Mental Health and Social Media: A Tricky Relationship

Notebook with cut and paste letters spelling 'News' with a smartphone resting on top showing the BBC News page.

Do you feel in control of your news and social media consumption, or is compulsion leading you to spend time online in a way that doesn’t make you feel positive and relaxed?

Ping… Pick up phone. Check notification. Unlock. Type reply. Press ‘Send’. Switch apps. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. Ping. Repeat… 

It is pretty much an unconscious routine. One single sound that lasts about six seconds but that can easily lead to often, at least, half an hour of scrolling and, depending on the time of the day and how interesting your timeline is, it can also lead to the much dreaded (but only afterwards!) doomscrolling 

You might already know what doomscrolling is, but even if you don’t know that there is a name for it, you are likely to have been one of its victims. Doomscrolling is when you become consumed by the need to stay up to date with what’s happening – often relating to bad news – so you just keep scrolling and scrolling through your social media feeds whilst waiting for updates. It’s kind of FOMO (fear of missing out) but for news and social media. 

It is no news that social media is becoming the main access point for news for most young people. This, of course, raises a number of questions that are worth our reflection: the personalisation of the news we see and its veracity, the lack of separation between news and other forms of entertainment and socialisation, and the impact that both social media and news can have on our mental health. 

Fake news and content personalisation 

In the past decade the term post-truth has been increasingly popular, along with fake news. Whether these terms have been co-opted or not, the truth is that since we now have access to a much bigger number of different versions of events, it becomes harder to distil facts from opinion and to spot fake news. And it is no surprise that not being able to distinguish a fake piece of news or headline from a false can cause stress, anxiety and cause us to worry about things unnecessarily. 

What can you do to make your use of social media as news source healthier for your brain and wellbeing?  

Avoid echo chambers. One of the best things about social media is that you can follow and unfollow whoever you want. But this is also what gives rise to so-called ‘echo chambers’, that is, when your feed is crowded mainly by people with whom you share the same opinions. Echo chambers are something to avoid as they can lead to loads of intense feelings being shared within a closed circle where other people’s feelings will fuel yours. For example, if you are annoyed about something, and 15 people come in to reinforce your annoyance, chances are that you will remain annoyed (or even become more irritated) instead of recognising that thinking about said thing is not doing you any good and taking steps to letting go. And, of course, when it comes to fake news, it also means it is less likely that you’ll encounter the truth when a piece of fake news is shared, as everyone around you has access to very similar content as you. In the same way that you can have a diverse group of friends whose views diverge without affecting their ability to get on and share some common hobbies and social spaces, we can seek to have a more balanced online perspective without giving rise to constant argument.

Check claims with a trusted news source. You can also compare how something is reported in different news sites, even seeing how different countries’ journalists are reporting a story. Did you know you have access to our Library’s digital newspaper and magazines resources, where you can filter the e-resource type by newspapers and magazines? If you discuss the news with friends, it can help you to see other perspectives, and also digest some of the emotional impact of hearing difficult news stories by thinking them through together.

Is anything good happening out there? It can seem like mainstream media is overwhelmed with bad news, but good news itself is not in short supply; the broadcasting of it is! Take a look at the Good News Network website, which seeks to be an antidote to the barrage of negativity we get from major news outlets. The Good News Network also has an app, and a weekly Good News Gurus podcast. A similar website, Positive News also has articles about what you can do to make a positive impact in the world today, such as How to help people in Ukraine and What can I do about climate change?

For inspirational videos from our Medway University Chaplain, check out Take Ten with Lynne on YouTube, covering topics such as kindness, how to be a people helper, and conflict resolution. For more Chaplaincy information and activity from faith groups in Canterbury and Medway, explore the Chaplaincy webpages.

Tips on fostering a healthy relationship with social media 

As it is often said, the first step is acceptance. If you notice that you spend too much time checking social media or the news (for example, you check your phone first thing in the morning, right before going to sleep, and/or regularly throughout the day to see what is happening), you could start by acknowledging it. And reflecting on how it affects you: is it making you feel empowered and informed, or does it make you feel drained and anxious?  

Of course, not all news will be good, it is good for one to stay informed, and it is natural to feel negative feelings towards negative new stories; to prevent said normal feelings from becoming too overwhelming you might want to reduce the number of times you check the news or social media. Checking news or social media sites/apps once a day is enough to keep you in the loop.  

If you need a little push, most smartphones nowadays allow for a time limit to be imposed in certain apps or for a wind-down period to be activated which will encourage you to keep your phone down. Chances are it will be quite difficult at first to reduce your time limit and change your habits, but the impact changing these behaviours can have one your mental health has been tried, tested and proven – and it is worth a shot. 

To help you keep away from your phone and the internet more generally, you can try new things or spend some time outdoors. For example, there a some really lovely walking routes you can try around our Medway and Canterbury campuses, or you can check what is happening on campus, or you can pick up that book that you have been meaning to read for ages but haven’t had the time. And if it is human connection and social interaction you need, you can call a friend if they are far away, or invite them to join on these activities if they are close by.  

Taking a break and doing something that helps your relax will help and soon enough that ping will stop leading to a dreaded half an hour of doomscrolling and the guilt it carries. 

Student Support and Wellbeing – professional support at university

If you’re struggling with mental health in general, remember that Student Support and Wellbeing at Kent are here to support you with mental health, disabilities, and neurodiversity such as specific learning difficulties or autism, through 1:1 support as well as peer support groups and events. Here’s a video of top mental health tips from our mental health team.

Emergency Support

If you feel you need urgent support from our team from Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm, please phone on 01227 826573 for the Canterbury campus or 01634 888474 for Medway or email or and ask for urgent mental health support.

Out of hours support

Feel like you really need to talk to someone but the Student Support offices are closed? Check out the Emergency Support page with details on online and telephone support available round the clock, such as our partners Spectrum Life, who you can call in the evenings and at weekends on 0800 0318227 pressing option 1; or Togetherall, the safe anonymous peer to peer online support forum free to Kent students.

Written by Filipa, student, on 26.06.22

Check out further articles on Support and Wellbeing.