Over the last two years of working from home and attending zoom classes, many of us have become more aware of the increasing amount of time we spend online and on social media. Some of us have found ‘online living’ to be somewhat of a blessing – helping us to feel more connected with our loved ones and more involved in our social relationships… However, others have been feeling even more isolated and lonely from spending most of their daily lives online.
There are a lot of mixed views and feelings about how social media online living affects our social wellbeing, which has left many of us (myself included) confused about whether this impact is positive or negative…
Does social media have a positive or negative impact on our social wellbeing?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t so clear cut… Even scientific research on the topic has shown mixed conclusions. For example, one study found that students who posted more frequent Facebook status updates had reduced levels of loneliness. This positive effect seemed to be because students felt more connected to their peers on a daily basis as a result of more frequent posting.
In contrast, another study found that people who spent a lot of their time communicating online felt less satisfied with their life and more lonely than those who spent less time online. This might seem confusing… Wouldn’t social interaction make people feel more connected, regardless of whether it’s done online or offline? Well, the authors from this study suggested that engaging in social activity online is still a solitary activity, which may reduce the benefits of social interaction.
What happens when we unplug?
Think about when you last checked Facebook or scrolled through Instagram… If you’re like most people, the answer to that will probably range from a few hours to a day or two. Social media platforms have become so embedded in our everyday lives that it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to completely unplug for an extended period of time.
A recent study found that after abstaining from social media for 7 days, individuals felt an increased sense of social connectedness and mental wellbeing. And if you worry that disconnecting from the online social world will make you miss out on things… using social media and receiving social media notifications actually seems to exacerbate FOMO (aka the fear of missing out)!
Even though individuals are likely to feel more socially connected in the absence of social media, this may not always be the case; After abstaining from social media for 7 days, some individuals have described feeling that they lost a sense of social connection to their online peers.
The way that we use social media plays a role in how it will affect us.
Not everyone uses social media in the same way or for the same reasons… For example, I typically use Facebook to message friends whereas my mother uses Facebook to post status updates, browse, and comment on her friends’ posts. Although these differences might seem insignificant, they can impact how social media platforms affect us.
Research has suggested that social media can impact us positively or negatively, depending on how these platforms are used. For example, browsing and interacting on Instagram is linked to lower levels of loneliness, but broadcasting on Instagram is associated with higher levels of loneliness. It’s also important not to compare yourself to others when using social media… Instagram use is associated with lower loneliness only in those who are less likely to engage in social comparison.
Context matters… Especially during a pandemic
A recent study carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic found that interacting online allowed people to share their emotions and receive social support, which drastically improved their mental health and wellbeing. Importantly, receiving online social support during the pandemic has provided individuals with immediate and long-term relief regarding their sense of belonging, and has reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation.
All in all, it seems that using social media can be effective in improving our social wellbeing and promoting positive mental health… We just need to be mindful of how we use it, when we use it, and the behaviours we tend to engage in while we’re using it.