Epic parties, beach vacations, super fit bodies, devoted significant others, happy families— this is the stuff social media is made of, and buying into it too much can be harmful, especially for teenagers.
From a very young age, our minds operate in a specific way to help us make sense of the world. In a process called “mentalization,” we imagine what’s in other people’s thoughts and compare those to our own. We are constantly trying to match up our own values, actions, and behavior based on what we see in others.
“Basically, we are hardwired for comparison,” says Gina Servelle, LMSW, social worker at Sheppard Pratt. “This is a beneficial trait if you want your child to model appropriate table etiquette or if you are trying to fit in at a new job. But those types of situations rely on in-person interactions, where you have a flow of information with both positive and negative input.”
Servelle explains that social media, on the other hand, not only exploits this innate trait, but also hollows out that information, so we see only the positive. As we attempt to compare our experience to what we see while scrolling, we often feel as if we don’t measure up to other people’s “highlight reel” of images and experiences.
“Teenagers are especially impacted by this perspective,” says Servelle. “This often leads to a feeling of missing out and being inadequate. For those who are prone to depression or anxiety, this ‘not good enough’ sensation can make those feelings worse.” Then, rather than recognize how social media is fueling unhappiness, many people keep scrolling, leading to digital addiction that feeds feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and dissatisfaction.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage social media use.
Consider these first steps:
- Turn off all notifications so you don’t get the slot-machine-style dopamine rush of reward whenever you hear that ping.
- Take a moment to check in with yourself when you use social media. Are you feeling invigorated and motivated? Or are you feeling like your life isn’t as good as others’? If it’s the latter, take a digital break for at least a few days.
- If you want to use social media, find a group with a particular interest you enjoy—running, knitting, watching Stranger Things, etc.—so you feel a sense of community instead of comparison.
- Recognize that smartphone apps are designed to be addictive and are causing real mental health concerns for that reason. Respect the power of what’s in your pocket and use it thoughtfully, instead of letting it use you.
For everyone, teenager or not, “fear of missing out” is common when it comes to social media. Doing a digital reset can help you get a better, healthier perspective on what’s real.
Thomas Franklin, MD, psychiatrist and service chief at Ruxton House, discusses the importance of unplugging from our devices and turning digital addiction into digital adaptation in Baltimore Outloud’s Mental Health Moment.
Service Chief of Ruxton House and The Retreat's Outpatient Services, Thomas Franklin, MD, discusses the impact of smartphones and the growing dependence on technology in this article in Baltimore's Child.
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