14 Sep 2022

Scroll Destroying: How Social Media Affects Mental Wellbeing

Author Josh Roberts explores the impact of endless scrolling on our sleep, self esteem and social life in the second of three articles looking at social media and mental health.

On average I scroll on my phone for four hours a day. Dusting-off my GCSE maths calculator I can tell you that’s equivalent to 28 hours a week, 60 days a year. In fact, it’s nearly two months a year spent mindlessly thumbing my way around the internet.

Often, I justify the scrolling by telling myself it’s for work. “I should really keep abreast with what’s going on”, I’ll say – the modern equivalent of “one cigarette can’t hurt”. And sure enough, within ten seconds of gawping at my newsfeed, I’m entranced. My eyes glaze over, my pulse lowers, my breathing slows, time melts away.

What’s curious about all this isn’t that I do it (as we saw the last article) social media’s addictiveness is well known. The extraordinary thing is that I do it despite knowing just how negatively it impacts me. Worse, I’ve written books and articles about how bad it is. I’ve done talks, and podcasts and conferences urging people to give it up. And yet, the moment I collapse onto the sofa or sit on the bus, out comes my iPhone and up pops Instagram.

There are of course some positive sides to social media – scattered croutons of positivity, atop a Caesar salad consisting mostly of misery. As I discovered after my breakdown, with some dedicated effort, it is still possible to find nooks of community and crannies of support on sites like Facebook and Instagram. But, that quite specific instance aside, I’m afraid that, as we’re about to see, the wellbeing implications of social media are grim.

The internet of envy

Perhaps the most obvious impacts are the direct ones. It’s hardly surprising, for example, that social media usage is tightly correlated with feelings of low self-esteem and envy. Of course it is. How could ingesting a near constant diet of other peoples’ wonderful lives not leave you feeling down about your own? Social media has given us a keyhole into each other’s personal and professional lives and, guess what, everyone else’s lives are better than ours. They’re all getting promotions, buying houses, going on holiday, having photogenic kids. Meanwhile, what are we doing? We’re lying in bed scrolling through LinkedIn, like the pathetic, lazy, underpaid underachievers we are.

Of course, deep down we know that none of it is true; but somehow that doesn’t matter. We know that the influencer’s teeth can’t possibly be that white. Or that, perhaps, our colleagues’ promotion came at the cost of their marriage. Or that our friend’s kids are actually a nightmare. And yet, when each of these things flash up on our screens, for some reason we still take it at face value. We still use it – consciously or otherwise – as a stick with which to beat ourselves. And it’s making us really unhappy. In fact, according to Ethan Kross, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, social media is exerting a “toll on us, the likes of which we have never experienced in the history of our species”.

We can’t get no sleep

The indirect consequences of scrolling are also profound. It’s terrible news, for example, for our sleep. In 2017 Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, declared that the streaming company’s biggest competitor wasn’t HBO or Amazon; but was in fact bedtime. “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch and you end up staying up late at night”, he said. “So we actually compete with sleep”.  Unfortunately, the exact same thing is true of social media.

Indeed, according to a recent study, over 70% of us admit to using social media before bed, with nearly 15% of us spending over an hour scrolling before lights out. This has serious implications for both the quantity and quality of our sleep, according to a 2017 study by Bhat et al.

Not only do you get less sleep when you scroll (every hour spent scrolling is an hour you could have been snoozing), but it’s also likely to take longer to nod off (smartphones’ blue lights are effectively sleep kryptonite).  And when you do finally get to sleep, the sleep you enjoy is lighter and more brittle – the very antithesis of the deep, restorative rapid eye movement sleep our bodies and minds need to recover. All of which is bad news for our mood, levels of anxiety and broader wellbeing.

Isolation stations

For me, though, one of the scariest and most upsetting elements of social media is how it relates to loneliness. In the past ten years we’ve witnessed an explosion in the number of people reporting feeling lonely to the point where nearly 45% of UK adults say it affects them occasionally, sometimes or often. And, by replacing face-to-face social interaction with digital experiences, social media has played a large role in this. Put simply, the more time we spend on social media, the less time we spend developing meaningful, face-to-face connections with each other and the more likely we are to feel socially isolated.

There are logical, left-brained reasons for caring about loneliness rates (e.g. it’s said to cost the UK economy £32 billion every year ). But, to my mind, it’s the human tragedy which matters most. It’s the idea that millions of us are just shuffling around, isolated, alone.

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved”, said Mother Teresa. Of course, she was right. Thankfully, though, it’s also optional. Yes, scrolling is addictive and, in some cases, unavoidable; but it is possible to opt out of the obsession. Millions of people – my parents included – survive just fine without checking their phone every ten minutes. All is not lost. And next, I’ll show why.

To read part three in our series on the effects of social media and your mental health. Click here.

The opinions, comments and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.