The double-edged sword of social media

Social media has undeniably revolutionised the world we live in, fundamentally altering the way we interact, seek and receive information. In just a few short decades, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok have transformed communication, connectivity and the dissemination of information on a global scale.

“In today’s digital age, social media has become an integral part of our daily lives, offering platforms for connection, communication and self-expression,” says Yael Geffen, CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty and staunch supporter of mental health.

“Undoubtedly, one of the most significant impacts of social media is its ability to connect people across vast distances instantaneously. With a click of a button, individuals can communicate with friends, family and acquaintances, regardless of geographical barriers. This has reshaped relationships, allowing for continuous engagement with loved ones, no matter where in the world they are, and fostering communities based on shared interests, experiences and identities.

“Moreover, social media has democratised the flow of information, providing a platform for voices that might have previously been marginalised or silenced, and for businesses to reach far wider audiences. And sites like LinkedIn have enabled companies all over the world to connect with talent they might otherwise never have found, and for professionals to network on a global scale.

“Users can share news, opinions and personal stories in real time, bypassing traditional gatekeepers and reaching audiences around the world,” he adds.

However, the rise of social media has also introduced challenges and concerns on many levels and, when you consider that South Africa also has one of the highest Internet usage rates in the world – with the average Internet user between the ages of 16 and 64 spending over nine hours a day online – these do need addressing.

A major concern is the rapid spread of misinformation and fake news, which has become a pervasive issue, eroding trust in traditional media and institutions. Algorithms designed to maximise engagement and keep users on the platform have led to echo chambers and filter bubbles, reinforcing existing biases and polarising societies.

But Geffen believes the most significant and concerning negative impacts of social media are on a deeper, more personal and intrinsic level: its potential to exacerbate and foster feelings of sadness, loneliness and isolation, and even precipitate mental health issues.

“Despite the illusion of constant connectivity, studies have shown that excessive social media use can actually lead to increased feelings of loneliness and alienation. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘social media–induced loneliness’, occurs when people compare their own lives to the carefully curated and filtered representations of others’ lives on social media platforms.

“Constant exposure to idealised and edited versions of others’ experiences can leave one feeling inadequate or disconnected from real-life relationships, leading to a sense of loneliness and social exclusion.”

Social media has been linked to heightened levels of anxiety and depression, especially in teens.

“The pressure to present oneself in a favourable light on social media, coupled with the fear of missing out (FOMO) on the experiences shared by others, can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and self-doubt,” Geffen explains. “The constant barrage of curated images and status updates showcasing seemingly perfect lives creates unrealistic standards and expectations, leaving individuals feeling anxious, depressed or dissatisfied with their own lives – fuelling a cycle of comparison and self-esteem issues.

“The tendency to compare one’s own achievements, appearance and success to those of others not only breed feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness, but can further contribute to existing mental health challenges such as depression, low self-esteem and poor body image.”

Another negative impact of social media is its potential to disrupt sleep patterns and overall well-being.

“The blue light emitted by electronic devices used for social media browsing can interfere with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, leading to difficulty falling asleep, disrupted sleep patterns and decreased overall sleep quality,” notes Geffen. “Moreover, the constant accessibility of social media platforms can tempt individuals to engage in late-night scrolling, leading to decreased sleep duration and increased daytime fatigue, which can negatively impact mental health and overall well-being.”

Social media has also been associated with increased levels of stress and overwhelm.

“The constant stream of notifications, updates and information overload can lead to feelings of cognitive overload and information fatigue, and the pressure to maintain a curated online persona and keep up with the latest trends and social norms can contribute to feelings of stress, overwhelm and burnout.”

Not unlike drugs, none of us is immune to being sucked into the digital world, nor to the negative effects of cyber overload. “We’re all vulnerable and I, too, have found myself going down the rabbit hole and getting lost in the abyss between information, pop culture and a deluge of fake status posts that engendered feelings of inadequacy and depression. I had to force myself to put my phone down and find less invasive forms of entertainment,” Geffen reveals.

He says that in order to safeguard oneself from the negative impact of social media while optimising the benefits, it’s essential for individuals to be mindful of their social media consumption habits and prioritise self-care practices that promote balance, connection and emotional well-being in the digital age:

  • Limit usage – Set boundaries on the amount of time you spend on social media each day. Allocate specific periods for checking updates, and stick to them to prevent mindless scrolling.
  • Curate your feed – Be selective about the content you consume by unfollowing accounts that promote negativity or cause feelings of inadequacy. Follow accounts that inspire, educate and uplift you instead.
  • Practise digital detox – Take regular breaks from social media to disconnect and recharge. Designate offline activities that bring you joy and fulfilment, such as reading, exercising or spending time with loved ones.
  • Be mindful of comparison – Remember that social media very often presents a curated version of reality. Avoid comparing your life to others’ highlight reels and focus on cultivating gratitude for your own journey. Unfollow those who trigger negative feelings.
  • Prioritise privacy – Review and adjust your privacy settings to control who can see your posts and interact with you online. Be cautious about sharing personal information and consider the potential consequences before posting.
  • Seek support – If you’re struggling with the negative effects of social media, don’t hesitate to reach out to trusted friends, family members or mental health professionals for support and guidance.

“When it comes to social media, moderation truly is key. Put your phone down occasionally and live your own life to the fullest – not vicariously through others online who are most probably not having much fun anyway,” concludes Geffen.

Image credit: Freepik

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