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July is Social Wellness Month and, since social media is such a huge part of our lives nowadays, we’ve been spreading the word with our 3-part blog series about social media and medicine! Social media hygiene is a big part of social wellness, and in this final part in our series we’re talking about the negative effects of social media, for instance how blue light can lead to anxiety or social media causing depression.
Prior to COVID-19, there was already a breadth of data in medical literature on exposure to graphic user interfaces (GUI) and anxiety. The longer someone is engaged with a computer screen, the more anxiety they will have.
Reading news feeds was also associated with more anxiety as well—even pre-COVID. Personally, I had to stop reading the newspaper daily in 2010 due to the pent-up anxiety I would have on days I did not have enough time to read the morning paper. This FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real phenomenon that exists with social media users as well, and it’s clearly been exacerbated by our current climate.
With the advent of the pandemic, all public education becoming computer screen driven, and the public’s need for ongoing daily news updates, there has been a skyrocketing incidence in anxiety, depression, and even teen suicide.
What may be behind this phenomenon and what can be done about it?
Blue Light Exposure and Anxiety
One concept many people have already heard about is blue light exposure and its link to anxiety. Blue light is the wavelength of computer devices and smartphones. This light can be very activating to young children’s brains, causing them to be wound up or anxious after use.
I think most of us have experienced the meltdown that can occur after taking away the screen from a young child. But there is so much more to that meltdown than just your average tantrum.
Have you ever watched the eye movement of a child playing a video game or scrolling through a social media feed? You will see their eyes dart around from side to side. This eye movement is associated with stress response, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Over time, this kind of eye activity can create a low-grade level of hyperactivity that has been associated with ADHD in children.
I am curious to see how things play out once everything is back to “normal” in the coming year. Will we see more ADHD diagnoses in 1st through 3rd-grade students related to their exposure to blue light through excessive computer and social media usage during lockdown?
We are already currently seeing more anxiety and depression in students, and this could be caused by blue light exposure. Only time will tell.
Besides the actual physical impact of blue light on our bodies’ physiology, it’s also important to address the technology behind online searches and social media and how it affects our mental health.
The underlying artificial intelligence behind web searches focuses on maintaining engagement. This not only increases screen time usage, but it indirectly results in the spread of misinformation. (I touched on this in the second Social Media and Medicine blog post, if you want a little more info.)
An interesting survey I saw recently looked at news feeds and this so-called “fake news.” The survey showed that one of every six news feeds is not accurate. Why would outlets publish content that is not accurate, and why do social media and web search engines promote said content in news feeds? Because it appears that misinformation and sensationalism will drive more online clicks and increase engagement.
The survey did not directly address the mental health aspect of this phenomenon, but it is easy to see how this would be anxiety-provoking. It appears the publishing and pushing of sensational misinformation is nonpartisan and across the board, targeting people from all walks of life—which is why we all have a vested interest in knowing about this phenomenon and protecting ourselves and our loved ones against it.
How to Preserve Our Mental Health With Social Media
So, what can we do about this?
First, we should work on protecting our children. There are laws that address what commercials and programming can be played on TV at certain times when kids are expected to be viewing, yet there are no such laws for online usage. What’s up with that? Not to mention, there are no risk warnings displayed on electronic devices of the dangers of blue light exposure.
In our house, we keep our children’s screen time to a minimum and monitor it closely in order to minimize their exposure to blue light and dangerous misinformation. I do not think this is controversial.
For myself, a 47-year-old adult, I do not use social media for personal use (but I do use it and am engaged for my work). When at home, I try to limit computer usage. When with my children, I try not to use my computer or phone at all. By doing so, I attempt to lead by example. I do fail on a regular basis but I do not give up!
Things get tricky with teens and young adults who still have developing brains. The prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t stop developing until a person is in their late 20s. Even a 21-year-old brain is extremely impacted by social media and screen time, and especially blue light. Long amounts of time spent on social media could greatly impact a young adult’s mental health for the rest of their life. But try telling a teenager or someone in their 20s to get off their phone! Gently educating teens and young adults with the info above is a good start, as well as leading by example (as mentioned above).
I understand that smartphones, computers, and social media are deeply ingrained in our lives now. They can even be used for good! But it’s also very important that we all, at a minimum, are educated about this topic and its potential effects on mental health of you and your children.
By cutting way back on screen time and understanding how algorithms work to keep us engaged, we can learn how to use social media safely, and minimize the likelihood of developing depression or anxiety.
I hope you found this series about Social Media and Medicine educational! It seems ironic to plug my Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts now, but you are welcome to follow along on social media to keep up with more tips and info about health and functional medicine.
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.