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Social media has revolutionised the way we connect, communicate, source information, do business and spend our time. It offers tremendous benefits, including the ability to connect with others around the world, freely and immediately, to share ideas and information, obtain support and be entertained 24/7. There are, however, some psychological challenges we need to navigate in our social media use.
It’s been said that if you have 5 minutes to spare, then social media is a great way to spend an hour. It’s so easy to engage in social media (just another quick glance at the smart phone…), but often so hard to tear ourselves away. So we often end up spending much longer reading, posting and commenting than we intend to, at the expense of other valuable things in our lives, such as sleep and physical activity.
The format of key social media sites encourages us to post photos and comments by allowing others to “like” our posts and respond to them. And who doesn’t want to feel “like”d? We can, however, be tempted to reveal more about ourselves than we might otherwise choose. And, as social media expert Erik Qualman titled his book: “What happens in Vegas stays on Youtube”…
It’s also easy to fall into the trap of having half our attention on what we’re doing in the physical world, while frequently checking in to social media sites and responding to message alerts. It’s so common to see diners at restaurants with their smart phones by their cutlery, it seems obligatory for mums in playgrounds to have a takeaway coffee in one hand and a mobile in the other, and many of us can’t even watch television without also browsing our tablet or laptop. Are we really enjoying the richness, fragrance and full colour of our present experience while one eye keeps darting to a gadget?
The problem of cyber-bullying is well-known. While social media often facilitates supportive behaviour, the relative anonymity of social media allows people to get away with nasty and undermining behaviour.
Finally, using social media can leave us feeling inadequate and dissatisfied when we compare our own lives to the posts of others. We tend to post only our cleverest thoughts, best-looking photos and most impressive status updates. We might publish a story against ourselves if it is funny, but we almost never admit to vulnerability, failure or regret. So it’s natural for other people’s Facebook or Instagram lives to look much better than the real life we’re living. Our own “profile life” looks much better than reality, too!
In spite of these challenges, there’s plenty to like about social media – and it’s here to stay. As Qualman has said, “We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it.” Being mindful of how much time we engage and when we do it, who we pay attention to and how we present ourselves seem key to good living – online and off. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Decide in advance the times of day you’re going to access social media and for how long. Set a timer to alert you when the allotted time is up.
  2. Keep your phone and tablet out of immediate reach at home and at work. When you’re out, keep them zipped in your bag or in your least accessible pocket – or if possible, in your car!
  3. If you’re struggling to stay off your gadget, try turning it off where you can (e.g after a set time at night) or uninstalling social media apps during a critical period.
  4. If you find you sometimes regret what you’ve posted, impose a “cool off period” between when you think of posting something and when you actually post it. Try a 2-hour period and adjust it as you need to.
  5. Detailed guidelines for preventing and addressing cyber-bullying are readily available online.
  6. As in general life, choose your online friends and those you follow according to whether they enhance your life and contribute value.
  7. Be aware of how you feel during and after social media use. If it’s causing you to feel down, then it’s time to change the way you use it.

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