Smartphones and Social Media: Is being plugged in affecting our mental health?

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Every once in a while when I’m out in public, I’ll take a look around and find myself marveling over how much the world has changed in the past 20 years.

As a child, I remember fighting with my parents over the use of our one home phone line. Now, it seems like every person over the age of 10 has his or her own smartphone. While this isn’t exactly true, it’s pretty close. Pew Research reports that 61% of Americans have smartphones — that’s not 61% of adults, 61% of all Americans! And then you have social media, which is used by nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population, running the gamut from great-grandparents to elementary schoolers.

It hardly needs to be said that there are a lot of great reasons we’re so into our smartphones and social networking sites. However, there are also a number of not-so-great reasons that I believe we, as a society, really need to examine.

The Allure of Connectedness

If you’re like most Americans, you know just how easy it is to be lured in by your smartphone, just how tempting it is to scroll through Facebook, even when there are other important things you should be doing (working, exercising, and sleeping, for instance). In addition to seeking the distraction, we’ve also become hungry for likes and eager to be in the know about what’s trending. Studies have shown that social media use actually releases “happy” brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, as well as, stress-related endorphins and cortisol.

As the smartphone and social media trend continues (and inevitably evolves), it brings up important questions about how all of this factors into mental health and cognitive functioning. The rapid pace of change and the high degree of connectedness we have is unlike anything we’ve seen in human history, so these are questions that need to be asked going forward.

Are our smartphones becoming extensions of ourselves? Is that a bad thing?

A new study from the University of Missouri has found that people do, in fact, suffer from separation anxiety when they are apart from their smartphones. Not only did the separation cause anxiety symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, but participants also performed poorly on mental tasks. The researchers reported that the study “suggest that iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of ourselves such that when separated, we experience a lessening of ‘self’ and a negative physiological state.”

Can we keep our multitasking in check?

Put simply, technology increases the likelihood of multitasking, and multitasking makes you less productive and can cause lasting cognitive damage. Think about how often you have multiple tabs open on your browser and switch back and forth, or how easy  it is to get lost in checking email on your phone during an important meeting. It’s not that people didn’t multitask before the internet and cell phones, but now we have so many more ways to multitask that we need to be cautious of how it’s impacting our performance.

How does social media impact our self perception and moods?

Nothing is black and white, including the effects of social media use. A recent study actually found that social media use may reduce stress in women, due to a greater sense of connectedness and support. However, there are plenty of studies suggesting a darker side to the story. Too much social media use can also lead people to make damaging comparisons of themselves and their peers, which can easily contribute to anxiety or depression. If your personality type is prone to absorbing the emotions of others, the exposure to other people’s stress — such as sad or angry status updates — may leach into your own sense of well-being and cause you stress. (Consider unfollowing or deleting those contacts whose posts upset you!)

In the end, it’s all about balance. Smartphones are great tools for managing our daily lives and staying organized. Social networks are fantastic for expressing yourself, for keeping in touch, and for connecting with people and ideas from around the world. Like anything, though, there is the potential for damage when taken to an extreme.

If you’re a smartphone or social media “addict,” finding a balance may be tough, so start with baby steps, such as deactivating your Facebook account for one day, or taking a half-hour walk without bringing your phone. Work your way up to greater periods of time being “unplugged.” Eventually, some of the separation anxiety will lift when you realize that being disconnected doesn’t always lead to a crisis.

And remember — as good as it may feel, how many “likes” you get does not say anything about your self-worth!

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