Sucked Into the Vortex: Social Media and Mental Health Q&A with a TAMUC Counselor

In a world obsessed with likes, comments and views, how can we find a little peace and quiet in our minds?

Social media: we all know and love it. And, if you're like me, maybe you love it a little too much. I can't count how many times I have picked up my phone to send a text only to find myself scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and losing all track of time.

Don't get me wrong; I love all the memes and cute dog videos. But despite its entertainment value, the endless scrolling has a downside: it can be addicting, feed insecurities, and may be linked to anxiety and depression. Despite promising to connect us with friends, social media can do the opposite, producing feelings of loneliness and a sense of isolation from real-world connections. With all these downsides, how can we use social media mindfully? How can we find balance in a world of obsessive scrolling?

Avery Wageman has some answers. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate who supports students at A&M-Commerce's Counseling Center. She spoke with me about ways social media can damage our mental health and how to use it responsibly.

Q&A with Avery

(Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Rachel McShane: Let’s jump right into things. How does social media impact our mental health?

Avery Wageman: Usually negatively, to be honest. While social media can connect us to people, it is also the primary source of FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” which can increase our anxiety and depression. We see our peers living these extraordinary lives and then reflect on what we are doing with our lives, which can fuel our insecurities that we aren’t measuring up.

But it’s important to remember that most social media posts are highly polished, idealized content. They’re presenting the “perfect” life. So, you have to ask yourself, “Am I connecting with anyone, or am I just seeing a snapshot of what they're presenting to me? Is it really a friendship, or am I just liking their posts?” Sometimes we think of people online as our friends, when in reality, we are in a parasocial relationship with little to no meaning.

RM: That's an excellent point. Sometimes, social media can cause us to feel connected to people when, in reality, we are disconnected.

I've also noticed there's a lot of talk online about mental health—everything from people sharing their stories and experiences with mental health issues to online support groups to even therapists and counselors giving advice. Could social media also be a tool for mental health?

AW: I think calling it a “tool” is accurate because, just like any tool, the internet and social media are neutral things. You can use them for good, or you can use them for bad. It really all depends on how you use them.

With that said, it's still very important to remember the dangers that can come with social media and that, often, the tool is used negatively. Remember, social media is curated to us. So, if you're using TikTok to try and self-diagnose, and you're looking up signs of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or just general anxiety, your “For You” page is going to be flooded with information about those topics. And not all of it is going to be accurate or trustworthy.

Even someone who says they're a “TikTok therapist” is a little concerning to me. It's great to work towards destigmatizing mental health, but that online person isn't your therapist. Legally, they can't be: you haven't signed consent, developed counseling goals, or gone through any of the normal procedures a therapist would take you through. And the scariest part is you don't even know if that person is an actual therapist. They might be lying. Or their license might not be in good standing. They could have lost it due to unethical behavior; they could be trying to sell something—you just never know! It's very, very murky.

RM: You're so right. We just don't know for sure what's accurate and what's not, especially on social media.

AW: Yes! Be mindful of how social media works with the algorithms. It's designed to get us sucked in and anchored.

RM: Ugh, been there. Sometimes I find myself reading comments on random posts just to see the drama!

AW: Oh no! That's the worst thing you could do!

RM: I know! And then suddenly, I find myself angry and wondering, “Why am I doing this to myself?”

AW: Well, that really goes back to social media's design: to get us sucked into the vortex. And, realistically, negative or angering content tends to get more engagement than neutral or even positive content. Rage-baiting and doom-scrolling are real things, and it's a cycle a lot of us can easily get caught up in. It's important to be mindful of how social media is affecting us. We should not be leaving it feeling angry, depressed, hopeless or malcontent. If we're going to use social media, we want to feel energized and inspired!

RM: You know, this word “mindful” keeps coming up over and over. I've written about mindfulness with meals, and last year, you and I talked about mindfulness with the “winter blues”; now it's coming up again in this conversation! How can we practice mindfulness when it comes to social media?

AW: Mindfulness is simply increasing your self-awareness. So, when you're scrolling, pause and do a little body scan. How does it make you feel physically? Do your eyes hurt or your thumb hurt or your back hurt? Have you moved at all in an hour? Maybe stand up, do some stretches and breathe in some fresh air. Also, be mindful of your emotions: how does what you're seeing make you feel? Insecure? Angry? Sad? Or are you excited, happy or inspired?

And lastly, be mindful of your own motives and intentions. Are you trying to numb your own feelings? Are you impulsively scrolling? Are you just killing time or are you doing something productive? Consider how much time you’re spending on social media, too. It's easy to get stuck and lose hours!

RM: So true. I've been trying to be more mindful of the time I spend, and I recently got an app called ScreenZen that's helped tremendously! You can set time limits for certain apps, and it will literally lock the app after you spend your time for the day. And every time you go to open an app, a pop-up asks, “Why am I opening this?” You must type in an answer and then wait 20 seconds before the app will even open.

AW: I love that! There are lots of useful apps and tools that can help with things like that. I have a little app called the Forest app, and you can choose to grow virtual trees or shrubs or flowers when you're being productive and not picking up your phone. It's so lovely and fun! But you don't even need an app to practice mindfulness like that—you can challenge yourself! Just think, “How long can I go without picking up my phone?” and then test yourself. Try to beat your old time. Make it a game! I'm all for making things fun and playful!

Also, go through your notifications and subscriptions and turn some off. Do you really need to know every time someone posts on Snapchat? When and why did you subscribe to that YouTube channel or follow that Instagram account? Sometimes those types of things can catch our attention and drag us back into an app we said we wouldn't use or wanted to take a break from.

RM: That is so helpful. Do you have any other pieces of advice or tips concerning the internet and social media?

AW: Actually, yes. I know I harped a lot on social media and the internet, and while it is true that they can negatively impact our mental health, there's also a lot of good you can get from them! We have unfettered access to knowledge—get out there and use it! Want to learn a new hobby? Watch a YouTube video or find an online group that can help you learn. Want to read a book you haven't been able to find? Use your local library app or Project Guttenberg! Want to learn a new language? We have access to Mango through the university library, and it's free! Even through the Velma Waters Library, you have access to literally everything!

If you are feeling depressed, confused, stressed or just need someone to talk to, reach out to the Counseling Center by calling 903.886.5145 to schedule an appointment.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please call 911 or a mental health professional immediately.