Social Media – Is it the real Pandemic?

Social media is arguably one of the most powerful tools in our society today and I can’t deny throughout the pandemic it has done a lot of good as we all tried to make the best of a horrible year. It has given us a platform to voice our opinions and concerns and connect with loved ones from all over the world in the form of weekly zoom quizzes. Even just sending each other adorable puppy videos has brightened some of our darker days as we muddle through these unprecedented times. However, it is important to address how Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and the pressures that are associated with the overuse of these platforms can be all-consuming, draining, and impact our mental health negatively, particularly during lockdown when we are alone and forced to deal with our thoughts.

Endless, mind-numbing scrolling and switching from app to app on our smartphones has become an addiction for our generation and as we find ourselves planted in the middle of another lockdown, ask yourself this; could you spend a whole day without visiting either Instagram, Facebook or Twitter? Your answer is probably very much like mine; a no, but we aren’t alone. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2018, 63% of the 743 young adults interviewed said they use social media every day, while 45% say they are on the internet “almost constantly”. Scary. Our smartphones have become an extension of our arms and at the touch of a button we have access to millions of tiny squares filled with pictures and videos of beautiful people in beautiful places, doing beautiful things, looking beautifully happy. Sometimes these tiny squares can make us compare our lives to others, belittle ourselves and even feel like less of a person but it is important to remember that we don’t see these people when they are sick or having a bad day. It is great to see people thriving and living their best lives but it is ok if you aren’t thriving and living YOUR best life right now.

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Thanks to social media and in particular Instagram, we have this warped unrealistic image engraved in our brain of what our lives should look like. Through the introduction of influencers and large social media personalities promoting all the latest garments and gadgets, it can be easy to inhabit an unhealthy ‘I want to be like them’ attitude. We think if we have a life like theirs then we’ll be happy – if we buy that overpriced designer item, we’ll be happy, if we go on that holiday, we’ll be happy, if we have a relationship like theirs, we’ll be happy, if we look like that influencer or work ourselves silly in the gym to have a body like theirs, we’ll be happy. There is SO much to think about today and trends are constantly changing so unfortunately there will always be another we may feel pressured to follow. However, it can be helpful to take a step back, put things into perspective and realise that the celebrities who appear to have the ‘perfect life’ are human too and the impact social media has on their mental health can be just as detrimental.

In 2017, Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner opened up to Dr. Phil McGraw about how her long-term depression worsened during her fourth year on the show just as the use of social media was on the rise. Describing social media as a ‘catalyst’, she stated that trolls would take to Instagram to make comments about her skin, weight and acting abilities which “impacted how she did her job and how she interacted with the world”. I know right? You may be scratching your head thinking ‘Why is this Queen feeling like this?’ Once again though, Sophie Turner isn’t alone. According to a survey carried out in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health, a lot of young adults who fall within the 14–24-year-old age bracket agree that their wellbeing is being damaged by social media, and platforms including Twitter and Instagram invoke anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation. This may be because the days when we could live and let live are gone. When we post something on social media we almost invite opinions into our lives – everyone has an opinion on everything so it isn’t hard to see how social media has created this culture of anxiety which can often stop us from doing the things we want to do. (Side note: try not to let this be the case. You do you. We have a limited time on this earth so there is literally ZERO point wasting it worrying about the opinions of others – make that instagram page, write that blog post, share your talents with the world! Could you imagine if Sophie Turner had listened to all of those trolls who told her to stop acting? Game of Thrones simply just wouldn’t be the same!)

On the other hand, throughout the years I’ve seen celebrities use social media as a platform to address mental health issues. Little Mix band member Perrie Edwards took to Instagram to share her personal experience with anxiety and debilitating panic attacks and how restricting the time she spent on social media helped combat her mental health issues. For me, Perrie’s brave post only highlights further how from the outside looking in, someone can appear to ‘have it all’ and still struggle behind closed doors. Instagram is a highlight reel and the happiness we see is only a tiny glimpse into these peoples’ lives.

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I’d like to open up about something. Venting your feelings is healthy and I want to be honest with you all. Over the past few years I have suffered really badly with anxiety and panic attacks. When I first started to feel the effects of anxiety I thought I was losing my mind and it terrified me. I felt so alone and like I was the first person in the world to ever experience it. – The first panic attack was so intense and overwhelming I felt like I was having a heart attack, I was so scared and confused and had no idea what was happening to me. I’m not sure what triggered that first one but it soon spiralled & I found myself in a really dark place, feeling alone and scared. I had people around me but I couldn’t explain to them what was happening to me or why. It affected me so badly that I didn’t even want to leave the house. I would step foot out the door and feel the overwhelming need to go straight back inside. It completely took over my life. – I’m happy to say that the physical attacks have stopped but unfortunately the anxiety still lives on. The reality is it probably always will. – I’ve had a relationship with my mind for 25 years now, so to feel it working against me sometimes makes me feel like a prisoner in my own head. It feels like the most unnatural thing in the world but the thing that helped me the most was discovering I’m not alone. I’m not the only person going through this. There are people all over the world feeling the exact same way I do! As soon as I realised I wasn’t going insane I felt more eager to beat it. I had therapy and I surround myself with my loved ones. Talking to someone relieves you of SO MUCH STRESS. I worked out coping mechanism’s and learned what the triggers are so that I can fight the attacks before they take hold. I restricted my time on social media which often made me feel trapped and claustrophobic. I took control of my life and accepted what I couldn’t control. – I don’t want to hide it anymore. I suffer from anxiety and I want you to all know if you suffer from anxiety you’re not alone ♥️

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The reality is that life is not how it is portrayed on social media and as most of us have come to realise in 2020, it is not all highs, sunshine and rainbows and we don’t know what lies behind a screen. As my granny always says, “everyone has their own cross to bear” but now more than ever, it is so important to not only be kind to others, but also ourselves.

I could write a lot more on this topic, but for now I want to finish with one piece of advice for lockdown number two; if you begin to feel overwhelmed or claustrophobic by social media, seeing everyone using this time to better themselves and you feel you don’t have that same motivation or if you’re just sick of hearing about COVID-19 – turn it off, go for a walk, talk to someone you trust or do something that will make you feel relaxed.

I have listed a number of resources below if you or someone you know has been struggling recently. We are living through scary times and our thoughts can make them seem even scarier. Be kind to your mind and stay safe during this lockdown.

Anxiety UK
Mind
Rethink Mental Illness
Samaritans

YoungMinds
www.anxietyuk.org.uk
www.mind.org.uk
www.rethink.org
www.samaritans.org.uk
https://youngminds.org.uk

Katie McKeown is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ktmckeown_/ and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-mc-keown-89bb72189/