It is impossible to deny that social media has become an inseparable part of a modern human’s life. According to recent statistics, approximately 4 billion people in the world use social media. This number roughly corresponds to 50% of the world population. Social media has changed our lives significantly in the last decade. Even if someone is not an active user himself, his life is still affected since at least one of his friends, colleagues, or family members will actively use it. Scientists and clinicians started to evaluate social media use on human health, especially the mental aspect.
When people are asked about how social media affects the community, most people agree that it affects life negatively in general. Only a small percent think that social media is beneficial. These results seem surprising when half of the population is actively using it. It appears as people cannot stop using it even though they are convinced that it is harmful. That might be one reason why it sometimes is considered an addiction. Science, on the other hand, has yet to conclude in that regard. Although some studies report harmful effects, other studies found that social media use can be beneficial under certain circumstances.
Although actual correlations or causations are not yet known, there are some emerging patterns. Some studies found that using social media passively – scrolling through Instagram posts, stories, reels, etc. – is associated with depression than active use – that is, making posts or sharing stories. It is not known whether passive use increases the risk of depression or correlates with it. Long-term studies with large populations are needed to substantiate these findings, but it might be a good idea to review and modify our habits if we tend to spend too much time passively moving on to the next post on Instagram.
Then there is the issue of self-image problems caused by unrealistic standards put forth by professional social media accounts. Most of these accounts called social media "celebrities," share photos or videos that look too perfect to be authentic. That is because they are not real! Most of the pictures are edited, modified, and changed to make them look as attractive as possible. Being exposed to these kinds of posts every day might distort one's self-image causing unhealthy habits to attain those unrealistic standards. One study recently reported that YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat users had more self-image concerns and were more prone to eating disorders such as bulimia.
Even if those mental health effects of disregarded, the time spent on social media cannot be ignored since now, it is known that an average adult spends around 2-3 hours on social media every day. That number is probably higher in teenagers and young adults. The applications such as Facebook and Instagram can be an easy escape from the responsibilities of life. It is a familiar feeling to realize that hours had passed on Instagram when the intention was to check a notification. Scrolling through social media requires no real effort in terms of concentration because the posts are consumed momentarily, and users tend to move on to the next one without thinking about it for more than a few seconds. There are concerns that people's attention spans are decreasing to concerning levels that it is now more challenging for a social media user to keep enough concentration to finish reading a book.
Because most social media applications make money by exposing users to advertisements, they try to increase their time using the app. They exploit the humans’ natural reward system. When we check our social media account and see that our post had hundreds of 'likes,' we experience a short burst of excitement and happiness. That feeling is our reward system kicking in. The exact mechanism is also used to lure people into gambling and with stimulant drug abuse. It is unknown what long-term effects will be seen with frequent and constant activation of this reward system. This is another underlying mechanism of the addictive potential of social media use.
That being said, studies are showing at least some beneficial effects of social media use. Some studies show that social media can be a way to keep connected, seek help and share experiences among minority groups. Because minorities tend to be isolated within communities, social media may serve as a haven for them to express themselves better and seek help when necessary. There are reports that adolescents can seek information about mental health on social platforms when it might be hard for them to do so in real life. There are also reports that social media can be used to promote healthy habits and lifestyle changes.
It is too early to say that social media is evil or beneficial to the community. There are conflicting findings, and long-term data are lacking. Still, everyone can modify their habits to reduce the harm. It is always a good idea to be mindful of the time spent on social media. According to the data at hand, it is better to open the applications to make an active interaction rather than passively scrolling through. It might be possible to maintain a healthy usage by keeping these findings in mind. Social media is a relatively new and ever-changing part of our lives, and science is yet to show how it will be affecting our lives and health in the long run.