How does using social media affect our mental health?

Click to play video: 'How does using social media affect our mental health?' How does using social media affect our mental health?
In light of Mental Health Week, many Canadians are speaking up to stop discrimination and stigma that can surround mental illness. Matt Battochio examines how social media use can affect mental health and what secondhand exposure to tragedy can do to someone – May 8, 2018

Tragic events like the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and the Toronto van attack are devastating for so many and in the wake of such shocking incidents it’s often difficult to think of anything else.

In an age where news spreads so quickly, people can also be inundated through social media channels.

“In some cases, we kind of become a little bit obsessed,” Lethbridge College Health and Wellness instructor Marie Laenen said. “It’s kind of like the tooth that hurts that we want to keep pressing on.”

The Lethbridge College instructor has worked in the mental health field much of her life. While she believes sometimes feeling connected to the bigger picture can be positive, other times, it can be problematic.

“There’s a lot of evidence that says seeing those stories frequently actually does have an impact on us,” Laenen said. “When it does become where it’s disrupting your sleep and changing your life decisions, where you start making decisions out of fear, that’s a really good point to step back.”

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Social media can also connect friends and bring strangers together. It can even help launch and enhance funding campaigns like the one that helped raise $12 million to support players and families affected by the Humboldt Broncos crash or inspire thousands to register as organ donors.

READ MORE: Nearly 100K register to donate organs after Humboldt Broncos crash

There are many positives but in Brad Hagen’s experience as a psychologist, that online connection can also put a stress on mental health.

“Quite a few people who come to see me who have anxiety and depression, many of them talk about their online use and social media use and how they sort of feel compelled to use it,” said Hagen, who works at Associates’ Counseling Services. “But afterwards they actually feel more lonely, or more depressed, or more anxious.”

Hagen believes these feelings may come from social comparison.

“We don’t post pictures of us being alone or bummed out on a Saturday night, but we post pictures of our trip to Costa Rica,” Hagen said. “You get this false image of what everybody else’s life is like and people seem smarter, or prettier, or they seem to have better families, or more exciting jobs, or better vacations. And too much social media use can make us feel like we don’t measure up.”

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If social media is getting you down Laenen says you might be finding ways to bounce back without even knowing it.

“Taking our dogs for a walk, or petting our cats, music, drumming, yoga. We have lot of built-in natural resiliency things that we already do and that really helps with coping strategies.”

While the use of social media can affect people in different ways, Hagen just hopes individuals will be cognizant of how it makes them feel.

“There’s certain techniques like mindfulness — where we just get people to go online and just be aware of what’s happening with their thoughts and moods and body,” Hagen said. “A lot of people just zone out and are not even aware if this is having a good effect, or a bad effect on them.”

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