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Bored Panda spoke to Dr. Tim Bono – Lecturer in Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book “When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness” – to get his views on the impact of social media on mental health.

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“I’ve been doing research on this for several years now and the data I’ve collected on this topic has shown that the more time people spend on social media, the more likely they are to experience negative outcomes psychologically,” Dr. Bono told us.

“They report experiencing fewer positive emotions, less optimism, less sleep, and less motivated; college students who spend the most amount of time on social media report highest levels of homesickness, and perhaps most ironically, the more time people spend on social media site, the less socially connected they feel to other people.”

“I would say that what is driving this is that we are social creatures and so it’s only natural that we are motivated to pay attention to those around us, and we use how other people are doing as a barometer for how we should be doing in our own lives. And with the advent of social media, it is now easier than ever to catch a glimpse into everyone else’s lives and see how our own lives measure up.”

“One of the biggest issues with it is that people post the highlight reel of their lives, boasting about all of the great things–job promotions, lavish trips, great parties they are attending with friends.  And people are NOT posting about the everyday mundane or burdensome aspects of their lives.”

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“Long before the advent of social media psychologists knew that one of the fundamental barriers to our well-being is social comparison. It’s hard to be happy if we constantly concern ourselves with how we measure up to those around us. When we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control.”

“Within moments of logging on to social media we have instant access to others’ accomplishments, vacations, job promotions, home upgrades, and culinary creations. It’s nearly impossible not to get swept into the cycle of comparison. Scrolling through the highlight reels our friends’ posts inevitably fills us with envy because of the things we now want.”

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So how to protect yourself against this constant and excessive social comparison? Dr. Bono advises that we spend that time instead focusing on the good things in our own lives. “Taking time for gratitude has the opposite effect of social comparison—it redirects our attention to the many wonderful things we already have in our lives that already are there but that we have likely taken for granted,” he explained. “People who take just a few minutes to focus on what they’re grateful for feel better about their lives overall, report more optimism about their futures, and even get sick less often.”

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Browsing social media, with our selective presentations of the ‘best’ of ourselves, can also affect our relationships with those around us. Dr. Bono explains how this incomplete picture can have a negative impact on some people. “Social media—especially Facebook and Instagram—is exposing us to information that is ultimately exaggerating how much better off others are in comparison to our own lives, because we are gaining access only to a narrow segment of other people’s lives, without the whole picture that in all likelihood has some blemishes and challenges and difficulties that others are inevitably going through as well,” he said.

“Social media leads us to draw inferences about other’s lives when we don’t have the complete story of how they are actually doing. This would explain the correlations I have found with my research. If people feel they aren’t measuring up to what others’ lives look like, or that they have not been included in others’ adventures (Fear of Missing Out is a real thing!), it can lead to various forms of distress.”

“Feelings of inadequacy can prevent people from engaging meaningfully with others in the real world out of fear that don’t or can’t measure up.”

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“What’s worse is that social media is replacing authentic in-person connection. The single strongest predictor of our happiness is the strength of our connections to other people. But we’re referring to the three-dimensional people in this case. The number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers we have does not count, despite our obsessions with crafting our own digital personas and becoming wrapped up in others’.”

“In recent years the amount of time we have dedicated to screen time has corresponded with a similar decrease in the quantity and quality of our in-person connections. Even if we are physically with another person, we often are so wrapped up in documenting the experience for our followers to see, or checking our phones to see what others are up to, that we neglect the opportunities to develop authentic connections with the people we are actually with.”

Dr. Bono advises that from time-to-time, when tempted to scroll through social media, to scroll through your list of contacts instead. “Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than a random post or like on social media.”

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It can all sound a little scary when we frame our use of social media in such a cautionary way. Dr. Bono is keen to stress that social media is not inherently bad however, there are many positives too! “It can be used for a lot of wonderful things that can lead to information sharing, entertainment, and even authentic social connection,” he continued.

“But we have to be wise consumers of this media and aware of the potential risks. If you find that your social media use is leading you down a path toward social comparison and envy, I’m not suggesting that you get rid of it altogether. But you may want to modify how you are using it. Then you’ll get more of the benefits with fewer of the drawbacks.”

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