Share on Pinterest
The constant stream of stressful news in your Facebook feed combined with months of sheltering in place due to the pandemic may be having a bigger effect on your mental health than you realize. Getty Images
  • A new survey reveals Americans are changing social media habits in wake of this current, unstable era.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 elections, and global instability have thrust triggering and upsetting information at us in a constant social feed.
  • This can cause increased anxiety and stress, and lead to serious mental health issues like depression, even suicide.
  • Mental health experts say you might want to unplug for a bit, take up a hobby, or engage with your community to address some of the problems that are upsetting you in the news.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

With all the instability in the world right now — from the COVID-19 pandemic and political upheaval to natural disasters — we’re constantly being bombarded by sometimes triggering information on our social media feeds.

How we interact with social media right now has definitely been affected by a new reality in which many people are out of work, sheltering in place at home, and logging on to social media to connect with loved ones and friends while also being glued to an ever-updating feed of bad news.

How exactly is all of this interaction with social media affecting our physical and mental health?

A new survey shows that Americans’ social media habits are significantly shifting during this volatile time.

Researchers out of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center commissioned a survey of 2,000 people in the United States to examine their social media habits during this time.

The consensus was that the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with stress over politics and the nation’s long-overdue reckoning on racism, have been at the top of people’s minds nationwide.

More than half of respondents — a high 56 percent — said they’ve changed their social media habits overall during this time due to their response to these national and global crises.

About 29 percent said they’ve increased their social media use, while 20 percent said they’ve taken a break from social media due to these political and public health tensions.

Other research has shown how people’s social media posts are reflecting their stress and anxiety to these current events.

Many people also find themselves trying to navigate the tricky waters of misinformation, trying to sort truth from lies about politics and COVID-19.

During all of this, the phenomenon of “doomscrolling,” or the need to obsessively seek out information on news that can potentially trigger stress and anxiety, has emerged.

Basically, in a world that can often feel upside down, social media can fan the flames of stress and anxiety, and learning how to manage your consumption of it can prove a boon to your mental and physical health.

Ken Yeager, PhD, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, who led the survey, told Healthline he was surprised by just how high the percentages were of people who were significantly altering their social media behaviors at this time.

While he expected some shift during an unprecedented time, he was unprepared to see just how many people signaled they were shifting their behavior in response to this onslaught of information.

He said it’s an “enormous challenge” to avoid social media, especially when the negative news of the day seems to have a disorienting and disillusioning effect on Americans in particular, who were often fed the idea that “if you work hard and do good things, then good things will come to you.”

Now the news of the day and the social media discourse around it is revealing that’s not necessarily the case.

“That idea is fine until you are inundated with images and texts that say just the opposite,” Yeager explained. “So, you have the pandemic going on and at the same time a long-overdue look at racial injustice in the United States, the near-record recession looming on the horizon, all at the same time that political rhetoric is firing up at the highest level. It’s impossible to get away from it everywhere you go.”

Selena Chan, DO, integrative psychiatrist and associate physician diplomate at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), told Healthline she finds many of her patients conflicted with the push and pull to both “plug into” and “unplug” from social media at this time.

“On the one hand, social media opens access to personal, user-generated content, which can feel more relatable than other information sources. Turning to the expressive repository of loss, grief, anger, feelings of uncertainty, moral distress, and examples of the pandemic’s silver linings, may help some process challenging experiences,” said Chan, who wasn’t affiliated with the new survey.

She added that social media can “open space” to support networks of loved ones and friends.

While some pre-COVID-19 ways to buffer stress are “offline,” she said social media provides “an outlet to share divergent, opinionated viewpoints about the health crisis, politics, racial disparities, and social inequities.”

That might sound positive in theory, but our capacity to handle all of that — at times, distressing — information at once can be overwhelming.

“Even if a person avoids direct contact with social media, indirect exposure to triggering content through anyone a person interfaces in their daily life is still a possibility,” Chan added.

“When we are passively interfacing with content, we can be unexpectedly ‘downloading’ social signals, such as the emotional tone and nonverbal body language. Without many ‘filters’ to buffer stress-provoking social media content, our stress response system can become overactive and sensitized,” she said.

Yeager said he’s been captivated by the concept of the so-called “doomscrollers,” predicting that it will probably be the “word of the year.”

Why would you keep going to information that might be harmful to your psychological health?

Yeager likens the phenomenon to witnessing a “train crash”: It’s hard to look away.

For some of these people, it can also be a method to oddly feel better about one’s circumstances.

If you know there are wildfires ravaging California but that your home is fine, or that a hurricane has whipped through a community but your family is safe, it’s a way to almost emotionally armor yourself for the news of the day.

In what ways does this social content have a tangible impact on your health?

Yeager cites the starkly escalating numbers of depression among people in the United States during this time.

He said statistics from 2013 to 2014 — a decidedly pre-COVID-19 era — reveal relatively stable rates of depression, which have been spiking during the short time we’ve been living with COVID-19.

Even former first lady Michelle Obama described herself as experiencing “low-grade depression” during the pandemic during a recent episode of her podcast.

