5 Ways to Control the Way Social Media Affects Your Emotions
According to the 2014 annual Women’s Media Center report, 71 percent of women use social networking sites, compared to 62 percent of men. Forty million more women than men use Twitter. Women participate in 62 percent of the sharing on Facebook, and have 8 percent more “friends” than men.
Yet 8 in 10 women say their Facebook friends annoy them.
According to a 2012 Harvard study, posting on Facebook and other social media sites gives us pleasure the same way a good meal, or sex, might. It invites a type of self-disclosure that hits the brain in an area associated with dopamine—the reward center.
On the other hand, a second 2012 study found that using social media could increase feelings of inadequacy, as we tend to compare our own achievements with those of our online friends. Our constant compulsion to check our updates has also been found to negatively affect our sleep and increase anxiety.
What gives? When all is said and done, does social media make us feel good or bad?
It All Depends on How You Use It
When looking into the issue, one thing becomes clear—how social media affects you completely depends on how you use it. Like most any other kind of technology, it has the potential to lift your mood, or stress you out.
Social media “grazing,” for instance—spending 10 minutes or so viewing, posting, and responding between projects at work—has been found to help improve employees’ mood. But checking Facebook and Twitter at night is associated with poor sleep and disturbed circadian rhythms, which can negatively affect attention and mood the next day.
It all comes down to when you use it, how long you use it, and how much importance you apply to it. Of course, getting control of your time spent on social media can be easier said than done. Research from the University of Albany, for instance, reported that social networking can be addictive.
“New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward,” said lead researcher Julia Hormes. “Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently.”
A 2014 study also drew parallels between social media addiction and other addictive behaviors, like gambling. But Pamela B. Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A. and Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and faculty in the media psychology program at Fielding Graduate University recommends caution when using the word “addiction.”
“Addiction is a serious psychological diagnosis based on specific and seriously life-impairing criteria,” she writes in Psychology Today. Real addictions are those that cause us to forego other things in life, like our jobs, relationships, and finances. For most people, social media use isn’t quite that serious—though their spouses may argue that fact.
The good news is that we can set limits and we can shape our use of social media in a way that enhances the “feel-good” emotions while limiting the bad. Following are five ways that social media can affect our emotions, and how we can modify our use to either ramp up, or tame down, those effects based on our usage.
- Self-Disclosure Makes Us Feel Good
Scientists have found that talking about ourselves makes us feel good. A study published in the scientific journal PNAS, for instance, reported that self-disclosure engages neural and cognitive mechanisms in the brain associated with reward. In one experiment, researchers gave participants three choices:
- Report their own opinions and attitudes
- Judge the attitudes of another person
- Answer a trivia question
The trick was that each option was tied to a monetary reward, to find out if people would actually give up cash to talk about themselves. Results showed that on average, people lost 17 percent of their potential earnings to self-disclose.
We’re wired to want to talk about our personal experiences and to share our thoughts and feelings. Social media gives us an easy and accessible way to do that, and the rewards are typically immediate.
It’s this reward-centered facet of social media that can also make it addictive, however.
Action Step: Limit your social media use to certain times of the day. During your first 10 minutes at lunch, for example, or for 15 minutes before dinner. Then put the phone out of sight so you can concentrate on real people, instead.
2. Reading Cheerful Posts Can Change Your Mood
According to a 2014 study, emotions are contagious on social media. You may have experienced so-called “emotional contagion” in person. Say your friend comes over and she’s depressed because she just lost her job. Your former good mood is likely to go out the window, too.
Researchers found the same type of community contagion on social media.
“These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions,” the authors wrote.
The good news here is that reading your social media feed—if it’s mostly positive—can lift your mood, and compel you to post more positive things as well. The danger is, if you’re seeing a lot of negative posts, that could affect you negatively, too.
Action Step: Try to avoid negative posts by blocking or unloading negative friends or followers, and make your own posts positive most of the time. If you happen to get caught up in a negative feed, counteract it by watching a baby animal video. A 2012 study found that looking at pictures of puppies and viewing grumpy cat videos improved mood and productivity.
