Life and Style’s Caitlin Steele and Jess Howlett consider professional opinions regarding online time management and mental health concerns

Images by Circe Denyer

There’s no denying it. Social media websites are some of the greatest influencing powers for our generation. Many of us spend countless accumulative hours every day scrolling through the constant stream of new content and imagery that is just sitting ready to grab our attention away from the real world. Like most things in life, there are good parts and bad parts to social media, and it is important for us to make sure we are taking control of this great tool and using it to our advantage.

We are often thought of as the ‘social-media generation’ in a negative way, but the way I see it, we have one of the greatest advantages over any other generation before us. With so many different platforms at our fingertips, social media allows us to create and connect like never before. You can so easily share content, whether it is to simply share your memories with friends, or even to promote your business ideas. I know so many young people who have rocketed their business dreams into real enterprises all with the great help of social platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat. We are so lucky to have this tool to make our ideas come to life, and it can greatly increase your self-esteem when you feel proud of the content that you have shared or created. What is important to remember is that, just like any other tool, it is there to aid you, and there to be controlled by you to use it how you need to.

Tt is very easy to get swept up by the wave and lose sight of the difference between the real and the virtual

Whilst there are so many benefits to social media, and it is allowing our generation to develop much more autonomy, it is very easy to get swept up by the wave and lose sight of the difference between the real and the virtual. I personally love scrolling through Instagram to get inspiration for all sorts of things, and a lot of the time it gives me motivation and ideas for how to turn my own goals into reality. Nevertheless, I am a huge culprit of finding myself aimlessly scrolling after a while, and in fact, instead of using social media to motivate me and curate my ideas, I am simply evading the responsibilities of reality and wasting time that could be spent working on my own life. This can lead to feelings of lethargy and, ironically, demotivation. The old saying goes ‘everything in moderation’ and I really think this rings true for social media use. There is nothing wrong with enjoying catching up on what your friends are doing, or looking for inspiration, but it is vital that we do not let it encroach on our own personal development and detract from the real world. It is also always worth remembering the typical social media argument that does in fact ring true – a lot of what you see online is definitely not the truth, or at least not the whole truth, and so whilst it is nice to peruse the web and get an insight into the rest of the world’s lives, you should remember to take some of these representations with a pinch of salt.

So why is social media so important to us? These apps aim to show your ‘best’ life – but in reality, your best life is not as filtered, posed or edited as these apps make it out to be. We’re all guilty of it, which is what makes it so much more than an individual problem. Dr. Pamela Rutledge (director at the Media Psychology Research Centre) explains ‘we have an instinctive need to be accepted into a group (social validation), and at a primal level, to the biological need for survival’. It is no wonder then that we are hypersensitive to the instant gratification these apps provide us, in the forms of likes and comments. Sociologist Anna Akbari reiterates this, explaining these kinds of validation make our brain light up the same way a drug does, hence why we keep returning for more. She also raises the interesting point that because this validation is public, it becomes even more rewarding. This, in a nutshell, is why social media will always have a negative impact to me – because we can utilise its positive benefits privately (contacting friends, or potential employers), and there is no need for this publicity. Anna Akbari echoes this, as her suggestions of how to be happy online include turning off notifications for likes, and only leaving them on for direct (private) messages.

These kinds of validation make our brain light up the same way a drug does, hence why we keep returning for more

Donna Frietas (author of The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost) summarises our relationship with social media as ‘love-hate, emotionally dependent, and obsessive’. I also asked about the impact of being exposed to social media earlier, to which she replied, ‘what we know from the young adult generation that has spent most of their young adulthood on social media – often nearly constantly – is that social media has a tremendous influence on happiness and self-esteem – typically a negative one.’ She also notes anxiety with this generation has risen vastly – an observation echoed in the RSPH report, which states levels of anxiety have risen by 70% in the last 25 years. Though this is due to many factors, it seems likely that the constancy of being online has contributed.

In order to remain happy online, Dr. Rutledge explains we need to recognise that the internet itself does not make us happy or sad – it is the way we use it. Therefore, we need to take steps to remain comfortable online, just as we would offline. For instance, if an account on Instagram makes you feel not good enough, unfollow it. However, she also states ‘if watching silly cat videos on YouTube makes you laugh, schedule in a video for your coffee break’. The internet is not intrinsically good or bad, and it is up to us to use it responsibly, safely, and positively.