Swipe Left on Negativity: How Social Media Is Hurting Us and What To Do To Stop It

© Hannah Buckman / Culture Trip
© Hannah Buckman / Culture Trip
Photo of India Irving
Social Media Editor16 July 2019

The average Briton spends 12 hours per week on social media. Is the constant filtering, posting and scrolling damaging our mental health? If so, what can we do to stop it?

Sometimes it seems like communicating in 2018 is just an endless cycle of swiping right, double-tapping and pulling down to refresh. But as we navigate the ups and downs of our actual daily lives (as opposed to the curated versions of ourselves we share on our screens), does the constant influx of our wider social network’s #bestlife, #fitspo and #iwokeuplikethis negatively affect our mental health and wellbeing?

“Yes,” says London-based psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, who also runs the podcast The Psychology Behind. “And it’s because if you think about the time breakdown of what you focus on and engage with on an average day, social media probably makes up a big part of that.”

People in the UK check their phones every 12 minutes on average, according to a recent Ofcom study. And Papadopoulos believes that “the constant connecting, promoting, comparing and garnering of acceptance through likes and retweets impacts the way we think others see us and thus how we see ourselves.”

“Social media can take the most confident person and make them feel awful,” explains Papadopoulos, “because that is the process. At every step of you posting a photo – taking a bunch, choosing one, fixing it, hashtagging it – you are second-guessing yourself while trying to appeal to others.”

Katherine Ormerod, an influencer and author of the recently released book Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life, first noticed the problem while visiting Tulum, Mexico, with a group of fellow influencers and entrepreneurs. “The penny-drop moment happened on a very Instagrammable holiday,” she says. “We were all taking calls from our offices and spending the majority of our time writing emails, but the only pictures any of us were sharing were of sunsets and nice hotel rooms.”

Like many social-media users, Ormerod was showcasing what she calls a “snapshot” of her life on her Instagram instead of the oft less visually appealing real deal. “I suddenly realised that I was making my life look easy when it really wasn’t. I started to feel complicit in this kind of endless fake perfection that so many of us have been involved in creating on social.”

And so Ormerod founded Work Work Work, an online anti-perfectionist platform for women who work in social media to talk about the less photogenic sides of their lives. From financial troubles to miscarriages, the site strives to shine a light on “things that are part and parcel of all our lives, but edited out of the social-media picture,” says Ormerod. This is her way of “adjusting her digital footprint” and reminding her followers that no one’s life is perfect. The idea is to “let the followers know they aren’t the only ones struggling,” an important message to spread when so much of the mental health issue with social media is about comparing ourselves with those we see online and the impact that undoubtedly has on our self-esteem.

“You have no idea what you look like and how others see you, and that’s a precarious place to be in,” says Papadopoulos. “At the end of the day we are social creatures and we are programmed to want to be liked. But now instead of having the centuries-old group size of around 100 people, suddenly 12,000 or 30,000 people are weighing in. Our emotional and psychological evolution is not catching up to our tech.”

That’s where the crux of the issue lies. Social media intentionally plays on our innate desire to be popular, while constantly increasing the number of people we are striving to please. Even Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and the first-ever president of Facebook, admits this to be the case. He explained in a 2017 interview that social-media platforms are explicitly designed to trap users in a “social-validation feedback loop,” in which they keep coming back for more of the “little dopamine hit[s]” that getting a ‘like’ instantly triggers.

Ormerod agrees. “It’s brain hacking,” she says. “Even the founders of these platforms admit that these apps were created by human code to be biological crack. They profit from the amount of time we are online, so every new update and feature is devised to lead to more eyeballs, more minutes, more time in our day.”

“The metric for these platforms is time spent,” says Papadopoulos. “The whole concept is a veritable rewards system, which entices us to stay longer. The apps are using our psychology against us. Our dopamine and the way we react to veritable rewards is being hacked.” The good news is that as long as we are aware of this, we can take steps to prevent it.

The first step is simple, says Ormerod. “If you practice any form of self-care, never take your phone into your bedroom,” she urges. “You are at your weakest last thing at night and first thing in the morning, so this is one area where you really need to exert proper discipline. You don’t need your phone while you’re sleeping.”

She also suggests making sure to “actively seek people to follow who inspire you and make you excited. It’s not always easy to do,” she admits, “because brands often work with the same type of people, but just as you wouldn’t eat McDonald’s every day, you need to be as mindful of your social-media diet and try to find content that feeds your soul as much as just entertains you.”

Papadopoulos uses a similar food analogy but moves it offline entirely. “Make the point of having a varied diet in terms of how you socialise. Meet friends for a coffee, go for a walk – you should be doing things in person, not just on your devices. Not all the media you consume should be online.

“Humans are adept at the big picture,” she says. “A hundred and forty characters or less is great, but it’s not the stuff of Rodin or Michelangelo. If you stop consuming and thinking like a human being, you may very well lose that ability.”

The power, like our phones, is in our hands.

Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.

The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.

If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.

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