Do you have a love-hate relationship with social media? Or should that be a like-unlike relationship? Do you sometimes get a happy buzz from using it? At other times do you find scrolling through social media leaves you feeling low or stressed?
Understanding how your brain and body respond to using your phone and social media can help you to shape healthy habits.
Let’s start with the good bits…
1. Social capital. Social media develops connections between people, it helps to develop networks of relationships among people who use it to find information and learn from the experiences of others. Students starting their university life can use social media to stay well connected with family and friends who are not nearby, but who continue to provide valuable emotional support. In addition they can use it to establish new friendships with people they meet at university. Social media enables like-minded people find one-another and co-create things, at best leading to positive group actions against social ills (think of #MeToo or Greta Thunberg and the #FridaysForFuture climate change movement). While social capital can be used negatively, generally it is seen as having a positive impact on the wider world.
2. Self-esteem. This can be boosted by social media use when people present a positive version of themselves to the world and when they connect positively with others. For example, many students create professional profiles on social media to help develop their careers, by demonstrating their experience and skills and by making a network of connections within their field.
A study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health found that YouTube had a net positive impact on young people’s health and wellbeing (though Instagram and Snapchat had a net negative impact, as to a lesser extent did Facebook and Twitter).
In a nutshell you can use social media to make positive connections, to find stuff that inspires you or develop your career. Sounds good right? But does it always feel good too?
Have you ever felt compelled by your phone? Like you’re on edge when you don’t have it or you’re compulsively checking it when you do? Let’s take a look at why this happens…
When you see something good on your phone, like a message from a loved one or a ‘like’ on your Facebook post, you feel good. This is due to Dopamine, the brain chemical that literally makes us happy. Dopamine feels good, so we keep checking our phones, hoping to get a little hit of it. Dopamine is linked to many addictions, including a behavioural addiction to checking your phone.
In addition to this manipulation of your dopamine systems, the way you feel about your phone might also dial up your cortisol levels. Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone, when triggered it enables physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate. It is useful stuff because it helps the body to react to and survive acute physical threats. Oddly, using your phone fires it up too.
“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” said Prof David Greenfield in the New York Times. He continued: “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.” So you check your phone to relieve the stress, and then you check again.
Apple reports the average user is unlocking their device 80 times per day. For Android users that figure is reported at 110 times per day. Have you stopped to think about how many times you unlock your phone every day? And do you always have a specific reason to unlock, or is it sometimes due to habit or a sense of compulsion?
Passive scrolling through the highlights of other people’s lives can make yours feel boring (or worse), known as the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). The opposite of this is the ‘joy of missing out’ (JOMO) where you enjoy being present in the moment and not on social media.
What might you feel when the class chat on WhatsApp is pinging constantly as your course mates stress about an approaching deadline? Would this heighten your own stress about the assignment? Or at least distract you from working on it? Sometimes it really helps to disconnect for a while, giving yourself the space to focus, or relax, or whatever you need.
Now on to some healthy habits…
We’ve explored the physiological responses associated with phones and social media so now let’s look at healthy habits for their use. These tips are for anyone but are really timely for students who are heading to university, where a new start tends to mean new routines.
1. Bedtime is not phone-time
Sleep difficulties are linked to screen time and are not good for you. Lack of sleep is linked to lower mood and depression. The things you see on your phone stimulate your mind when you’re supposed to be relaxing before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens affects sleep by supressing melatonin, which is the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle.
Here are some great tips to help you get in the mood to snooze:
- Set a go-to-bed alert to remind you to get off the phone – ideally at least an hour before bedtime, though even 30 mins will help you if this is all you can spare.
- Minimize phone distractions by switching off alerts, notifications and tones at night – don’t let your phone wake you up!
- Leave your phone out of reach of your bed so you’re not going to check it – if your phone doubles as your alarm clock you can get up to switch it off, or get a regular alarm clock.
2. Make your own rules
Check out the settings of your Apple or Android device for heaps of cool features that put you firmly in control of your phone.
Be selective about what you see and when:
- Notifications are the messages that tell you what is happening in your apps, like who messaged you or what you’ve missed. You can set preferences for which apps do and don’t push notifications to your phone.
- Do not disturb lets you schedule specified times when your phone won’t notify you of anything, like from 10pm to 7am. You can make exceptions to let certain people reach you.
- Favourites enable you get notifications of calls or messages from your special people at anytime, day or night, or in a meeting; everyone else can wait!
- Screen time lets you set your maximum daily time allowance for any app. You can set a different time for each app and when the time is up a message pops up obscuring the app. You either choose to leave the app or you quickly cancel the message and drop back into the app; you might be very surprised how much time has passed!
In 2015 the Do Not Disturb challenge by Carnegie Mellon University showed how effective changes like the ones above can be. Participants were asked to turn off all notifications for 24 hours. The immediate findings were that participants were more productive and less distracted after their first notification-free 24 hours, although some people reported anxiety about the possibility of missing messages from friends and colleagues.
When the researchers caught up with the participants two years later, they found that the experiment had encouraged around two-thirds of participants to change their notification settings, some had permanently disabled notifications for certain apps, while others had made regular use of their phone’s do not disturb setting.
We are all social beings. All looking for connections. This is why social media is popular.
If your reaction to social media feels out of balance, you should pause to consider what you want to get out of using it and come up with some do’s and don’ts which align to this. Take a digital detox, this means giving yourself some space by going a day (or more) without checking social media, while you focus on enjoying other, offline, ways to be social.