Chan said that compared to other global emergencies, this pandemic “unfolded insidiously with perhaps a built-in assumption that the impact would last temporarily.”

As a result, many people felt unprepared to experience the kind of confusion, sense of helplessness, and genuine fear brought about by the global viral outbreak.

“When going through a challenging situation, having a sense of certainty that ‘this too shall pass’ can fuel motivation to continue striving forward. However, how the pandemic will continue to unfold and what this means for our future remains uncertain,” she added.

Chan said that, anecdotally from her own practice, patients she works with have described feeling “tired but wired” — sensing that “there is no time for self-care or to process what they are going through.”

This puts the body in a sense of “survival mode” to cope with this consistent stress.

“A constant need to stay in ‘survival mode’ combined with unaddressed trauma or grief can make our body’s internal alarm system more sensitized to threats. In other words, previously benign social media content could now be unexpectedly triggering a strong visceral reaction,” she said.

This has seeped into the real world. Chan explained how once-fun and enjoyable activities like meeting a friend at the beach or going out to dinner now possess a sense of peril.

It might be good for one’s mental health to engage with friends and their community, but those now come with an understanding of physical harm from potential exposure to the new coronavirus.

“Conversely, sheltering from COVID may be ‘healthy’ but worsen feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, or anger,” she added.

Yeager said this discussion about mental health management has remained underdiscussed for decades now.

As mental health facilities have increasingly shut down and health insurance companies have consistently made it harder for people to seek affordable mental health treatment, it’s made something of a perfect storm now with more and more people needing stress, anxiety, and depression to be addressed — but not having access to do so, Yeager added.

Not surprisingly, he said this all dovetails with other crises like self-medication — think: the nation’s opioid crisis — and high suicide rates.

What do you do to cope with all of these social media triggers? Both Yeager and Chan outlined simple, but vital, actionable steps.

Yeager said it’s important to disconnect when you can. Log off and put the device down.

Try to connect with your family and loved ones. It could be scheduling a needed video call or spending quality time with the people you’re sheltering with. Just look away from Twitter, please.

Another recommendation is to take up a hobby. Whether it’s a creative project or something like gardening or exercise, there are ways to avoid thinking about the social media information of the day.

You could also engage directly with your community.

It might be easy to feel helpless during this time, but finding a way to get involved in addressing some of the issues that might cause you stress can help. For example, volunteer at a food bank, participate in a neighborhood cleanup, or campaign for a political candidate you believe in.

The latter example could involve simply getting out and voting, or calling local representatives if there’s an issue dear to your heart that’s been bothering you.

Yeager said it’s also crucial to communicate. Talk to a friend, loved one, or your therapist about some of the stress that might be bogging you down.

Chan said it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” with your social feed. You don’t have to disengage completely, but set boundaries for yourself.

You can also edit your feeds to avoid seeing potentially upsetting and triggering content. She also said it’s key to pinpoint how you respond to stress. Do you “fight, flight, or freeze?” she asked.

Chan explained that knowing how you respond to this kind of information to begin with can help you know how to address what to do — whether unplugging or directly engaging is the right approach.

“There is no one best way to cope, and what is activating to one person may be soothing to another,” she said, citing that “extroverts energize through outward connection, introverts energize through inward connection,” for instance.

“Prioritize daily time to immerse yourself in a personally rejuvenating self-care ritual,” Chan added. “It could be simply waking up 15 minutes earlier to sip a soothing cup of tea and quiet time to center yourself. Perhaps it is extending your time in the shower and singing or listening to your favorite song.”

She said that even if you do disconnect from social media, you don’t have to hold all the weight of what you’re dealing with on your own.

“Consider sharing your experiences with a trusted group or healthcare professional. It can be healing just knowing you can be authentic with another human being outside of your social circle, who supports your mind-body well-being,” Chan added.

Yeager also stressed that you should help some of the older adults in your life. A lot of them don’t even have social media, which can cause them to feel cut off from the shared experience everyone else is having.

But instead they may fall into the trap of tuning in 24/7 to cable news, constantly absorbing upsetting information day in and day out.

He said not all of this is bad.

“I really think if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that it is shining a light on mental illness, and my hope would be everybody would stop and think about a relative and a loved one. Check in with them and make sure they are OK,” Yeager said.

“The pandemic is a horrible thing, an overwhelming thing. If we can take better care of one another, learn to be a little more civil, if we can be a little more kinder, check in. As we see COVID-19 cases quadruple, think about taking care of each other. Well, hopefully we can bring the world back to being a more civil place,” he said.

A new survey reveals Americans are changing their social media habits in wake of this current, unstable era.

The COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 elections, and global instability have thrust triggering and upsetting information at us in a constant social feed.

This can cause increased anxiety and stress, and lead to serious mental health issues like depression, even suicide.

How do we manage this? Mental health experts say it’s important to assess how you deal with this information and act accordingly.

You might want to unplug for a bit, take up a hobby, or engage with your community to address some of the problems that are upsetting you in the news.

Beyond this, talk to someone about it — whether a loved one, a partner, a friend, or a therapist or counselor.