Study Identifies The Social Media Behavior That’s Most Harmful To Well-Being

Whether you love to hate it or hate to love it, social media is now integral to most of our lives—but how it affects us isn’t so black and white. According to new research, it’s not about whether we use social media but rather how and why we use it that dictates how it affects our health.

Here’s what this new study has to say about the social media behaviors that negatively affect us.

Studying the effects of social media.

To conduct the study, Derrick Wirtz, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychological science at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, asked participants about their use of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, plus their personal well-being, over a 10-day period. They were specifically asked about checking feeds, messaging, world news, and their own posting habits.Experts On CallWe’re launching a new series in which top-tier experts in mental health answer your questions.ASK A QUESTION

As Wirtz notes, social media plays a fundamental role in how we interact with one another, and it’s replaced much of the face-to-face interaction we once had, especially in the age of COVID-19. But as his research found, we’re often lonelier after using social media, despite turning to it in times of loneliness. The more people used social media in his research, the worse they reported feeling afterward. And oppositely, Wirtz also found that offline interactions (even phone calls!) enhanced the participants’ feelings of well-being.

“Today, the necessity of seeing and hearing friends and family only through social media due to COVID-19 might serve as a reminder of missed opportunities to spend time together,” he says in a news release.

And on top of that, one particular social media behavior was found to be the most problematic: passive scrolling.ADVERTISEMENT

The problem with passive scrolling.

Participants reported that passive scrolling—aka scrolling through their feeds without interacting with the posts they saw—was their most common social media behavior (particularly on Facebook).

As Wirtz observed in his research, this behavior is strongly associated with social comparison and reduced self-esteem. “Viewing images and updates that selectively portray others positively may lead social media users to underestimate how much others actually experience negative emotions and lead people to conclude that their own life—with its mix of positive and negative feelings—is, by comparison, not as good,” he explains.

And as you might imagine, the more participants reported comparing themselves to others, the more unhappy they were. “Passive use […] involves little person-to-person reciprocal interaction,” he adds, “while providing ample opportunity for upward comparison.”

The takeaway.

All this isn’t to say that if you don’t want to swear off social media entirely, using it more mindfully can help reduce some of its most harmful impact. Prioritizing engagement with others on social media rather than passively scrolling, as well as being aware of when you’re comparing yourself to others, are good places to start.

And additionally, there’s no question that this research also highlights the importance of interactions outside social media. In the age of COVID-19, even a phone call or FaceTime hangout can fulfill some of those interpersonal needs.

“If we all remember to do that,” Wirtz says, “the negative impact of social media use could be reduced—and social network sites could even have the potential to improve our well-being and happiness.”


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