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Social Media and Its Health Effects

by Mary Gallagher, RN, MSN, CCRN

Nov 1, 2016
Health

In 1971 the first email was sent between two computers situated side by side, but it took decades and the development of the internet before its widespread use. In 1994 Geocities, the first social networking site, allowed users to create their own websites. The following year TheGlobe.com gave users the ability to interact with people with the same interests and to publish their own content. And so social media was born.

Social media has rapidly become an important part of everyday life. One in four people worldwide now interact on any of 600 social networking sites on the internet. This activity may seem harmless, but some researchers suggest social media affects our health and mental well-being.

Statistics show 63 percent of American Facebook users log on to the site daily, while 40 percent log on multiple times a day. A survey conducted by Salford Business School at the University of Salford found 53 percent of survey participants believed social media changed their behavior, with 51 percent of those saying the change was negative. They reported feeling less confident when comparing their achievements to those of their friends. Many people on social media sites present idealized versions of their lives, leading others to make comparisons that can lead to negative emotions.

Two-thirds of survey participants reported difficulty relaxing and sleeping after using the sites, while 55 percent said they felt “worried or uncomfortable” when unable to log on to social media. According to sleep disorder specialists, digital screens emit light that can keep people awake by stimulating the retina. A disrupted sleep pattern can affect memory and even result in difficulty focusing. Because young adults usually multitask on several social networks, attention spans are also shortened.

Some people report being anxious or depressed or restless from using social media. Social media has been linked to narcissistic personality disorder and insomnia in young adults. Some become addicted to using social media, spending long hours daily on various sites. Likes and comments provide positive reinforcement for posting information, making it difficult to stop. A study from the University of Michigan reported avid users of social media were overall more unhappy than those who use it less. Over time, avid users report lower satisfaction in their lives overall.

Social media gives rise to cyber bullying, especially among adolescents. An organization that prides itself on internet safety, Enough Is Enough, conducted a survey with teenagers in which 95 percent of respondents said they witnessed cyber bullying on social media, with 33 percent having been victims themselves. Bullying can lead to physical injury, social and emotional problems and even death. Children and adolescents who are bullied are at increased risk for mental health issues including depression, anxiety, headaches and problems adjusting to school. Bullying can cause long-term damage to self-esteem.

A National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse study explored the relationship between teenagers, social media and drug use and found 70 percent of teenagers aged 12 to 17 use social media, and those who interact with social media daily are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana. Some 40 percent of these teenagers admit they were exposed to pictures of people under the influence via social media, suggesting social media may glamorize drug and alcohol use, increasing peer pressure.

Fear of missing out occurs when people feel pressure to be doing what everyone else is doing while on social media, such as sharing every event or life experience. It can cause social media users to question why everyone “is having fun without them.” Surveys of users indicate Facebook and Twitter, for example, can make people feel they are not successful or smart, and Pinterest can make users feel insecure because they are not creative or crafty enough.

Certainly, social media offers powerful, positive psychological effects. It enhances our association with others and helps renew old friendships, connecting like-minded groups of people with just one click. Social media brings people together for a common cause such as disaster relief.

Researchers found social media can help introverted adolescents gain social skills. Shy individuals may feel safer communicating via a digital screen. Teenagers have become good at expressing empathy toward others virtually.

Social media links us to tools and technology that make life easier, providing an endless stream of information, some accurate, some not. Health institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Red Cross use social media to get correct information to the public about health issues, disease prevention and substance abuse treatment.

Because social media gives a voice to anyone, beware of misinformation. Networking sites encourage people to be more public with their personal lives. Users can forget to apply filters they normally use when talking about their private lives. Any image you post may remain out there and appear less attractive in the context of an employer doing a background check. While many businesses use social media to find and communicate with clients, the sites also prove a great distraction to employees.

No matter why you use social media, take a moment to put down the smartphone or tablet and do something else such as read a book, write in a journal or go outside for fresh air. Backing away even for a few hours offers crucial benefits. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter can wait.

The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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