If we treat social media like we treat other risky behaviour such as sex and alcohol, we have a better chance at managing its harmful effects.
Covered in this article:
- Recap of TEDx talk about social media and mental health
- Explanation of social media as a ‘risky behaviour’
- Argument for how social media is different, and potentially worse, than other risky behaviours
- 4 steps for managing this risky behaviour
- #SafeSocial (or harm-reduction) strategies
Essentially the video version of this blog.
In February 2017, I gave a TEDx talk about social media’s impact on mental health. I discussed different concepts affecting mental health such as highlight reels, social currency, FOMO, and online harassment. These circumstances have lead to lower esteem, anxiety, stress, and depression. I suggested that small one-time negative instances might not dramatically reduce your mental health, but that when micro-aggressions happen repeatedly over time, you then have a macro problem. I gave 4 steps to start improving your social media experience including gaining awareness, auditing your social media diet, creating a better experience online, and modelling good behaviour. These are still largely true, as you will see below.
I said in that talk, and still believe today, that social media is neither good nor bad, but just the most recent tool we’re using to do what we have always done: tell stories and communicate with each other. Perhaps the most important thing I said though is that social media is not going anywhere so abstinence is not a viable option. Instead, I advocate for #SafeSocial.
Social Media as a Risky Behaviour
Since my TEDx talk, I have done more research and work in this area, the results of which I presented at the World Youth Forum in Egypt in November 2018. I continued down the path of #SafeSocial, which has lead me toward my general recommendations regarding social media and mental health, and to writing this article.
Social media is by all measures a risky behaviour, and should be classified as such.
Definition: A risky behaviour is generally, and fairly simply, understood in social sciences as a behaviour that exposes you to potential harm.
Other risky behaviours include drinking alcohol, sex, drugs, and tobacco. By engaging in any of these behaviours, you expose yourself to potential physical, mental, and emotional harm. That is a fact.
I’m sure you’re already quite familiar with the risks associated with those other risky behaviours, but what is the potential harm with social media?
We know absolutely that research has linked social media use with anxiety, depression, and stress. We know that being on social media can expose you to potential harassment, hate, and traumatic imagery. We know that using it indirectly pulls you away from things proven to improve mental health such as exercise and offline time with friends and loved ones. With all of this, we know that social media is it extremely addictive and designed by its makers to be so. Not only do you get shots of dopamine with every like, the tech is designed to make that happen.
By participating actively in social media, you expose yourself to all of this potential harm, making social media a risky behaviour.
Social Media Compared to Other Risky Behaviours
Similar to the other risky behaviours like drinking and drugs, the risks of participating become especially pronounced the younger you are. For example, cannabis use can harm the growing youth brain more than adult brains. However, if you’re like me, you will also be participating in risky behaviours long before your brain stops developing around 25.
Because a lot of my work deals with youth, and they are the most active users on social media, I want you to generate some empathy for what this generation is going through.
In my professional opinion, teenagers are the most “at-risk”. In terms of developmental tasks or stages of child development, teenagers are naturally at a stage of life where they go outside the family to seek acceptance. Teenagers naturally turn to peers to seek validation and compare themselves as a means of socialization. Not to mention (and no teenager likes to hear this), their brains quite literally are not fully developed yet. In fact, some suggest they’re experiencing the same rate of cognitive growth as toddlers.
At a time when you compare yourself to others as a means of socialization and you’re physically not fully developed or self-assured yet, you then start looking at everyone’s highlight reels [see TEDx talk], you start giving yourself a social currency score and measuring it against others [again, see TEDx talk], and of course we have young people facing a crisis of confidence, depression, anxiety, and loneliness (harm).
With other risky behaviours such as sex, drugs, or alcohol that have been around forever, it’s very easy to educate people about the risk (from both theory and experience). There is often a dialogue between parents and kids about these behaviours we infamously call “the talk.”
The difference and difficulty with social media as a risky behaviour is that we are in a particular time of history where parents and educators largely did not grow up with social media. If you think of social media and Internet technology as a language like I do, than of course I can go learn to speak Spanish. However, even if become the best Spanish speaker, I will never be a native speaker. Even if parents today have learned how to speak this social media language really well (i.e. they have a booming Instagram account), they will never be native speakers of the language. It can only ever become second nature, not first. More importantly, they will never have gone through puberty with social media and can only relate up to a certain point.
