Social media has long been labelled as having a detrimental effect on our emotional wellbeing, but a new study has found that actively consuming social media (instead of passively) can have a positive effect on our mental health.
The study, led by Dr Lee Smith at Anglia Ruskin University, looked at the impact social media has on our mood and, in particular, the difference between active and passive use.
Participants were aged between 18 and 25 and did not have any diagnosed mental health conditions. The results determined that after 20 minutes of passive scrolling the participant’s mood dropped.
However, it found that the participants who used social media in an active way - i.e. sharing photos, commenting on pictures and engaging with the platform - saw their mood increase.
“Active consumption of social media (or anything for that matter) implies intent that translates into purposeful action. Think sitting down to a home-cooked meal rather than mindlessly inhaling popcorn while watching a film,” Counselling Directory member Laurele Mitchell tells Yahoo UK.
“So, in the case of social media, active consumption may take the form of connecting with family and friends through sharing photos of our latest lockdown life hack, by engaging in one of our friend’s posts to keep in touch, especially with friends who are not regular fixtures in our lives, or to contribute to a community or group that we may be a member of. All of this can help to foster one of the most fundamental of human needs, a sense of belonging.”
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The difference, Mitchell explains, when it comes to passive consumption is that this is a way to “avoid or district yourself” from some other activity.
“Passive scrolling may imply disengaged, but don’t underestimate the power of the subconscious mind and its ability to continually filter our environment for perceived threats, which, in the case of social media, usually show up as unfavourably comparing our lives and ourselves to others. So don’t be surprised if you find your mood dipping but you can’t quite put your finger on why,” Mitchell adds.
“Arguably never more so than during a global pandemic has social media been used to alleviate boredom, distract us from the pain of home-schooling or working from home and, in some cases, as a numbing behaviour to distract us from difficult emotions that we don’t want to confront.”
The reason active consumption of social media is better for your mental health is because being clear on what we need and want to consume means we are spending less time consuming content we don’t care about.
So how do we go about actively consuming social media?
“Setting boundaries can help,” Mitchell suggests. “Designated times of the day and time limits for consuming social media can help keep our consumption active rather than pulling us down the infinite number of rabbit holes that exist on social media.”
Mitchell adds that we need to check our expectations when it comes to social media. While it’s okay to expect some positive reinforcement in the form of likes and comments when we post pictures on social media, it’s also helpful to know the underlying “unmet need” that could be driving this action.
“Is it a bid for connection driven by loneliness meaning that an unliked post will potentially make you feel worse and, on that occasion, a telephone call may be a more appropriate medium for connecting?” Mitchell questions.
So, the next time you pick up your phone to check Instagram or mindlessly scroll through TikTok it may be best to think about what you want to achieve from this first and whether a different form of social interction could be more beneficial instead.