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The pros and cons of social media on mental health

© Mayo Clinic

Social media as well as smartphone technology has touched almost all areas of our lives. We order groceries online, video chat with our relatives and stream movies. But it’s also impacting the way we discuss, approach and treat mental health. Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic, talks the pros and the cons.

Q: What are some positive impacts of using social media and other digital tools, especially seen during the pandemic?

A: One of the largest benefits I see is significantly reducing isolation by having a “virtual” bridge to family, friends and other social supports. I have also seen some of our seniors become quite tech savvy over time, which is great from a brain health perspective — learning new things gives the brain exercise. The interactions that seem to give the largest returns are being able to keep up with family and friends. People especially enjoy interacting with their grandchildren. Reminiscing with friends and family is very healthy for us emotionally.

Q: Are there any dangers or downsides?

A: The downsides can manifest themselves in three different ways:

    1. Ironically, sometimes easy access to digital tools and information may inadvertently lead to less interaction with others. It’s important to make sure that you’re staying connected with others in engaging ways online as opposed to passive ways, such as just reading or playing games.
    2. Always make sure that you spend most of your time connecting with “healthy others” in your life. Make a list of those who are the best social supports in your life and prioritize those contacts.
    3. Be wary of online, text or email scams and other misleading information. When we struggle emotionally or with isolation or both, we may be more vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Never pass along money or identifiable personal information when online.

Q: With so many people unable to meet in person due to the pandemic, what trends in mental health care have emerged (or accelerated)?

A: A dramatic and welcome shift has occurred with telemedicine and video visits being offered on a significantly larger scale. In fact, almost all mental health services have converted to this format, which has improved accessibility and provided more-flexible pathways to care. In addition to individual sessions, group therapy sessions — including more-intensive outpatient programs — are offered via video, which improves access to “higher-step” levels of mental health care. Mental health apps, especially those targeting resilience-building in the context of the pandemic, also have dramatically increased (examples include COVID Coach, Breathe2Relax, Happify, Mindfulness Coach, SuperBetter, Calm and Insight Timer).

Podcasts on evidence-based mental health care also have increased. In addition, virtual connection groups have become more available in an attempt to reduce feelings of isolation. All of these will be around post-pandemic.

Craig N. Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P.

Dr. Sawchuk is a psychologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In addition to his clinical practice, Dr. Sawchuk’s main research aim is to improve the treatment of anxiety and depression in primary care. 

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