3. Social Media Can Make You Envious
This is one of the dark sides of the beast. Read about how your friends are sunbathing in Hawaii while you’re slaving away in a cubical can make you feel like you’re really missing out. What did you do wrong in live to be unable to vacation in Hawaii like that?
Researchers from Germany found that skimming through posts from friends about their successes can trigger feelings of envy, misery, and loneliness. They observed 600 participants spending time on social media, and found that one in three felt worse afterwards.
A 2015 study from the University of British Columbia reported similar results. Researchers surveyed over 1,100 Facebook users, and found that of all the potential negative reactions, envy was one of the most common. Those posts that showed friends enjoying vacations, concerts, and coveted social hangouts were most likely to create envious responses in viewers.
If you get caught up in the comparison mindset, your time on social media could be bad for you.
Action Step: Realize that your online friends are in the same boat as you are, and are likely trying to put their best foot forward. Just because someone posts an enviable shot of their weekend at a beachfront hotel doesn’t mean their life is all roses. When you find yourself feeling envious, make a list of the five things you’re grateful for in this moment. Gratitude has been found to be a reliable mood-lifter.
4. The Pressure to Keep Up Can Cause Anxiety
Though envy may be one of the most common negative feelings experienced on social media, by far the most pervasive complaint is that the constant need to check, update, respond, and post is causing a lot of us to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
A recent 2015 study, for example, found that the pressure to be constantly available on social media could cause anxiety and depression in teens. An earlier study gathered responses from students about their feelings about Facebook—nearly three-quarters were women—and found that those with the most contacts and who invested the most time were the most likely to be stressed out.
A 2013 survey by Today found that “Pinterest stress,” in particular, can affect women. A total of 42 percent of moms said they experienced stress because of Pinterest, mainly because they were trying to compete with other moms, and were worried they weren’t crafty or creative enough.
Symptoms of Pinterest stress included staying up into the wee hours of the night looking for pictures of just the right hand-made birthday party favors, or struggling to bake the perfect cookies off a Pinterest recipe.
Another survey that same year revealed that almost 20 percent of American adults believed Facebook was the social network with the most negative effect on their mood, with another 20 percent saying it caused them the most stress.
A set of studies by Anxiety UK also reported that over half of respondents regularly using social networking observed negative changes in their own behavior. Symptoms included spending too much time in front of the screen, having trouble disconnecting and relaxing, and feeling worried or uncomfortable when unable to access the social networks.
Action Step: Give yourself a regular “shut-off” schedule so you can take a break from social media. For the best results, choose daily time frames when the phone is off. Schedule times to shut the phone off completely (best for overnight), and times when you shut off all notifications (set the phone to “silent”). Realize that you don’t have to be at anyone’s beck and call. Make social media work for you, instead of the other way around.
5. Social Media Can Ease Stress for Women
What? Didn’t we just say that social media causes stress?
Again, it depends on how you use it. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, the use of some technologies was actually tied to lower levels of stress. More specifically, the more pictures women shared, and the more frequently they used Twitter, the less their reported stress.
In fact, compared to women who don’t use these technologies at all, women who uses Twitter several times a day, send or receives 25 emails a day, and share two digital photos a day, score 21 percent lower on stress then women who don’t do any of these things.
Why would that be? It all comes down to our female nature—we like to share. Social sharing can be beneficial to both men and women, but studies have found that women tend to share their emotional experiences on a wider scale than do men. It comes back to self-disclosure—we can express ourselves through these networks, which can serve as a positive coping mechanism during stressful times.
“It is possible that the use of these media replaces activities or allows women to reorganize activities that would otherwise be more stressful,” the researchers wrote. They added that social media can give women a sense of receiving more social support, which can help reduce stress.
There is one cautionary note: all this sharing can lead to you being more tied into the stressful events in your friends’ lives. This can create what’s called “social stress” —that emotional contagion we were talking about. Women tend to be more aware of what’s going on in the lives of people in their social network then men, so we can be particularly vulnerable to this effect.
Action Step: Be more aware of your emotions as you’re interacting on social media. If you find it having an overall negative effect, consider limiting your time on it, or limiting the number of people you interact with. Overall, expect positive effects if you have a supportive network, but realize that once in awhile, you may suffer the negative emotions that come from caring about events in others’ lives.
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