Social media and its impact on our health

Today’s teenagers spend a huge amount of time looking at the screens of their phones. According to statistics, children aged 11 to 15 look at screens for six to eight hours a day, and this does not include time spent at the computer to do homework. In fact, in the UK, even the average adult has been observed to spend more time looking at a screen than sleeping.

It starts already in early childhood. In the UK, a third of children have access to a tablet before they turn four.

Not surprisingly, today’s younger generations are early exposed to and join the social networks that older ones are already using. Snapchat, for example, is extremely popular among teenagers. A survey conducted in December 2017 showed that 70% of teenagers aged 13-18 use it. Most of the respondents also have an Instagram account.

More than three billion people are now registered on the social network or even several. We spend a lot of time there, on average 2-3 hours a day.

This trend is showing some troubling results, and by looking at the popularity of social media, researchers are looking to find out what impact it has on various aspects of our health, including sleep, the importance of which is currently receiving a lot of attention.

The situation does not look very encouraging. Researchers are coming to terms with the fact that social media has some negative impact on our sleep as well as our mental health.

Brian Primak, director of the Center for Media, Technology and Health Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, became interested in the impact of social media on society as it began to take hold in our lives. Together with Jessica Levenson, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he explores the relationship between technology and mental health, noting the positives and negatives.

Looking at the link between social media and depression, they expected there would be a double effect. It was assumed that social networks could sometimes relieve depression and sometimes exacerbate – such a result would be displayed in the form of a “u-shaped” curve on the graph. However, the results of a survey of almost 2000 people amazed the researchers. There was no curve at all – the line was straight and slanted in an undesirable direction. In other words, the spread of social media is associated with an increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, and feelings of social isolation.

“Objectively, you can say: this person communicates with friends, sends them smiles and emoticons, he has many social connections, he is very passionate. But we found that such people feel more social isolation,” says Primak.

The link is not clear, however: does depression increase social media use, or does social media use increase depression? Primack believes this could work both ways, making the situation even more problematic as “there is a possibility of a vicious circle.” The more depressed a person is, the more often they use social networks, which further worsens their mental health.

But there is another disturbing effect. In a September 2017 study of more than 1700 young people, Primak and his colleagues found that when it comes to social media interactions, time of day plays a crucial role. Social media time spent 30 minutes before bed has been cited as a leading cause of poor night’s sleep. “And this is completely independent of the total amount of time of use per day,” says Primak.

Apparently, for a restful sleep, it is extremely important to do without technology for at least those 30 minutes. There are several factors that may explain this. First, the blue light emitted from phone screens suppresses melatonin, the chemical that tells us it’s time for bed. It’s also possible that social media use increases anxiety during the day, making it harder to get to sleep. “When we try to sleep, we are overwhelmed and haunted by experienced thoughts and feelings,” says Primak. Finally, the most obvious reason: social networks are very tempting and simply reduce the time spent on sleep.

Physical activity is known to help people sleep better. And the time we spend on our phones reduces the amount of time we spend in physical activity. “Because of social media, we lead a more sedentary lifestyle. When you have a smartphone in your hand, you are unlikely to actively move, run and wave your arms. At this rate, we will have a new generation that will hardly move,” says Arik Sigman, an independent lecturer in child health education.

If social media use exacerbates anxiety and depression, this may in turn affect sleep. If you lie awake in bed comparing your life to other people’s accounts tagged with #feelingblessed and #myperfectlife and full of photoshopped pictures, you may unconsciously start thinking that your life is boring, which will make you feel worse and prevent you from falling asleep.

And so it is likely that everything is interconnected in this matter. Social media has been linked to an increase in depression, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. And lack of sleep can both worsen mental health and be the result of mental health problems.

Sleep deprivation has other side effects as well: it’s been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, poor academic performance, slower reactions while driving, risky behavior, increased substance use… the list goes on and on.

Worst of all, sleep deprivation is most commonly seen in young people. This is because adolescence is a time of important biological and social changes that are critical to personality development.

Levenson notes that social media and the literature and research in the field are growing and changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. “Meanwhile, we have an obligation to explore the consequences – both good and bad,” she says. “The world is just beginning to take into account the impact of social media on our health. Teachers, parents, and pediatricians should be asking teens: How often do they use social media? What time of day? How does it make them feel?

Obviously, in order to limit the negative impact of social networks on our health, it is necessary to use them in moderation. Sigman says we should set aside certain times during the day when we can take our minds off our screens, and do the same for the kids. Parents, he argues, should design their homes to be device-free “so social media doesn’t permeate every part of your life on a permanent basis.” This is especially important as children have not yet developed adequate levels of self-control to know when to stop.

Primak agrees. He does not call for stopping using social networks, but suggests considering how much – and at what time of the day – you do it.

So, if you were flipping through your feed last night before bed, and today you feel a little out of sorts, maybe another time you can fix it. Put your phone down half an hour before bed and you’ll feel better in the morning.

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