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Yes, social media is making you miserable

Social media is making us digitally connected, but it’s also preventing us from making connections that truly matter to our happiness, argues this sociologist.

Yes, social media is making you miserable
[Photo: Bjorn Tito / EyeEm/Getty Images]

You’ve built your following on LinkedIn, you have more friends than the average person on Facebook, and you’re known for never breaking a streak on Snapchat. So why do you still feel disconnected?

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Social media can be terrible for your health. It makes you feel connected (when you’re not), and it can contribute to depression and unfavorable comparisons. In our always-on connected world, breaking away can be hard to do. As a result, we keep scrolling and reading.

First, it’s essential to know that not all social media is terrible. Social media can be a terrific way to extend your network, stay in touch with grandma, and share photos of your new puppy. It’s our use of it that’s out of control.

The link between social media, depression, and lower cognitive function

Many of us are troubled. Depression is higher than it’s ever been, according to a study in Psychological Medicine. Even controlling for differences in age, regions, or backgrounds, depression has increased significantly in the years since 2005.

If you’re using social media to feel more connected, a recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion suggests that it’s not working. Positive interactions on social media didn’t help people feel happier. Negative interactions, on the other hand, magnified feelings of sadness. The same goes for comparison, which social media encourages. Another study, published by the American Psychological Association, showed comparing yourself to others via social media also has negative effects, leading to brooding and symptoms of depression.

Reaching for your cell phone as a mental break is also a bad idea. Research by Rutgers University compared participants in the midst of completing a task who took a break with their cell phones, with paper and pencil, and who took no break at all. Those who used their cell phones during their break solved 22% fewer problems and took 19% longer to complete their tasks than those under the other conditions.

Social media makes it more difficult for us to connect with others

British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar developed the idea that based on our brain size, 150 people is the maximum number of meaningful connections any person can have. This is the number of people you can reasonably keep up with—you know enough about them to ask about their family or their new house. Here’s another way to think of it: How many people you could run into at a bar and join informally for a drink without feeling like you were intruding?

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Here’s what’s interesting about social media. You might have more connections, but only in your outer circles of acquaintances. You may have 800 friends on Facebook, but they’re not people you know well or you might call if you had a flat tire. Your LinkedIn connections may be vast, but how many of them do you have a relationship with? Can you recognize them if you see them at the grocery store and not in a business setting?

Social media use also has an opportunity cost. If we’re at home snapping our friends on Snapchat or posting photos on Instagram, we’re not connecting with them in person. Even if we are with people in person, being heads-down on a device means that we miss out on meaningful interactions.

Tips on managing social media

So how should you manage your social media usage?

First, know your stats. Yes, it might be disheartening, but it’s crucial to pay attention to your metrics. Use your device’s tracking function to find out how much you’re using it and what you’re using it for. Knowing your usage is the first step toward managing it. After this, get away from your device. As tough as it might be, turn off and tune into the world around you. Take a walk, get out into nature, have coffee with a friend, and meet face-to-face with others. When you’re with other people, keep your device out of sight. One study from the University of Texas Austin showed that even having your device in sight reduces cognitive capacity and distracts you and others.

Be in charge of your device, rather than letting it be in charge of you. Just because it rings or vibrates doesn’t mean you must respond to your device. Remind yourself that you’re in charge, not your device or the people on the other end of it who’ve just pinged you.

Consider using your device as a relationship builder. When you’re in a conversation where a fun fact comes up, check your device for the information you need. Use your app to find your friends and make your dinner reservation so you can catch up face-to-face in your favorite restaurant, where you’ll keep your phone out of sight. When you do this, social media becomes a way to facilitate relationships rather than a barrier to connecting. When you’re in control of your digital consumption, social media becomes a tool to enrich your life and not a distraction that makes you miserable.

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Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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