The impact of social media on society is huge. The internet as a whole has changed our world.
We can now interact with other humans instantaneously, across the globe, sharing each moment of life with a few keystrokes and the click of a button.
This degree of access has opened up endless possibilities—in business, education, relationships, and more. I love that I can publish a thought as it comes to me, share pictures with family in another state, and connect with people from every country.
But I’m also concerned.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the last few years that has me pulling back from social media, and the internet as a whole, more than ever before.
I’m terribly worried about the impact of social media on society when it comes to 1) mental health and 2) our ability to achieve deep focus.
Social Media Exacerbates Anxiety (and the Comparison Game)
It’s no secret I struggle with anxiety—sometimes a lot.
And when I’m overwhelmed and paralyzed by panic, what is my first instinct to do? Check social media. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Usually, in that order.
This isn’t so bad, except for the time it eats up. If that time was ameliorating my anxiety or unease, I’d say it’s worth it.
But when I spend time on social media, it doesn’t make me feel good overall; it, more often than not, leads me down some pretty involved thought processes.
Example of My Brain on Social Media
I sit there scrolling, staring at the screen, and my anxiety mounts:
I start holding my breath as I scroll, scroll, scroll. Sometimes like or comment, then scroll some more.
I’m seeing someone’s picture-perfect desk and comparing it to mine, which is littered here and there with work things.
I pause on a post about someone’s new business venture, and the caption is long. I start to read the whole thing, even as my anxiety-ridden brain is already telling me it’s overloaded—but I continue reading.
The writer’s words are bursting with excitement at their new goals and enthusiasm about last year’s successes.
I want to be happy for them, but, really, all I’m doing is comparing their life to mine.
(Maybe I keep reading as a subconscious form of punishment, contrasting my own worth with this other person I hardly know. It’s hard to say, because my brain is responding to my thoughts so fast, and all I feel is the resulting emotions.)
Getting bored with the regular feed, I start clicking on some of the Instagram stories. There are so many.
People are updating them every few hours—at least. Their kids, their pets, parties, re-posts of other posts…. All adorned with beautiful text and stickers and time stamps and the temperature and their location and hashtags and on and on and on and on…
I briefly wonder about how much time it takes to make these so interactive and post them, day after day. I wonder if I should do the same—it would certainly increase my online exposure for my blog and YouTube channel.
But I’m already exhausted by the influx of information—and I wonder if the time spent making each story look pretty is actually worth it when the post will be gone in 24 hours anyway.
When I check social media and have no new notifications, I experience a brisk, yet deep, pang of disappointment.
And if there is a new notification, I feel a little rush of excitement—typically followed by disappointment unless it’s a comment or “love” on something I’ve posted. And even then, the elated feeling is fleeting and doesn’t get rid of my anxiety.
I realize I haven’t looked at my dog’s face or the trees outside my window, or taken a full breath, all day:
- I don’t recognize the wallpaper on my own wall.
- When is the last time I actually looked around my living space?
- How have two hours gone by already?
- Did I actually enjoy that gorgeous fall rain I shared a video of… or did I half-heartedly experience it through a tiny screen—same as the digital audience I recorded it for who
When my husband gets home, and we start watching a Netflix show; I can’t relax. My mind is still going, feeling weirdly stimulated but not focused.
I open my Facebook app as a gut reaction to inexplicable discontent, but there’s nothing new, and it’s boring. And now I’m not even enjoying the show on the TV or the presence of living, breathing beings in the living room right beside me.
And it’s many, many instances like this that has me wondering:
How can one person spend this much time consuming erratic information and still have the energy to be productive? To be present? To have a quiet mind?
About twenty years ago, social media wasn’t a thing. I’m not someone who thinks the old days are better than now; there’s a lot of amazing progress we’ve made, and I love modern technology in many ways:
- video chatting with my family who are hundreds of miles away
- GPS navigation (oh lord, I’d be lost without that)
- The ability to look up anything through a simple Google search
- Connecting with thousands of like-minded individuals (and all the lovely friends I’ve made online)
- Blogging, sharing pictures and thoughts and bouts of creativity
- Instant access to my bank account, Uber rides, food delivery, and so much more
…. BUT. The instant access to information at any time makes it easy to bombard ourselves with pictures, text, sound, and various bits of information at any hour—and I feel it taking a toll. Actually, I’m worried it already has.