So whereas you have “the talk” about alcohol and perhaps tell your kids to come to you if they are having a problem, parents and educators often don’t understand the language of social media and therefore don’t entirely understand their children’s woes. I hear these stories repeatedly from parents who are having a tough time understanding what it really means for their kid to want to maintain a Snapchat streak. It may be hard for them to relate when a teenager is upset because someone didn’t like their Instagram photo. It may seem inconsequential to the adult, but it is not inconsequential. I repeat, it is not inconsequential.
With any other risky behaviour, you might be able to turn to parents or teachers, but right now they don’t entirely understand. Paired with the addictive elements of social media, IT IS SCIENTIFICALLY NO WONDER YOUR KIDS CAN’T GET THEIR HEAD OUT OF THEIR PHONES! It actually makes perfect sense, and I promise it is not helping anyone to be criticizing teenagers for that instead of trying to understand why and what they are consuming.
I believe that if we start treating social media like the risky behaviour it is — one that is worse for youth and largely without systemic support at this point in history—than we can start prescribing treatment that is actually quite similar to that of other risky behaviours.
A Way Forward: 4 Steps for Managing this Risky Behaviour
Just as I said in the TEDx talk, I actually really like social media. I think social media is neither good nor bad but that the technology in itself is neutral. I’m a social determinist in that sense and as you’ll see in Step 3, the research tends to support this. This also means that social media does not need to be all bad! I enjoy a good drink just like I truly enjoy my own personal social media feeds. My risk is managed.
I also do no think social media is going anywhere, so prescribing abstinence seems like a waste of time. Instead, I advocate for what I call #SafeSocial. Just like “safe sex”, I understand that most people (and especially young people) are likely going to participate in this risky behaviour, so I advocate for harm-reduction strategies.
Treating social media like the risky behaviour it is, we can start to understand treatment similarly…
Step 1: Build Awareness & Understanding
Just like alcohol or sex, we need to make sure everyone is speaking the same language when it comes to #SafeSocial media use. We must teach about it formally. My TEDx talk and this very article are an effort to build that awareness. If we all understand concepts like “highlight reels”, “social currency”, “FOMO”, or “online harassment” and all understand the potential harm you expose yourself to in social media such as addiction, stress, depression, and anxiety, then we are better able to identify these when they occur in your life (see: power of suggestion). You will also be more equipped to discuss them with your kids and peers.
This also means there is learning parents and educator need to do. I’m putting the pressure on you. It is much easier to talk to your kids about alcohol, sex, and drugs because you likely know a lot about them. However, even if you want to abstain from social media yourself, it is absolutely critical that you learn the language so you can educate youth in your life on safe practices.
Some potential ways to learn this language might sound similar to that of learning other languages like Spanish or HTML:
- Immerse yourself in it by signing up for accounts yourself. The best language learning happens when you’re surrounded.
- Talk with people who speak the language. Ask youth or other active users what they’re doing and why. Listen actively and non-judgementally. Ask them to show you a thing or two.
- Take formal classes either through traditional institutions like Seneca College’s “Social Media Strategies 101” and Algonquin College’s “Introduction to Social Media” or through alternative education like Udemy’s “Social Media Fundamentals for Beginners” or Media Smarts’ “The Parent Network: Social Media and Your Kids Workshop”.
- Do informal learning such as Googling “social media for parents” or “social media for beginners”. The links are endless, but you might come across things like Instagram’s digital well-being initiative, Psychology Today’s “Parent’s Guide to Social Media Use for Kids”, or Common Sense Media’s, various posts about the basics of social media.
Step 2: Moderate Your Consumption
Like any risky behaviour, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. Having some cannabis here and there is fine. Smoking 24 hours a day is dangerous. Right now, most people are not moderating their consumption of the drug that is social media. We’re getting closer and closer to being on an IV drip of this stuff. It is important that you audit your social media diet and moderate your intake. This becomes easier when you have a culture of support and understanding around you.
When you think of social media consumption like the consumption of alcohol, you make sure:
- You are not consuming because you need it, but because you want it.
