembering that we all curate our social media with personal highlight reels — not our bloopers or blunders — may help give you perspective when you’re feeling subpar next to someone else’s seemingly fabulous life.
4. Reframe Your Perspective
Just as social media depicts a distorted reality, your thoughts that result from scrolling can be distorted, too. For example, when your friend posts pics of her polite, dutiful preschoolers, you might instantly conclude that you’re a terrible parent because your kids don’t behave like angels all the time. This is what's called a cognitive distortion — an irrational, false, or inaccurate thought or belief — and it can run amuck in your mind if you let it.
To counter these corrosive thought patterns, Steer suggests cognitive restructuring, i.e., trying to view a situation differently. “For instance, if you're feeling bad that your toddler is throwing non-stop tantrums when everyone else's kid seems angelic on social media, you can cognitively reframe how you feel about it by recognizing that it's developmentally appropriate for your toddler to assert their independence.”
Increasing your awareness around cognitive distortions might take some practice, but over time, you’ll develop a personal radar and learn to reframe maladaptive beliefs into healthier, reality-based thoughts.
5. Focus on What’s Good in Your Life
Amid an onslaught of perfect posts reminding you what you’re missing, it’s tough to remember all the good things you already have. Reflecting on and being thankful for what’s positive in your life is essential when it comes to counteracting the negative impact of social media. A little gratitude goes a long way, says Lyubomirsky.
In fact, a 2017 study Lyubomirsky co-authored suggests gratitude reduces stress and depressive feelings while boosting overall satisfaction, well-being and the motivation to improve oneself. That’s why you should count your blessings every day, she says. Try writing a thank you letter to a friend who’s supported you or keep a daily gratitude journal.
6. Turn Envy Into Motivation
Comparison might be the thief of joy when you judge yourself as not up to snuff, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, a little envy might be just what you need to kick your self-improvement goals into high gear.
According to Vogel, “Social comparisons are most beneficial when they're used as inspiration.” Steer adds: “In some cases, it can be motivating to compare yourself to someone. For instance, you might be on a track team and compare your race times with other teammates. In doing so, you’re motivated to improve your own performance.”
So next time you feel the green-eyed monster rear its ugly head, channel that energy into positive vibes that will spur you on.
7. Cultivate Authentic Connections (Online and Off)
Despite evidence to the contrary, it’s entirely possible to create authentic interactions with others on social media. Sometimes, letting your guard down and sharing your imperfections can be the antidote to all the posturing and posing.
“If you're going through something difficult, it's okay to ask for support on social media,” says Vogel. “People often appreciate seeing some honesty and vulnerability from their social networks.” In other words, when you present yourself in a genuine way, you encourage others to follow suit and pave the way for a sincere dialogue to occur.
Forming more meaningful relationships IRL is especially important for counterbalancing the negative effects of social media. “When you spend time talking to people face-to-face in a deeper way, you learn about their challenge and problems, as well as their good news,” says Lyubomirsky.
Forging genuine connections not only reminds us how complex life is for everyone but also reiterates how essential support, empathy and compassion are to all interactions, whether online or off.