Social Media: Mental Health Friend or Foe?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Whether it’s to alleviate boredom from quarantine, connect amid social isolation or get the latest news on COVID-19, social media seems to be a busy place these days as the world turns more and more virtual.

In general, and in light of current events, the effects of social media on mental health are mixed.

“There’s ways that it has improved the mental health of adults who have chosen to use it,” said psychologist Ann Altoonian, who operates offices in Rochester and Syracuse. “It helps reconnect old relationships and it helps more easily maintain current relationships during a time of life that’s stressful with a lot of family demands.”

Posting can help one stay motivated to drop 40 pounds or finish a remodeling project; however, Altoonian calls it a “double-edged sword.”

While the accountability is good, it can also give others a skewed view of the poster’s life. For example, the do-it-yourselfer who renovated the kitchen may not show that his lawn is overgrown and his family has not been able to use the kitchen for several weeks. Or the dieter showing off a tremendous weight loss doesn’t share about the social outings missed to ensure sticking with the new eating plan. It’s easy for social media to turn into a showcase of perfect moments that can leave others feeling like they don’t quite measure up if they haven’t fixed up their home or lost the weight they want to lose.

“You’re not going to see all the ups and downs, just highlights of ups and downs,” Altoonian said. “When those posts are positive, it can lead someone to feel ashamed or inferior.”

She encourages posters to be authentic and genuine in a mentally healthy way.

The “humble brag” is one sneaky way some people like to make themselves look good, such as posting, “No make-up, no filter. This is just ugly me.” The poster uses put-downs to fish for compliments. Receiving positive feedback like this trigger’s the brain’s release of dopamine, a chemical that fosters good moods.

While superficially connecting with others online may offer diversion, Altoonian said that real-life relationships are what’s more important. Especially during isolation, social media can help reach out to people one actually knows — not “friends” never met in-person.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people turn to social media for news; however, since any person can post anything on social media, the information may not be accurate.

Instead, stick with sources such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and limit time looking at news stories promoted through social media. Accurate news can still focus too much on negativity.

“You can’t go overboard spending a lot more time on social media than you did before,” Altoonian said. “Find a way to limit it. You have to be smart about it and check things out.”

Look at social media not as a news source, but for entertainment and connection.

Elizabeth Szlek, licensed mental health counselor and owner of The Door Counseling Center in Yorkville, sees a few plusses of social media in that regard.

“You can stay in touch with many people very easily compared with the past,” she said. “It’s nice to know what’s happening with people. Or on LinkedIn, you can find jobs and learn about news.”

But she also sees potential for social media to become too important to the point that people miss out on what’s happening around them. The “addictive” quality of social media helps it attract and retain users.

“Facebook admits that they’ve constructed this to be addictive,” Szlek said. “What if you couldn’t go on social media or the Internet for a while? Would that be okay? If the answer is no, it may be a bad thing.”

Instead of relying on social media for a pick-me-up, Szlek recommends connecting with friends known in real life, not “friends” online.

“If you have 3,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook, how many would come over at 3 a.m. if you called them?” she said. “Things aren’t really what they seem. It takes a lot of investment to be a real friend.”

Social media can keep known friends closer, as well as expand one’s horizons. Jodi Ann Mullen, Ph.D., and licensed mental health counselor, owns Integrative Counseling Services, PLLC in Oswego. She sees a few positives with social media, such as the ability to stumble upon knowledge and experiences users otherwise wouldn’t.

“You connect to something new that is stimulating to you, like a different workout program, or a new recipe,” she said. “It allows for some novelty in your life.”