Last year, I gave a TEDx talk about social media’s impact on mental health, discussing concepts such as highlight reels, social currency, FOMO, and online harassment, which have led to lower self-esteem, anxiety, stress, and depression. I suggested small, one-time negative instances might not dramatically reduce your mental health, but when micro-aggressions repeatedly occur over time, you have a macro problem.
By participating actively in social media, you expose yourself to potential harm, making social media a risky behavior, like sex or alcohol. If we treat social media like we treat other risky behavior — one that is worse for youth and largely without systemic support at this point in history — we have a better chance at managing its harmful effects.
Since my TEDx talk, I have done more research and work in this area, the results of which I presented at the World Youth Forum in Egypt in November 2018. Today, I advocate for what I call #SafeSocial. Just like “safe sex,” most people (and especially young people) are likely to participate in this risky behaviour, so I advocate for harm-reduction strategies.
Step 1: Build Awareness & Understanding
Like alcohol or sex, we need to make sure everyone is speaking the same language. If we all understand concepts like “highlight reels,” “social currency,” “FOMO” or “online harassment” and the potential harm you expose yourself to via social media use, then we are better able to identify issues like addiction, stress, depression or anxiety when they occur. To learn more, parents should consider signing up for their own social media accounts, talking with those who speak the language (youth and active users), enrolling in formal classes or engaging in informal learning online (e.g. search “social media for parents”).
Step 2: Moderate consumption
Like any risky behaviour, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. It is important to audit your social media diet and moderate your intake. Think of your social media consumption like the consumption of alcohol in the following ways:
- You are not consuming because you need it, but because you want it
- What you’re consuming is genuinely enjoyable or adding value to your life
- You do not let it consume your life and harm relationships with people in your life
Step 3: Build offline soft skills
(Disclosure: I own a soft skills training company)
When I first started my research in this area, I thought I’d find a more explicit correlation between time spent on social media and the rising levels of anxiety and depression. I discovered it is less about the networks themselves and more about who you are offline. If you’re naturally someone who looks around and thinks “I wish I looked like that,” or “why can’t I afford vacation?” then social media will amplify that tenfold. Building real-world soft skills, such as self-awareness, confidence, resilience and mindfulness, can help you can handle the online world in a healthy way.
Step 4: Model good behaviour
As millennials grow up and have children of their own, it will be hard to teach them about #SafeSocial if you yourself are not practicing it. It will be more difficult to ask your children to put down their phone if you’ve been documenting their life since they were born. They won’t know any other way. And I do sincerely have empathy for tired caretakers just wanting to give a kid an iPad so they stop crying. It may take more work to let your kid be bored, but I promise it will help! It is important to be a good role model for youth.
I hope reframing social media as a risky behaviour will help us move forward with effective #SafeSocial and better harm-reduction strategies.
This blog was adapted from Parnell’s article, #SafeSocial: Social media as a risky behaviour
Bailey Parnell (Radio and Television Arts ’15, Communications and Culture ’16 MA) is an award-winning digital marketer and the Founder & CEO of SkillsCamp, a soft skills training company. Bailey was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. Her TEDx talk and research at Ryerson University focus on social media’s impact on mental health.