How to tell if social media is impacting your wellbeing - and how to limit your usage

Most people are not at risk of social media addiction (Getty Images)
Most people are not at risk of social media addiction (Getty Images)

Many of us start and end our day scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or TikTok. The world’s most used social platform, Facebook, recorded a record number of approximately 2.93 billion active users in the first quarter of 2022, while TikTok surpassed the one billion user mark in September 2021.

Earlier this week, a new study identified some of the behaviours which may constitute a “TikTok addiction. Analysis by experts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago analysed data from 354 college students (173 TikTok users and 313 Facebook users) and found that TikTok can encourage compulsive behaviour and a dependence on the app.

Users of both platforms were asked to complete a questionnaire assessing six criteria. This included whether they have obsessive thoughts about TikTok or Facebook and if they feel an increasing urge to use the platform.

Participants were also asked if they use social media to forget about personal problems, and if they have tried to cut down time spent on the platforms and failed.

Additionally, they were asked if they become restless when they can’t use the platforms, and if using the platforms negatively impacts school or work.

Those who scored the highest in all categories used TikTok more intensively. While the majority of people (68.2 per cent) were found to have no risk of TikTok addiction, 25.4 per cent were at low risk and 6.4 per cent were at risk.

While social media is an ideal way to keep in contact with family and friends, and proved particularly useful during the pandemic, experts have raised concerns about how it can negatively impact people’s mental wellbeing.

Mental health charity Mind has warned that being “constantly bombarded” with people sharing news of new jobs, relationships or holidays may lead to low self-esteem from comparing ourselves to others.

UK Addiction Treatment Group (UKAT), a private addiction treatment firm, said it has seen a “real increase to the level of society’s dependency on the internet”.

“We know this because we treat people for social media and internet-based addictions, and we have seen first-hand a rise in the number of people we are treating for this since 2020,” Nuno Albuquerque, consultant treatment lead at UKAT says.

While some people may find that spending time on social media can negatively affect them from time to time, others may face a more serious social media addiction which has lasting impact on their day-to-day lives.

Signs you may be spending too much time online

It’s helpful to reflect on your relationship with social media and consider how it makes you feel.

“If you feel agitated or feel an urge to keep checking your profiles, it could be a sign that you’re spending too much time online,” Albuquerque says.

One key giveaway is how a person feels when they are not online, Albuquerque adds. “Are they in a low mood because of the absence of social media? Perhaps they’re experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms like headaches and insomnia?

“Understanding how they feel when they’re not on social networking sites is a great way to determine if the person’s relationship to it has become unhealthy and potentially even turned into dependency.”

Symptoms of social media addiction disorder

Experts believe that a social media addiction disorder can be as harmful as substance abuse. It can not only affect personal wellbeing but also have an impact on relationships with friends and family.

Some symptoms to look out for include feeling anxious or irritated when social media platforms are down, or when internet connection is slow.

Those at risk of addiction may increasingly isolate themselves in favour of spending time on social media, perform poorly at school or work, and show a lack of interest in their relationships.

Coping strategies

The Independent spoke to a range of experts about coping strategies people who believe they are at risk of social media addiction may want to explore.

Be mindful of your time

Jess D’Cruz, information content manager at Mind, recommends setting aside time regularly every day to do something offline.

This could be as simple as reading a book, doing some physical exercise, going outdoors in nature, or trying out a relaxation technique.

Several studies in recent months have pointed to the benefits of spending time outdoors on mental wellbeing. In October 2021, research by the University of York found that being outdoors led to improved mood, more positive emotions and less anxiety.

Some people may also find it helpful to create specific time windows during which they allow themselves to use social media.

This can help limit the amount of time spent mindlessly scrolling, and make you more mindful of how you use each app. Some smartphones make it easier to do this. For example, Apple allows users to set limits for specific apps, which can be done via our phone’s settings.

If you feel overwhelmed by the number of notifications you receive from social media apps, Apple also has a “downtime” feature which silences notifications apart from phone calls and chosen apps.

Take note of your feelings

Experts encourage all social media users to be mindful of their feelings. If you believe social media might be having a negative impact on your emotions, simply taking note of them or writing them down can help identify triggers.

“Think about your mood after you have spent some time on social media. If it keeps being low that shows social media use is not a self-caring action,” says Priory addiction therapist Dee Johnson.

“Try going for a walk, then think about your mood again and you will probably see it has gone up a bit. Rank your mood on a scale of 1 to 10 to you can compare the effect of different activities.

“Keep a record of your moods in this way, because writing them down will give you hard evidence of the impact social media use having on you.”

Spend time with friends and family in person, or pick up a new hobby or skill

An addiction to social media can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, shame, guilt, depression and self-loathing, Johnson says.

Experts recommend prioritising spending time with loved ones and building healthy offline relationships. This can help counter feelings of low self-worth which occur when a person compares themselves to others online.

Additionally, this physically takes the focus away from social media, and provides a sense of fulfilment outside of the internet.

Experts have also highlighted the importance of building self-confidence. They recommend trying out a new hobby or leaning a new skill that is not technology related. This can encourage feelings of fulfilment, build self-esteem and serves as a distraction from social media.

Be kind to yourself, seek professional help if you need it

“Sometimes people are avoiding dealing with painful issues and use social media as a distraction, but it makes them feel worse in the end,” Johnson says.

“Do not use negative self-talk. Be decent to yourself. Always remember you are not on your own with this.”

For those who are struggling to implement healthy coping strategies, experts say its best to seek help from a professional who can talk through your issues.

“Seek professional support to talk through your issues, because the more you avoid them the harder it gets over time,” Johnson adds.

Anyone affected by the issues in this article may wish to contact Mind’s information helpline on 0300 123 3393.