Social media habits in U.S. changing as national tensions rise

(CN) — Feeling overwhelmed by the sea of troubling news and opinions constantly surging through social media channels these days? You’re not alone.

A new survey of 2,000 Americans found more than half have altered their social media habits due to stress from the coronavirus pandemic and rising national tensions around racial inequality and economic uncertainty.

Commissioned by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the study found almost three in 10 U.S. citizens say their consumption of social media his increased because of current uncertainties, while one in five Americans have temporarily stopped using the platform for the same reasons.

These are encouraging statistics, according to Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.

“Stepping away and reconnecting with reality offline is an important step to take for your mental health,” Yeager said in a statement accompanying the study. “Being constantly immersed in this stressful environment and being overexposed to contentious or traumatic events can make you feel like the world is a less safe place to be. And because these stressors have persisted over a long period of time, it’s wearing on people’s ability to cope with that stress.”

The rise of social media as a dominant force in daily life has rapidly outpaced a general understanding of its psychological and emotional impacts. Early examples of the platform only date back to 1994. Facebook, which now has 2.5 billion users, launched in 2004, while Twitter, which claims 386 million users, went live the following year. Yet both play prominent roles in society, enabling users to reach global audiences while bypassing traditional media.

But the influence is not always healthy for users. In recent months, doctors have reported increases in depression, anxiety, suicide ideation and substance abuse, according to Yeager, a clinical professor in The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Frequent use of social media can lead to overexposure of traumatic events.

“Even though you can’t control what happens on social media, it’s important to recognize how it may affect you and take steps to limit your exposure,” Yeager said. “(Social media) makes people feel… like the world is a less safe place to be in.”

To limit the negative effects of social media, Yeager advised scaling back on daily social media interactions.  Limit your feeds to only the most important ones and consider deleting social media apps on your phone to prevent habitually checking interactions throughout the day. Setting time limits on platforms can also reduce the negative effects of chronic usage.

Reducing usage can create time for family and friends. While face-to-face interactions might not always be possible, a phone call with loved ones can strengthen social bonds while reducing stress.

Yeager also suggested becoming active in your community by volunteering at a food bank, joining a neighborhood park cleanup project or fostering shelter animals. Activities like these can improve communities while lessening worry over issues beyond your control.

In addition, he encouraged engaging in your local political process, which can be especially empowering during times of uncertainty.