Get off social media. Delete your accounts, even. Social media is actively harming your mental and physical well-being. The constant stream of tailored content is like catnip, and social media platforms are algorithmically designed to hold your attention. These apps chew up your free time, actively harm your self-image and worsen your overall mental health.
What do these apps do to our minds? Besides contributing to rising rates of anxiety and depression, research on adolescents has found that social media use harms perceptions of body image in both girls and boys. It’s common for influencers to filter or photoshop their posts on Instagram in order to remove blemishes. It’s not reasonable for people, especially young social media users, to compare themselves to these edited images — there’s no way reality could measure up.
Even social media companies are aware of the harm they cause. In 2021, the Washington Post obtained leaked documents revealing that researchers at Instagram found that using the app was harmful to teenage girls’ and boys’ body image. About 32% of teenage girls and 14% of teenage boys felt worse about their bodies due to using the app. When these apps have hundreds of millions of users, these numbers represent a not-insignificant part of the population that is negatively impacted.
It’s not just Instagram that has a negative impact on users. During the initial phases of the pandemic, Twitter saw a 900% increase in hate speech directed towards China and the Chinese. But the most cyberbullying regularly takes place on YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook. 21% of kids report having been cyberbullied on at least one social media platform. Despite this, these platforms remain enormously popular — - but why?
When everyone you know uses social media, it can be hard to break free. The fear of missing out, commonly known as “FOMO,” can be a powerful feeling. Sometimes it can be fun to show off what you’ve been up to through pictures and other social media updates. If all you did on these platforms was posting your own term recaps or travel photos, that would be one thing. But the majority of users’ activity consists of looking at what other people are posting.
In fact, we spend a staggering amount of time doing this. In 2020, the average American spent over 1,300 hours per year on social media. Members of Generation Z spend an average of nine hours a day in front of a screen. This much screen time means increased sedentary behavior and blue light exposure, both of which negatively impact sleep patterns and overall physical well-being. With the development of algorithms that tailor your feeds, social media platforms have evolved to capture as much of your attention as possible.
Over 40% of girls and over 20% of boys aged 13-17 report using social media for three 3 or more hours per day. The most popular platforms with this age group are Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Twitter, all of which use algorithms to determine the content users see.
If you never have time to do the things you want to do, the culprit could be your phone. It’s time to break free of social media’s hold on our lives — but how?
Social media is often so ingrained in our daily routines that it is difficult to quit cold turkey. Therefore, there is a compromise of sorts to make the process of quitting easier. iPhones and most other smartphones have a feature where you can institute time limits on certain apps, allotting yourself a specific amount of time each day to use the app.
If you choose this option, you can use this time limit method with the goal of weaning yourself off of social media completely like a smoker who uses nicotine patches to wean themselves off of smoking actual cigarettes. As social media becomes less and less a part of your daily routine, the urge to check these apps will diminish.
It can be hard to step away from the constant stream of dopamine you get from likes, comments and follows. These apps have turned us into Pavlov’s dogs, rewiring our brains to link happiness with likes. But you shouldn’t need external validation from others to enjoy cool experiences or feel proud of your accomplishments.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of social media. However, it has shifted from being a way to stay up-to-date on your friends’ lives and morphed into something far more nefarious. The harmful effects suffered by far too many users prove this.
Unless the companies behind these apps make changes to limit these effects, such as mandatory time limits for young users, we must act to protect ourselves. The way forward is clear: Get off of the hamster wheel and stop chasing fleeting dopamine hits. Reclaim your free time. Delete your social media.
Thomas de Wolff '24 is from St. Louis, Missouri, and is majoring in History and French. He currently serves as opinion editor and as a member of the Editorial Board, and has written for the opinion section in the past. Outside of The Dartmouth, Thomas enjoys playing guitar, reading, and learning to juggle.