Neuroplasticity Through Books vs Social Media
In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr talks about neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to reorganize and form new connections in response to changes—whether that’s brain damage, changes in environment and activities, or learning new things. What I’m talking about regards the latter two triggers of neuroplasticity.
We used to believe that the brain was largely unmalleable in adulthood, but new research has shown that’s not true at all.
Take the genesis of books, for example.
As Carr says about the dawn of widespread book printing, “Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book.”
Reading requires a significant amount of mental discipline humans had to develop.
But the attention required to read a book isn’t actually natural for us. “The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness,” Carr says. “Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible.”
Essentially, this explains why the rapid, distracted flow of the Internet and social media is so attractive to us. Our brains love it.
But what I’m constantly wondering is: Does this mean it’s actually good for us—specifically, our mental health?
As Carr also says in The Shallows:
“As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.”
Essentially, our brains adapt to the use of social media and the internet. While this is an amazing demonstration of neuroplasticity, I personally don’t like the changes I’ve most noticed in adulthood.
One impact of social media on society concerns the deep focus of reading.
As a kid, I loved reading. I remember reading Harry Potter and taking in every detail, able to recall it at random.
At my last job, before I became self-employed, I would try to spend my lunch breaks reading a fiction book. When I tried to get through this new book as an adult, I could read a page and immediately forget what I’d just read. It was as if my brain never absorbed it—like worn-out velcro; nothing was sticking.
About a year or so ago, I had become so frustrated that I couldn’t sit and read a book and soak in the information like I wanted to. My brain felt bull, unfocused, and honestly, just dumb.
I was also angry that I felt such a strong pull to stimulate my mind with Facebook every few minutes. I wanted to change. The distractedness of my mind was almost palpable, and I wanted to repair it.
Since then, I’ve been taking steps to improve my concentration and mental health—which means identifying harmful triggers.
And social media is a big one.
Instagram Stories and Snapchat: Pulling Us from the Present Moment?
When I was a pre-teen to teenager, my family would often take cruise vacations. One year, I had gotten really into recording videos (using the now-ancient video recorder). I spent an entire vacation trying to document every aspect of our trip.
When it was over, I realized I hadn’t really felt like I was on vacation because I spent the whole time trying to make it look fun for the video!
For this reason, I’m not a big fan of instant update tools like Snapchat and Instagram stories where the posts are in-the-moment. They’re really cool, in theory. They’re interactive, and it can be fun to see what my friends and family are doing each day. But I don’t spend much time checking them or posting my own anymore.
When I do, it’s so hard to live in the moment.
And when I don’t give myself the space to do that—simply watching a sunset, making a meal, spending time with loved ones, or watching a concert without trying to share specific moments with the world—my mental health suffers. My anxiety gets worse. I feel weirdly connected yet disconnected.
And I miss out on little interactions with my pets or the people around me—or my environment as a whole, instead staring at random bits of information on a little screen.
Recording memories to share is fun, but what if the act prevents us from fully living out the moment we’re trying to capture in the first place?
Is it worth it, especially when the post is only viewable for 24 hours before it vanishes?
For me, most of the time the answer to that is “no.”
It’s possible I’m an anomaly here. Maybe I’m more deeply affected than the average person and this will come across as dramatic to most. But somehow, I don’t think so.
I’ve both read online and heard other people speak about how they feel their brain isn’t as sharp as it used to be. People have vocalized this concern after having a baby or getting past middle age—but I wonder if it’s more than that.
I’m suspicious that our whole web-centered environment is making it harder to sustain the type of focus that allows us to take in complex information, contemplate on its meaning, and truly pursue meaningful change through deep thought.
After all, isn’t intellectual achievement and creativity born of the quiet, solitary, deep reading, thinking, and research of a topic?
And what if all this distraction and erratic information
is feeding the rise of anxiety, depression, and other mental concerns? What if it’s because we’re perpetually assaulted by more media and more mental input than we can handle?
Further, if that’s true, can we enjoy the technological advances of this world while still taking care of our minds?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know some processes that have helped me.
