Should we turn off social media?

...or not? An expert and a young person share their points of view.

Mental health and wellbeingTech and the online worldFriends and relationships
By Parent Zone ·

Meg (not her real name)

Young author

Why I went on a tech detox

Once upon a time

Teenage me was introduced to the crazy world of social media via Facebook, which you may now associate with old people and remembering birthdays.

I mainly wanted to speak to my friends after school – but back then, it was all about how many likes you got on your profile picture and the amount of virtual friends you had. NUMBERS!

Around a decade later I guess not much has changed. To some extent, social media is still about numbers – just across different platforms. Now the questions we ask ourselves are: ‘how many likes did my Instagram post get?’ and ‘what’s my following to followers ratio?’

What changed?

As the years went by and I entered my late teens, I got Instagram. I was a little late to the party – but my friends had it and it looked like a really good way of connecting with the new faces I was meeting on nights out and around university.

Initially it was fun – I could show off what an amazing life I was living. Hundreds and hundreds of likes were coming through. My virtual self was at her prime!

But while my pictures were out there for the world to look at, billions of other people’s pictures were out there for me to look at too – and suddenly mine didn’t seem so great any more. Her make-up was flawless; her waist was smaller; her outfit was nicer. There was always going to be someone with longer legs and nicer teeth – always someone with thicker hair and a flatter tummy. Suddenly I was comparing myself to these ‘beautiful’ women and putting myself down for not looking like them.

My relationship with social media and consequently myself started to get toxic. What once started off as a means of talking to my friends after school was making me unhappy and obsessive to the point where I had to give myself a break. I was sick of seeing Instagram’s version of ‘perfect’ and beating myself up for not matching that description – it had gotten unhealthy.

A lil’ break

I decided to get rid of Instagram for a while so I could concentrate on myself again. I wanted those hours back – I wanted my life back!

I had no idea how long it would last, but I knew it wasn’t going to be permanent – only a break while I prioritised things in my life and felt like I was in a better position again. I went ahead and not only deleted the app off my phone, but disabled my account too. The time I had previously wasted on social media, I invested into myself and turned to fitness to pull me out of my dark place.

At first it took a while to get used to – I mean, what was I meant to do when I had a spare moment at work or before I went to bed? I initially felt like I was missing out. I missed seeing what the people I followed were getting up to.

Slowly, my fear of missing out passed, and I was starting to feel like a happier, healthier version of myself. This wasn’t an overnight process – it took a good four months before I was in love with myself again.

Eventually, I was ready to return to social media. I knew that I wasn’t the same person I had been four months ago. This time, seeing perfect smiles and bodies wasn’t going to get me down because I was the best version of myself that I could be – on the outside and more importantly, on the inside. The break genuinely did me good!

If you’re thinking about taking a break from social media, I would totally encourage you to give it a go. But simply avoiding your fav platform probably isn’t enough. In my case, I had to work out what I was struggling with in my life – both offline and online – and work on it. That way, when I decided to come back to Instagram, I knew I’d be OK. Whatever you do, good luck!

Professor Victoria Nash

Victoria is the Deputy Director, an Associate Professor, and Senior Policy Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. She is an expert in the interests and rights of both child and adult internet users and the challenges of balancing these in internet governance and regulation.

Should we just switch off social media?

As I write, the UK is hurtling through a public health and economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus. My news feeds are overflowing with gloomy headlines, heart-wrenching personal stories and blatant disinformation. At times like these, we might well ask whether social media is good for our wellbeing. But should we just switch it all off?

This is – of course – a very personal decision. Research suggests that different people will react differently to online experiences depending on their character and context. It’s complicated, as one of my favourite books on the topic suggests. But at the same time, there are some general conclusions that we can draw about the role of social media and screen-based digital devices in our lives.

Analysis confirms that there is no simple link between the amount of time young people spend on their devices and their overall wellbeing. One large-scale study suggested that wearing glasses has a greater effect! It seems it’s not how long we spend online, but what we do that matters. Some activities, such as keeping in touch with close friends or family, are (unsurprisingly) good for us: they make us feel more connected, better supported and more positive. Others such as online gambling can cause direct material as well as psychological harm – with well-documented effects.

But there are many categories of online activity where it is much harder to draw firm conclusions. Consider difficult issues such as online support for young people with eating disorders. Although pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia content is understandably banned by many social media companies, some academic research suggests that it might also be harmful to prohibit all mention of such issues. For vulnerable individuals struggling to discuss their disorders with friends or family, online forums can provide a hugely important source of non-judgmental support – and simply switching this off may cause real distress.

If we’re questioning the role that social media plays in our lives, it may make sense to adopt a period of critical reflection – in other words, considering how and why we use it, and whether altering habits might help us flourish. As a starting point, we need to identify what we actually do online: for example, iOS provides a handy breakdown of which tools or apps we use the most.

It’s also vital we think about what we gain or lose by using each service. Does Instagram make us feel more connected to friends or celebrities? Does it also make us feel inadequate or pressurised to present a perfect life? Such calculations are likely to be highly personal. Indeed, it’s a source of great frustration to academic researchers that we can’t offer more insights into the risks and benefits of using different social media platforms – but this is impossible without access to data from the platforms themselves about what users are seeing/saying/sharing.

Critical reflection requires more than just weighing up the aspects of social media we enjoy or dislike. It also means considering whether we approve of the things we enjoy. For example, video content on platforms like YouTube is now more important than scheduled television for 8 to 15-year-olds in the UK. But such platforms also host huge amounts of problematic content: twisted versions of kids’ programmes, anti-scientific disinformation and extremist political content. The algorithms serving up our recommended content are designed to ‘keep our eyeballs on the page’ which may explain an apparent tendency to offer ever more sensationalist material. So it’s not enough to stick with the apps or services we enjoy: we need to ask ourselves whether we like the person we become when we create, watch or share their content.

The final question we should be asking ourselves is what we could be doing instead. When asked to reflect on flawed screen-time advice from public health bodies, Sonia Livingstone at the LSE argued that what matters most are the opportunities we lose. If we’re scrolling endlessly through social media when we should be going to sleep, that will likely mean we wake up tired. If we’re so engrossed in our phones that we’re not engaging with our nearest and dearest, it will be no surprise if relationships suffer.

At the end of the day we all have to take responsibility for our social media use – and this applies just as much to parents as it does to young people. It’s fine to delete our profiles or turn away from our screens – but we need to be mindful and reflective when we are not using technology, too.