With Facebook admitting that it can be bad for you, the debate about the effects of social media on our mental health has once again been put under the spotlight. What are the risks of using social media? And are there any benefits? Pippa Naudé investigates.

“My lifeline throughout my recovery from postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety was social media,” writes Gen Gaskell on postpartumprogress.com, a blog dedicated to maternal mental illness. Twitter and closed Facebook groups were the channels where she received empathy and support from other moms who understood what she was going through, which was exactly what she needed at that time.

Your virtual village

This is perhaps one of the biggest benefits moms can gain from social media. Candice Cowen, a clinical psychologist who works with women, children and families, says, “There are often groups that one can find on social media that are closed discussion groups where moms can, without judgement, ask questions and get support from other like-minded moms who are experiencing similar difficulties.

“The frequent checking in and sharing with each other, and the empathetic responses from others, are crucial in normalising what a mom may be going through,” she says. “And the useful advice and sharing of information also acts as a resource for moms in need.”

The popular Mamahood groups on Facebook are a good example of this, where moms can rant about a bad day, ask for advice on potty training, or even just share their latest pregnancy photo. It’s a safe space for sharing a range of experiences around motherhood.

Plus, because it’s online, moms can easily access these social networks 24/7. This means exhausted moms with newborns can find support without needing to shower and leave the house. Being able to connect with ‘your tribe’ through the touch of a button when you need it most may be, as Gaskell says, a literal life saver.

However, social media use does also have downsides.

A filtered reality

Dr Carina Marsay is a psychiatrist with a special interest in perinatal psychiatry – the period just before and after childbirth. She says, “Moms often share much of their joy online but rarely share their difficulties. This may be because moms are concerned about the judgment they may open themselves up to if they share negative emotions. While social media and online support groups may be a source of help for new mothers, they can often also make mothers insecure when comparing themselves to others.”

It’s true. Moms are not immune to the very natural inclination to share only their best and happiest moments online, and be seen as a good, capable mother. We all want others to see us in a positive light, so we curate our online personas. Yet we also tend to forget that others are doing the same thing.

This isn’t to say moms never share negative experiences on social media, but rather that the majority of content is positive, and those subjects which may carry a stigma (such as postnatal depression or miscarriage) are noticeably absent. For moms who are struggling, this kind of one-sided portrayal of motherhood can be alienating and isolating, and can reinforce self-doubt.

A link with anxiety and depression 

Dr Marsay adds that moms who have underlying anxiety or depression are particularly vulnerable to making these negative comparisons between themselves and other moms on social media. “They already struggle with low self-esteem and feeling overwhelmed, and this can be a sharp contrast to everyone else’s posts and photos of themselves and their babies at their best,” she explains.

“New moms who seek external validation and are perfectionists are possibly at higher risk of parenting stress or depression associated with increased levels of social media activity.”

A number of studies have identified a greater risk of depression, anxiety and even suicide with increased social media use. However, much of the research so far only shows a correlation between the two. It is far harder to prove a causal relationship.

Liking the “likes”

Although social media addiction has not been recognised as a formal psychiatric disorder, there is agreement that it is addictive (as it has been intentionally designed to be).

For example, Julia Brailovskaia from Ruhr University Bochum conducted research into what she termed ‘Facebook addiction disorder’. It reveals many parallels between excessive Facebook use and other addiction disorder characteristics, including: preoccupation, increasing time spent on Facebook, altered moods, withdrawal and interpersonal conflict arising from excessive Facebook use.

Cowen explains, “A simple ‘like’ on a Facebook post lights up receptors in the brain that speak to social acceptance and recognition.” This positive feeling or reward is what we get addicted to – and so we will do what we can to get more ‘likes’.

The converse is also true, adds Cowen, “If we don’t get a like, it equally lights up receptors responsible for rejection, loneliness or anger. And so people who become reliant on a constant feel-good input from their social media posts may become a victim of ‘tunnel vision’ and thus filter all negative feedback, which may lower their self-esteem and contribute to their mental health in a negative way.”

Take control

Ultimately, social media cannot be definitively labelled good or bad. It can be both a source of depression and anxiety for some moms and a tool that helps other moms deal with mental illness. In fact, when Facebook announced that it can have a negative impact on your mental health, it also presented research that showed it could have a positive impact too. The outcome depended on how Facebook is used.

So the key is to pay attention to how you use social media, and how it makes you feel. Be honest with yourself. Does it really make you feel happier and less stressed and more capable as a mom? Or does it leave you feeling worse about yourself afterwards?

Gaskell shares that she cultivated the skill of critical reading and would only consume blogs and social media that made her feel inspired and supported. You too can take control of your social media use and selectively choose who to follow, and unfollow or hide those who make you feel insecure about yourself as a mother. Also keep in mind that closed, well-moderated groups offer safer spaces for sharing difficult experiences and feelings, if that is what you are in need of.

Dr Marsay adds, “If your social media use is making you feel more overwhelmed and impacting your mood, it is a good idea to get a mental health check. Depression is extremely common in new mothers and often goes undiagnosed. This can have a significant impact on not only your life but also your child’s physical and emotional development.”

If you are struggling with feelings of depression, there are people who can help you. Call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) helpline on 0800 12 13 14 or try Lifeline on 0861 322 322.

How to manage your social media habits

Dr Marsay shares this advice for those moms who want to better manage their social media use.

  • Allocate a certain amount of time each day to social media, for example 20 minutes at lunchtime.
  • Set a timer if necessary, so you don’t go over your time limit.
  • Try not to check your phone throughout the day for updates.
  • If you find yourself obsessing over ‘likes’ on your photos, consider turning off notifications.
  • Do not use social media before bedtime. (It’s likely to interfere with your sleep.)
  • Avoid giving criticism; if you don’t have anything nice to post, don’t post anything.
  • Finally, be authentic. Share your struggles and your joys of motherhood and be supportive of other new moms who share their struggles too.

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