8 Ways I Use Social Media Mindfully
Am I now going to recommend we all shun social media and start living like the Internet never existed? Nope, not at all. Of course, that would be unrealistic, and there are many ways modern technology is awesome and beneficial.
But to prevent social media from leaving me scatterbrained and overwhelmed (especially with ADHD), I have to set some guidelines. Here’s what helps me:
1. Setting a specific block of time for social media (and not using it outside of that time).
This is a tip from the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. He talks about how social media …
Newport mentions how a writer and social critic, Baratunde Thurston, quit social media and email for 25 days:
“Thurston struck up conversations with strangers. He enjoyed food without Instagramming the experience. He bought a bike.”
Thurston is quoted in Deep Work as saying, “By the end of that first week, the quiet rhythm of my days seemed far less strange. I was less stressed about not knowing new things; I felt that I still existed despite not having shared documentary evidence of said existence on the Internet.”
I’m not advocating we all quit social media tomorrow—I don’t want that either! Besides, I know many of us use social media as tool for our businesses. But when I set aside specific times for it and live my life outside of that time, I lose the need to document ever part my life. Instead, I develop a deeper ability to live its moments unfragmented by social media checks.
2. Only checking social media when I’m not feeling anxious.
As mentioned above, I’m actually drawn to social media when I’m feeling bad or anxious. I think it’s a welcome distraction from an overstimulated mind. But ultimately, it doesn’t ease the issue. When I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety, I actually need slow, calm moments to feel better.
If I notice my anxiety heightening when I’m checking social media, I make consciously decide to close everything and turn to a non-technological format. That could be reading a book, deep breathing, mindfulness techniques, or a walk.
3. Not engaging in Instagram stories or Snapchat when I have other things to do.
I don’t avoid these completely, but I’m always mindful of how they can be such a time suck for me.
When I decide to post an Instagram story, I’m thinking about how to get the picture just right, what captions to add, what colors to use, etc. That time really adds up and doesn’t even include the time watching others’ stories.
It takes significant mental energy for me to get back on task and be productive with my to-do list. So, I avoid the instant update formats until I have extra time. And often even when I do have extra time, it’s better for me to spend it in the moment of what I’m doing.
4. Making time to meditate or sit mindfully in some way every day.
I use the app Stop, Breathe, and Think to choose a meditation almost every day. Most of the time, they’re between 3-7 minutes each. But they also have one-minute meditations that I use on days I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed.
I think mindfulness is just like focus—it’s a mental “muscle” we must build up, a little at a time.
When I practice mindfulness a little each day, over time I notice I’m better able to step back from anxious thoughts and recognize if I’ve fallen down a social media hole.
5. Being mindful of mindless scrolling.
I already talked about how I’m drawn to my phone when I’m bored or anxious. This can lead to lots of scrolling through Facebook or Instagram that just heightens my anxiety. I try to pause and notice this, then decide if I want to stay on the app or move to something that will make me feel calmer.
6. Turning off notifications
Willpower is limited. The more tools we have pulling at our attention, the harder we’ll have to struggle to maintain focus on what’s important.
When you turn off any notifications for social media and email apps, you have to physically open them to see if there’s anything new. This makes it easier to dictate when you use them. It eliminates the pull to check them with each new like or comment.
Our brains want to be interrupted by notifications because each brings us new information. But to protect our minds from focusing on what we were doing before the interruption, and from missing out on retaining important information, I think we have to fight that urge to welcome each notification as soon as it comes.
8. Only focusing on one thing online at a time
How many of us leave our email open all day? I used to do this too until I realized I was checking during times I wanted deep focus. Now, at the beginning of each day, I try to note a few specific times I’ll check it and CLOSE IT OUT otherwise.
Let’s Be Mindful of the Impact of Social Media on Society
Actively controlling my time and access to social media was hard for me to adopt, at least at first. In many areas of life, I’m a proponent of listening to what feels good and right to you. Intuitive eating has a lot to do with that, for example.
But I think this is an exception. I feel that if we want to read, think, and work deeply, we need to recognize our brains need regular, unbroken attention to tasks that help us do so. And social media can greatly fragment that focus.
I believe we must be mindful about our use of social media (and the internet as a whole) if we want to protect our brains from a constant distraction robbing us of depth and the subtle beauty of life right before our eyes.