- You don’t ‘dislike it but do it anyways’ because that’s what’s “normal”. You do it because you like it.
- You make sure that what you’re consuming is genuinely enjoyable or adding value to your life.
- You are never peer-pressured into it.
- No one makes you feel uncomfortable or says “wow, that’s weird” because you choose to abstain and don’t have social media accounts.
- You do not let it consume your life and harm relationships with people in your life.
- You do not overdose.
- You consume responsibly and safely.
If you know you have an addictive personality, or are prone obsessing about social media, you can do the equivalent of “locking up the liquor cabinet” or “removing it from the house” and try some practical strategies. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you can try:
- Try what I call mindful scrolling. Go through each post on your chosen feed and ask yourself if you genuinely enjoy the content and the creator or if you’re just mindlessly scrolling.
- Use Apple’s “Screen Time” (or an equivalent) to get a qualitative sense of your current use habits.
- Use privacy and security settings to ward off harassment as much as possible (E.g. Did you know Instagram lets you block comments with certain words?).
- Try one of these 10 apps to block distractions and notifications temporarily or permanently.
- Try a digital detox for lengths of time. This can be done to varying degrees such as leaving your phone at home for a weekend, deactivating your accounts during stressful times, or using the apps from above.
- Set dedicated time to put the phone away such as at the dinner table or when you sleep, and prioritizing the offline. See below...
Step 3: Build the Offline Soft Skills
This may be the most important recommendation I have for you. I understand I may be a bit biased considering I own a soft skills training company, but it was doing that work that unlocked this as the golden answer to this problem.
When I first started my research in this area, I thought I’d find a more explicit correlation between time spent on social media and the rising levels of anxiety and depression. What I actually found was no consistency in the research. Sure, some found that time on social media correlated with depression. Others found no relevant correlation at all. Some others even found the opposite — that time on social media improved mental health!
The commonality was that when there was a mediating variable introduced in between, such as “comparison” or “envy”, then it was always a bad situation. This told me that it is less about the networks themselves and more about who you are offline when you go into the networks. If you’re naturally someone offline that looks around and thinks “I wish I looked like that” or “why can’t I afford vacation” then social media will amplify that tenfold. But, if you are not like that offline, you will be the person to have the good experiences of connecting with friends and family, getting inspiration from content creators, learning about the world, finding your community, laughing, revolutions, and more.
It is mostly about your soft skills offline that make it so you can handle the online worlds in a healthy way. My recommendation is to work on skills like:
- Self-awareness, so you know your baseline, likes, dislikes, stressors, and can actively tune in or out of them.
- Self-confidence, so you feel secure in your offline life and relationships and don’t feel obligated to ‘like a friend’s post’ or post yourself. You don’t feel peer pressured to participate or get jealous of other peoples’ highlight reels.
- Resilience, so that when you inevitably have those feelings of sadness or receive a hateful comment, you are able to bounce back and thrive.
- Time management, so you understand how you’re spending the only commodity you can’t get back and if you want to be budgeting it that way.
- Mindfulness, so you don’t find yourself wasting time mindlessly scrolling on these apps, but rather are actively consuming valuable content.
Step 4: Model Good Behaviour
As millennials grow up and have children of their own, it will be hard to teach them about #SafeSocial if you yourself are not practicing it. It will be more difficult to ask your children to put down their phone if you’ve been documenting their life since they were born. They won’t know any other way. And I do sincerely have empathy for caretakers working long hours, being tired, and just wanting to give a kid an iPad so they stop crying. It may take more work to let your kid be bored, but I promise it will help! It is important to get this under control and be a good role model for youth.
I’m sure I will be adding to this list forever, but I hope that reframing social media as a risky behaviour will help us move forward with effective #SafeSocial and better harm-reduction strategies.
Bailey Parnell is the Founder & CEO of SkillsCamp, a soft skills training company that works with business and educational institutions to build soft skills in their staff and students. Bailey was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. She is an award-winning digital marketer, TEDx speaker, and businesswoman with a talent for helping people and brands tell better stories. Her work and expertise have been featured on CBC, CTV, FOX, Flare Magazine, and more. Her TEDx talk and research at Ryerson University focus on social media’s impact on mental health.