The way in which we communicate and interact with each other has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.
The days of social interaction being predominantly face-to-face is long gone and we now live in a world where interaction with others is dominated by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram or Snapchat. We are now overwhelmed with alternative methods of digital communication to keep in touch and connect with others. But this openness to communication leaves us exposed to undesirable interactions and creates an, ‘always on’ culture, that makes it incredibly hard to escape. Which brings us to question, are we really psychologically ready for the boundary-less online interactional world that we now live within?
Social media has undeniably influenced our lives. It has enabled us to stay in touch with loved ones all over the world, to reunite with those from our past, to find new relationships and new friendship groups too. But for all the positive benefits, it also has unfavourable qualities. Although most of us are aware that social media showcases the best parts of an individual’s life rather than a representation of reality, viewing these picture-perfect online lives of others, still has an impact on us on a subconscious level. This constant comparison with others can result in feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and isolation. However, most concerning, is the stark contrast between the socially normative rules for social interaction in the online domain, compared to that of the real world. It is potentially this disparity which has a negative impact on mental health.
As humans, we are social beings. From early in our childhood we are taught about what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. If children are rude or unpleasant, parents take measures to educate their child that a particular behaviour isn’t acceptable and conversely, parents praise children for good social behaviour such as sharing. These social norms have been well established for generations and provide the basis for a civilised society. But when you compare this to the current generation of social media consumers, they weren’t educated with guidelines or boundaries as children with regards to social media etiquette. In the absence of this, it would seem that some people revert back to unsocialised and primitive behaviours when conducting themselves online. An individual, who in face to face interactions is pleasant and polite, may feel that online they can say atrocious things to other people without considering the consequences of their actions. This type of criticism and lack of respect for others in the online domain has created an environment where people are vulnerable to be attacked or criticised even whilst sat in the comfort of their own home. With constant social media alerts, notifications and comments from those that follow your online movements, there is a feeling of never being free from prying eyes. This leaves people feeling unable to switch off and at constant reach of others, which is very unhealthy psychologically.
All healthy relationships have boundaries and in fact, appropriate boundaries provide the fundamental grounding for healthy psychological functioning. In some relationships these boundaries are set by the people involved, but in other relationships the boundaries are constructed as part of our cultural social norms. Respecting our own boundaries and the boundaries of others is what prevents us from becoming exposed to situations which we cannot cope with psychologically. These boundaries are based on our knowledge of our own limitations and most of us, without even being aware of it, have set our own boundaries in all aspects of our lives. But where do the boundaries lie with social media? Have we as a society reached a point where these boundaries are set with respect to; what is acceptable to say online; when is it appropriate to contact others on social media; and how often we should be checking or posting on our social media profiles? It would appear the absence of these established boundaries has become a contributing factor to the psychological distress caused by social media use.
With social media being a fixed part of everyday life, it’s important to take measures to ensure that we don’t become overwhelmed by it. Excessive use of these online platforms has the potential to develop into an addiction, which is ultimately driven by the same neurobiological mechanisms as drug addiction, exercise addiction, gambling and all other addictive behaviours. It is never healthy to have constant contact with your phone, therefore having time away from your device enables the opportunity to gain perspective in your real life which at times can feel inextricably linked with your life online. It is ok to deactivate your social media profiles for a while and to focus on interacting with those around you. Whilst the boundaries of behaviour may not yet be firmly established online, you are able to set your own boundaries in relation to social media use and ultimately decide what feels comfortable for you.
Staying Mentally Healthy Online
- Set periods of time where you will be social media free.
- Practice mindful scrolling and learn to become aware of how certain content makes you feel.
- Manage your own boundaries including privacy settings; how much of your personal and private information you share and how you respond to others.