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How Bad Are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for Mental Health?

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About two-thirds of social media users admit they “airbrush reality” when they post info or share photos online, according to a new survey commissioned by the social media site Pencourage. (The remaining third must be lying.) Because, seriously, who doesn’t pick and choose which details to share or withhold when it comes to social media? (Speaking of: How to Look Your Best in Every Photo.)

But here's the thing: Choosing not to post pics from that day you had a monster zit is one thing. Constantly fibbing—or downright fabricating—to make your life seem more interesting is another. And tthose deceptions can result in feelings of shame, paranoia, and sadness, the Pencourage survey concludes.

Digital Amnesia
“You can change the facts of your life to the point that may not recognize your own real experiences,” warns Richard Sherry, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who is investigating what some refer to as “digital amnesia.” Basically, the more you twist reality on social media, the more your brain may struggle to separate fact from fiction, Sherry explains.

He says this struggle can leave social media users feeling “unsettled in their identities,” which in turn can create feelings of anxiety and distress. “Once the truth is distorted, I think this can hurt self-esteem and can leave people feeling disconnected from themselves,” Sherry explains. (Is Social Media Making You Socially Awkward?The more you think of social media as a “competition”—or a place where you’re up against your friends—the more likely you are to experience these negative mental health consequences, he suggests.

More Bad News
A Twitter study from Michigan State University found reading false info in other people’s tweets can actually skew or re-write your own memory. “You may retain a memory for the inaccurate information rather than the actual information,” explains that study’s author, Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D.

Another report, this one from Germany, linked spending lots of time checking out other people’s Facebook profiles to negative emotions like loneliness, frustration, and envy. Seeing all the cool stuff your “friends” are doing can make your own life seem lame by comparison, a related University of Michigan study concludes. (Do You Have a Fear of Missing Out?Those are just a few of the dozens of studies that have linked social media to crappy feelings.

On the other hand... (Read more)

On the Other Hand...
The same German study found people who actively update their profiles and interact with friends (as opposed to passively scoping other people’s profiles) tend to experience just the opposite emotions. That is, they tended to report happy, positive vibes. A similar study from Cornell University found Facebook can actually lift your self-esteem. Again, the key is to frequently view and tweak your own content.

According to the Cornell study authors, when you edit or “selectively self-present” yourself through a profile, you’re picking and choosing your own best, most-awesome characteristics and life details for the world to see. (Important distinction: You’re not lying. You’re just leaving out the unflattering stuff.) And by polishing your online profile, you’re also pumping up the way you view yourself, the authors say.

More research has shown hooking up with support communities through social media—whether the group is for new moms or people with diabetes—can provide encouragement and a positive sense of social inclusion. (And can help you get healthier! Check out The Right (and Wrong) Ways to Use Social Media for Weight Loss.)

The Big Takeaway
When you combine all the existing research, a pattern emerges: If you want your social media experience to be positive, you actually have to be social. That means engaging with your friends and followers through honest tweets, profile and status updates, and posts. And, above all, your online personality should reflect who you really are. 

“It’s clear these social media tools can really change the way we think about ourselves at deep levels,” he adds. But while new research is pouring in all the time, Sherry says social media is still a new phenomenon, and teasing out all its psychological benefits and pitfalls will take a lot more time.

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