We are reaching an interesting time in mental health. After many years of it being something hidden from public conversation – for example questions like ‘how are you?‘...
#ScrollFreeSeptember encourages us to think about our relationship with technology, especially social media and the links it has to our mental wellbeing.
Our personal – and growing professional – use of social media is something that continues to be a hot topic of conversation. As society has become more self-aware of the habit-forming effects of using platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn, there has been a growing interest in what effect this might ultimately have on our mental wellbeing.
In 2018 Ofcom reported that a decade ago only 17% of people owned a smartphone. This has now reached 78% and as high as 95% among 16-24 year-olds. The report goes on to state that people in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day and 65% of those aged under 35 look at their phone within the first five minutes of waking up.
This incredibly high use of social media is not unique to the United Kingdom. The Pew Research Center, a US think-tank, reported that 81% of Americans say they go online every day with 28% claiming to be online “almost constantly”.
Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School and the co-chair of The National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, says that constantly checking our devices is causing us to be overloaded. It diverts people away from their job and engages them when they should be resting at night and weekends, leading to less interaction with their families.
Most significantly, however, is the link between social media and sleep. A poor night's sleep can lead to an array of health issues and can result in poor concentration and slower reaction times, making us less productive at work.
A 2017 study found that time of day is very important when it comes to social media interaction. Engagement during the last 30 minutes before bed was found to be the strongest predictor of a poor night’s sleep.
Our Head of Psychology, Dr Heather Bolton, echoes this: “Our minds and bodies need to wind down before bed but engaging with social media has the exact opposite effect. Not only does the light from the screen confuse our brains into thinking that it’s daytime, but everything we see online stimulates our mind and causes emotional and physiological arousal. Even if you tell yourself that you’re casually scrolling through Instagram to relax, in reality, you’re bombarding your brain with a huge amount of stimuli that will make it hard for it to switch off once the bedroom light goes out. That precious time before bed is better used by engaging in a proper wind-down routine, giving your brain and body subtle cues that it’s time to switch off.”
Some European countries are leading the way when it comes to legislating on this issue of unplugging before bed. France has introduced a new law guaranteeing that employees have the right to disconnect after they leave the workplace. In Germany, Volkswagen blocks emails out of hours – although they appear in the inbox once back at work.
These policies don’t account for social media use but they certainly show that employers are beginning to recognise the value of their workforce taking time away from screens.
The relationship between mental health and social media is exacerbated further when it comes to children and adolescents.
The amount of time adolescents spend online has more than doubled from an average of 8 hours per week in 2005 to 18.9 hours per week in 2015 (Ofcom 2015), a figure that will only be rising.
A report from the Children’s Commissioner for England, says that children aged between 8 and 12 find it hard to manage the impact of online life and become anxious about their identity as they crave “likes” and comments for validation. Furthermore, new research from the RSPH claims that the “Like” button is one of the most toxic and meaningful elements of social media.
However, RSPH research also found there were differences across age and gender when it comes to which element of social media is the most toxic:
Our increase in usage is one thing, but how we're actually using it and what we're doing can also have implications on our mental wellbeing. The phenomenon of selfies has risen in popularity over the last few years. Selfies have been defined as impression management which is the subconscious process in which you influence others to make them see you as you wish to be seen and while everyone takes selfies it seems to be most popular among women.
Women appear in a greater number of photos and are tagged more frequently. Conversely, more women also say they untag themselves from pictures more frequently. A recent study points specifically to selfies as a source of anxiety and decreased confidence.
It can be argued that apps such as Snapchat and Facetune are often to blame for individuals’ constant need to seek physical perfection. Apps like these edit people’s faces to make them appear more ‘attractive’, for instance blurring any skin blemishes or signs of ageing.
As these selfies become the norm on social media, and people forget that they’re highly edited, the idea of what is deemed ‘attractive’ worldwide also changes, which can affect self-esteem and body dysmorphia. Ultimately, messages given by the media about the importance of appearance are internalised by individuals who adopt others’ standards of beauty as their own (Khanna and Sharma, 2017).
Dr Heather Bolton said, “We recently ran a campaign on positive body image, and we found that social media had a big role to play in the development of poor body image. Social media can be fun and a great way of connecting with others, but when we’re scrolling, we should bear a few things in mind. Try to remember that much of what we see online is edited and airbrushed and we should take it all with a large pinch of salt. I’d recommend monitoring how you feel as you engage in social media and unfollowing or hiding anyone who triggers negative feelings.”
Scroll Free September is all about raising awareness of how we use social media, getting us to think more actively about how we use social media and challenging ourselves to perhaps reduce our usage.
Scroll Free September offers everyone the chance to take a break from social media. From going cold turkey to cutting it out in certain hours of the day, it offers the public a chance to build a balanced, positive and meaningful relationship with platforms.
Here’s what participants from last year had to say:
So, are you up for the challenge? To find out more about the different level of challenges visit the Royal Society for Public Health here.