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How Social Media & Search Engines Affect Your Mental Health

Depending on when you were born, you may or may not remember a time when people didn’t have social media and online profiles, post about their lives online, or seem physically attached to their smart phones. Did you grow up using AOL instant messenger? Yahoo Messenger? Tik Tok? Kik? How can these massive changes and evolution in how humans interact with technology not have affected people and their development?

First and foremost, we want to emphasize that we are not arguing here that technology or social media are all bad. However, there are some pieces of information that you need to know in order to interact with this technology safely because we haven’t yet grasped the long-reaching influence it can have on people, their emotions, and ultimately their lives. The Social Dilemma, a documentary currently on Netflix, goes into detail about how technology including social media, search engines, and advertising has a darker side, even if the intention was good when this technology was created. We highly recommend taking the time to watch it, if for no other reason than thinking more broadly about the way you chose to spend your time.

How Technology Works and Draws You In

Did you ever wonder why certain content online is being recommended to you? It’s because computers are learning about you based on what you watch, how long you stay, and what you click on. If you use Google, for example, and go to a favorite clothing site, you just may see advertisements of that same brand later on when you aren’t even on their site anymore. A sort of “profile” is stored for you, and algorithms generate what content you will be most likely to look at and spend the most time on. Brands, sites, companies, and organizations are competing for one thing: your attention. They need your attention in order to make money, and their theory is that maybe you’ll be more likely to buy something the more that you see it.

Why It Matters

(Hint: it’s your Mental/Emotional Health)

Now you may be wondering, well so what? Why are you writing a blog about this on a mental health site? It’s great that there is technology that can help to bring me more and more content that I want to consume.

But what happens when you consume content that isn’t that great for you? What if you spend too much time looking at other people’s bodies wondering why yours doesn’t look like that no matter how much work out or diet? It doesn’t matter if you intellectually know that images are airbrushed, you still may be comparing yourself to an ideal that you’ll never meet. Furthermore, what happens if you have a porn problem? Shopping problem? Gambling addiction? How do those algorithms start impacting you then?

Companies that produce online content and use ads to generate funds recognize the addictive nature of what they’re doing. They love it and reinforce it as often as possible. It helps make them money! The longer they keep you online, the more likely you are to buy something they have to offer Remember, this doesn’t always mean spending money, just as often it is getting you to “buy into” a particular belief or view they are trying to spread.

When you get a like on a photo of yours, your brain gets a shot of feel-good chemicals and you want more, so you look for the next quick fix. Tik Tok is so addictive because it shows short clips of videos that are often funny or otherwise entertaining. But the videos are so short…so you can watch just one more, right? All the while ads are streaming down the side of your screen or content is getting pushed that is sneaking into your subconscious thoughts. They will place ads even smack in the middle of a video figuring that maybe you’ll sit through the ads to watch your favorite YouTuber or that adorable baby otter playing in the river.

Things to watch out for

Viewing online content may not be inherently bad. There are tons of great things available, but here are some things to watch out for:

  • Spending more time than you intended on certain sites/apps (sometimes whole hours will fly by and you have no idea where they went)
  • Feeling irritable when you can’t check sites/apps or consume content (bad signals, WIFI down, sites taking too long to load, you know the drill)
  • Constantly checking your phone/mindlessly scrolling through posts, videos, articles, etc.
  • Feeling negatively about yourself after consuming content, but still feeling drawn to do so
  • Neglecting self/daily responsibilities in favor of interacting with technology
  • Neglecting relationships in favor of interacting with technology (this could mean not talking to that girl you like or hanging out with your friends but spending the whole time looking at your phone instead)

There is a reason these look similar to a drug addiction/craving; it’s because it’s hijacking your brain in the same way.

Tips for Using Technology in Healthy Ways

As we stated in the beginning, we don’t believe technology to be an inherently bad thing. It can help to keep us connected, especially in trying times like COVID-19. However, now you’re aware of some of the detrimental effects that technology can create.

Tips for interacting with technology in healthy ways
  • Recognize how it makes you feel
  • What, if anything, is being “pushed” on you? Images? Messages? Values?
  • Set a timer for yourself: recognize just how much time you are spending online or with certain apps. Reflect on if you would rather be spending your time doing something else.
  • Accept the addictive nature of technology use and consider deleting certain apps from your phone or turning off notifications entirely
  • Allow yourself to put your phone on “do not disturb”
  • Consider researching and using search engines that don’t track your data
  • Clean out your cookies and keep software protection up to date

Too much time pulled into technology rather than participating in your life, and you will be thinking of missed opportunities, lost friendships, and long periods of loneliness. If that comparison stings and resonates with you, then it may be time to make a change. If you delete your apps, you can still access them through the browser, but it slows you down and will likely result in LESS time online. Turn on your screen time reports and set a max time limit a day. Heck, write it on a sticky note or whatever else will get your attention and bring your focus back to maintaining these limits regularly.

Ongoing Help

Managing technology use may seem simple in theory, but it is challenging in practice. If you find you are struggling with this consider making an appointment with an Angelus therapist today to start to take an inventory of some technology use practices that you may want to shift or cut out altogether. We will work with you to create an individualized plan for interacting with technology in a way that makes sense for you and your lifestyle—a plan that you can be excited about that allows for technology use in a safe way so it doesn’t feel like it holds power over you and your life.