Social media’s impact on our mental health

Digital self-care

Social media's impact on our mental health


Dr. Brian Primack, dean of the College of Health, shares how to manage digital self-care in this CNN feature. Recent news of “Spider-Man” actor Tom Holland taking a social media break, citing mental health, may have others reconsidering their relationship with social media, too.

Here are Dr. Primack’s social media self-care tips, referencing his book, "You Are What You Click."

  • Create a healthy framework to consume a “digital media diet.”
  • Fight “comparison syndrome.”
  • Consider your negativity threshold.


Host  0:02 

One of the study's co authors is public health researcher and family physician, Dr. Brian Primack. He's the dean of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. Dr. Primack, thanks so much for being here. If a big star like Tom Holland is struggling to preserve his mental health because of social media, how can any young person be expected to navigate it? And by the way, also, what a gift he's given to all of us being so candid about this.

Dean Primack  0:30 

Yeah, I think this is very helpful. Obviously, Mr. Holland's experience is unique because of what a big star he is. But a lot of ordinary people are making similar decisions. And I agree with you that a lot of people will be empowered to be able to say, "hey, you know, this is an option for me."

Host  0:49 

Yeah, if a big star who's super successful is having a hard time navigating it and he's spiraling, if his ego is suffering, I mean, you know, how can we mere mortals have to deal with all of it? And in fact, you, I mean, having studied this, say that there's something called the opportunity cost of social media. How do you define that?

Dean Primack  1:10 

Sure. Well, the opportunity cost is just that if you're spending hours mindlessly scrolling, that may be taking time from things that might be more fulfilling and meaningful to your life. That's it in a nutshell.

Host  1:27 

Yeah, but you don't even have to spend hours, Doctor, I mean, I spend 20 minutes and I find myself going down this rabbit hole of scrolling for 20 minutes, and then I realized I could have been doing yoga. I mean, it is a huge time suck.

Dean Primack  1:39 

Yeah. And you know, there are many other things too, in those 20 minutes, so yes, there's the time suck itself, but then there's also what it does to our mind, which is sort of what I hear when I hear his comments. For a lot of common people the issue is social comparison. The highlight reel on social media, where of course we're bathed in these beautiful moments of other people like us, that can make us feel like we don't measure up. But I feel like in his case, what I'm seeing is more of what we call negativity bias. And this is a natural thing about human beings. When we're given a lot of information, we tend to focus on the negative things. This is just how we're designed as human beings and it's adaptive. So just as an example, since I work at a university, if you're a student, and you're taking four classes, and you have three A's and one D, what will you be focusing on? So in the case of Tom Holland, there's a ton of positive out there on social media because he's so talented and loved. But those few negative things like he said, can leave him spiraling. And we've shown in published research that those negative experiences truly, when you look at it quantitatively, are more powerful than the positive ones.

Host  2:56

Right for everybody. And so you have these self care tips for all of us. So let's just go through these three because I think that they're really helpful. You say, create a healthy framework to consume a digital media diet. What does that mean?

Dean Primack  3:10 

Yeah, that's a great question. So I wrote a book about this called You Are What You Click and basically it follows this idea of the diet and a food pyramid for social media. You know, if you think about it, there are some similarities. If you're eating a lot of fat and excess sugars, that's going to be a problem. But if you're focusing on fiber, protein and balance, it's often good. And I think that that model can help us develop a food pyramid for social media. Now, what goes into that food pyramid is obviously going to be you know, very different. So for example, a lot of people don't think of the nuance of who are your connections? I think one thing that may be going on in Mr. Holland's case, is that we've done some studies and shown that if your contact group, the people that you frequently interact with on social media, is made up of people you already know well, face to face, that's linked to better mental health. But if you commonly interact on social media, with a lot of people you don't know, IRL (in real life), that is linked to more depression, anxiety and loneliness. So that's an example of a nuance that all of us can do and I think is probably related to his situation.

Host  4:29 

That's really interesting. I want to get to one last one, because this is one that we all suffer from. Fight comparison syndrome. I mean, how many times are you on Instagram and you're looking at somebody else's fabulous vacation, and you feel bad? So how are you supposed to fight that?

Dean Primack  4:44

Yeah, no social comparison is certainly an issue. As I mentioned before, it is the highlight reel. By definition, we are being exposed to hundreds, 1000s, of examples of things that we are not doing at that moment. And that can be very difficult for human beings because we are designed to compare ourselves to others. We also see this in the animal kingdom. And I certainly talk about this in You Are What You Click. But one thing that we can do, I mean, one is we can be more aware of this. Once we bring it to the conscious and we say to ourselves, we really analyze "Yes, of course they're posting about their beautiful trip this year. That's the only time I ever posted this year." That can be a help. The other thing is that social comparison interestingly can be our friend. Not always, but think about it this way: Sometimes social comparison leads us to feel bad about ourselves because "oh my gosh, I don't look that good and haven't gone through that diet plan" or whatever. But sometimes social comparison can be motivating. It can help us say "hey, if this friend of mine was able to do this, I'd like to catch up with them and turn this into something positive for my life." So I think that one thing we can do is we can try to manage social comparison. And the other thing we can do, is we can actually try to leverage it in certain cases to actually help our lives.

Host  6:19

That's really interesting and helpful. And then the last option, of course, is that we can also just delete these things from our devices if we think that they're taking over our lives. I mean, I think that Tom Holland gives everybody permission to do that as he did. So Dr. Brian Primack. Thank you very much. Great to have this conversation with you.

Dean Primack  6:38 

Thanks so much.