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Our need for a digital hug is getting bigger by the day. Yet news (mainly read online, obviously) is filled with fear over our social media use, killing off our brains, mental health and social skills. And with the average person in the UK spending 24 hours a week online (twice as long as ten years ago) and on average checking their phone every 12 minutes, it’s no wonder that powerful voices are speaking up even louder. And, for the first time, the Royal College Of Paediatrics And Child Health is calling for restrictions in screen time as television now plays second fiddle to social media. So, hold off on that Instagrammable photo for a moment and get clued up on what you can do.
Sort of, after all, social media has been around for a while now. The issue now is the strength of spotlight on how it impacts on our health. And it is all about validation – validation by ourselves, others and society. You see this validation is not the flesh on flesh of a handshake or a hug, the sparkle of a smile or the positive tone of praise; instead, it is binary digital data of likes, followers and comments. It is this virtual validation that is fast superseding real-world validation. In the medical world, we’d call that a red flag. And that’s bad.
Well, that will be your digital natives – those born in the generations who grew up alongside social media platforms. They have the biggest bullseye painted on their back, for, unlike previous generations, they correlate socialising and communicating with these platforms. Essentially, there has been a normalisation of the very thing that is harming them. A snake in digital reeds that tricks our brain with artificial reward.
So social media use is all about triggering your reward centre in your brain. This reward system comprises complex neural structures and pathways in the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop. I know. Basically, like any addictive drug, your likes, retweets, comments and followers act like a giant neuroendocrine shovel pouring dopamine (your neuroendocrine neurotransmitter that feeds on pleasure and reward) into your brain’s reward centre. Quite simply, you are left wanting more and more. Just think about when you’ve finished exercising or achieved a goal and you get that rush – that’s your dopamine. Yet your biopsychosocial health does not escape unscathed.
It’s basically a term used to describe three different parts of your health that make up your total health. You have your biological or physical (“bio”) health, your psychological or mental (“psycho”) health and your social health (“social”). All three act as pillars supporting your total health – if one weakness, it all collapses.
Social media can impact on every aspect of your biopsychosocial model of health. And while true the witch-hunt is strongly justified, there are benefits to social media that should not be ignored:
1. For your biological health
Benefits of social media: Access to professional sources of information about health, support groups, positive promotion, role models and campaign awareness.
Drawbacks of social media: Unrealistic reflections of body image that promote unhealthy practices to achieve them; non-expert, inappropriate advice; usage issues of neck pain and poor disruption.
2. For your psychological health
Benefits of social media: Promotion of awareness and campaigns about mental health, engagement with others, community, an outlet from possible stresses of the real world and develop self-identity.
Drawbacks of social media: How far does the rabbit hole go? Unhealthy perceptions of validation, low self-esteem, unhealthy comparisons, not reflecting real life, cognitive distraction, precipitating and exacerbating mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
3. For your social health
Benefits of social media: Meeting like-minded people and reaching people that you may not have had the opportunity to meet in real life.
Drawbacks of social media: Risk of becoming dependent on social media as a social outlet rather than the real world and tricking yourself into thinking you are social when in fact you are isolated.
You’re spoilt for choice when you think about it: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn (occasionally referred to as the professional’s Tinder?) – plus all the emerging new platforms that I’m too old to have heard (or care) about. The winner, however, seems to be Instagram, for rotting away at a person’s self-esteem and anxiety around how our lives may compare to those that we follow.
Below are ten tips to supporting a healthier structure in your life, allowing you to control the cascade of dopamine and ultimately remain in control. To achieve this, we are going to look at three different elements to your social media use: how much you use it (part 1), what you look at on it (part 2) and, finally, how you process what you look at (part 3).
Part 1: How much you use social media
With its origins in Shakespeare, “too much of a good thing” still has powerful meaning in modern life. Like alcohol, sex or a beloved sports team, your social media use is no different, existing on a spectrum of zero interest to pathological obsession. The goal is to find that sweet spot of usage where you reap the benefits yet mitigate the harm. Here are the first five tips to help you achieve this.
Tip 1: Buy an alarm clock
Lying in bed with your phone and scrolling through social media wipes out your sleep-inducing melatonin. Instead, turn your phone off, and to kill any impulse checks, put it out of sight.
**Tip 2: Schedule your social media use **
Applying boundaries and structure instead of an unchecked tsunami of random scrolling throughout the day will make you more productive, focused and ultimately in control. There are now free “screen time” apps that can help you limit how much time you spend on your phone and social media.
Tip 3: Make sure you are present with others
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” said philosopher Simone Weil. You have a real life, so embrace it and the people you are with. Save a quick scroll for the loo.
**Tip 4: Develop a focused approach **
Understanding why you use social media reinforces your overall control. If it’s for work, then develop a marketing strategy. If it’s just chatting shit and arguing online, then good luck.
Tip 5: Ensure your art imitates your life
Develop a social media platform that truly reflects who you are in real life. Say what you would say in real life; comment how you would in real life – especially to the person’s face. Be real.
Part 2: What you look at on social media
Social media is awash with both great and terrible advice in equal measure. One of the key issues is that anyone can be an expert on it; whether they actually are is another question entirely. So, whether you are discovering health information opportunistically or deliberately seeking it, here are two tips to get reliable information.
**Tip 6: Seek unpolished and genuine inspiration **
While motivational content is dripping all over social media, choose the positive, realistic and unedited representations of health. The celeb Photoshopped to an inch of their life isn’t that.
Tip 7: Listen to the experts
Personal trainers, dieticians and healthcare professionals permeate social media. When you find them, just ask yourself if they are reliable, experienced voices for the topics they raise.
Part 3: How to process what you view
So now that you have viewed the health information on social media, you need to decide if it has simply provided a transient pleasure or whether it serves as an offline stepping stone to help you lead a healthier life. Here are three final tips to help make this a reality.
Tip 8: A stepping stone from online to offline
Reading about a health condition is a really good start: it helps you understand and contextualise it. Now use that as a trigger to see your GP and discuss the bothersome issue.
Tip 9: Triggering your personal cycle of change
This is about realising how you feel about a specific health issue, such as losing weight. Your social media view may nudge you into a new phase, giving momentum to your health journey.
Tip 10: Consolidation through your support network
Sharing and discussing your health interests and journey with online (or offline) groups of like-minded people is a cathartic and powerful way to consolidate your evolving health choices.
A three-pronged attack is unfolding. First, we have the growing awareness of us, as users, on the harms of social media. Second, the social media platforms themselves are being forced to be more accountable. Nick Clegg, VP of global affairs and communications at Facebook, has voiced the company's commitment to make its platform a safer place. So too has Instagram, taking steps to help support mental health by removing offensive or harmful content. Thirdly, government policy is evolving with a number of recommendations that include:
There is no escaping that social media has a role to play in modern-day health and that steps need to be taken to address it. We do, however, need to keep a sense of perspective and ensure that social media does not become an easy pantomime villain. I say that because mental health is incredibly complex, with multiple contributing factors that intersect and intertwine. Many of these exist in the real world and so too need to be addressed. Social media can’t carry the whole can. Real life is a little messier, after all.
Dr Nick Knight is a GP. Follow him on Instagram @dr.nickknight.