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Set yourself to 'away': Resetting yourself for better mental health

December 28, 2017

Social networking sites have dominated our culture and the way people spend their time. We are constantly plugged in, checking the news, our feed, stories and snaps. Generation Z, or the iGeneration, was born into a world dominated by technology. They will never remember a time before smartphones, tablets or the internet, and they certainly won’t remember the ding and buzz of dial-up. People often wonder how detrimental technology is to emotional and mental well-being.

Facebook released a study in December asking the same thing. They conclude it depends on how you use this technology: Are you passively consuming information, or are you actively interacting with people? Generation Z has lived only in a tech-filled world. Does the abundance of technology have an effect on them?

Aaron Krasnow, associate vice president of ASU Counseling and Health Services, and Suniya Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, share their thoughts on the impact social media has on students and what students can do to achieve a technology balance.

Question: Does social media add to the stress students feel?

Krasnow: Social media as a technology is neither inherently stressful nor relaxing. It depends on its use; students may feel more stress from their social media use if it prevents them from completing other responsibilities, causes interference in other meaningful relationships or causes negative self-appraisal in comparison to other peoples’ online lives.

Luthar: Some aspects of social media can indeed be stressful for students, and there is one dimension that in particular causes problems, and that is the envy of others. If students look at Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook and believe that others are much happier or more popular than they are, it can contribute to depression and anxiety. This can then become a mutually reinforcing negative cycle. The two emotions feed upon each other — the more envious students feel, the more prone to depression, and vice versa.

Q: Students say they have “friends” online, but at what point do we reach a point of unhealthy relationships — that is, is it unhealthy to not have relationships outside of the internet?

Krasnow: The experience of friends online is a true one for most people. Sometimes our social media or online relationships are with people with whom we can be the most open and honest. Sometimes people don’t have someone in their day-to-day offline life with whom they can talk with about their feelings or their identity or their fears. 

That being said, online friendships should not be at the exclusion of trying to find in-person connections as well. The people who live the healthiest lives are those who have varied interests and relationships. Any time one aspect of our life — whether that is work, hobbies or social media — dominates our experience, it can lead to a negative impact. We recommend that people balance their online friendships with in-person relationships. Both can have tremendous benefits, but they are different. 

Q: Do students feel pressured to live a curated life?

Krasnow: There is evidence that what people present online is a constructed version of themselves and, on some platforms, unrealistically positive. Remembering this while scrolling through newsfeeds is critical to avoid social comparisons.

Luthar: It’s hard not to fall into that trap of feeling that others' lives are perfect because that's the message that is constantly conveyed. It's rare that anyone publicly posts things like, "I'm really down in the dumps, or my significant other just left me, or I have health problems." It’s difficult to publicize these things because of associated shame and embarrassment, not to mention the fact that depression, even today, carries a stigma with it. So continuously watching others' "fairy tale" lives can build up pressure, with students feeling that their own lives are lacking compared to others. 

Q: How is taking a break from our electronic devices beneficial to the emotional and mental well-being of students?

Krasnow: The expression “everything in moderation” is usually true. This goes for social media as well. Taking periodic breaks is good if you fill the time with other enjoyable activities. One way to figure out if you might need to take breaks more often include: If you find yourself spending more time than you intended on social media, or people get mad at you for your social media use, or you feel uncomfortable or anxious if you haven’t checked your newsfeed for a while, those all might be indications that you need to take more breaks from social media use.

Q: Is social media only a small contributor to increased student stress, or does it play a larger role?

Luthar: Not all increased student stress is due to social media. There are different sources of pressure — with globalization, for example, it is much more competitive to get into selective universities and high-status jobs than in the past so that many students are highly stressed about their future life prospects. Outside one's own life, there are many distressing aspects of the current state of the world; kids see news as quickly as upsetting events occur. So media, in general, can be cause for stress and tension.

Q: Has social media helped or hindered student social skills?

Luthar: Social media can contribute to depression or being left out, but it’s certainly not all bad. There are significant positives to social media as well. People now have the opportunity to reach out to friends and connect with family who are far away — across the nation and all over the world. In that sense, we are more connected than we were in the past.

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