Positive social interactions are key to maintaining good emotional health --- but social interaction doesn't mean social media. The two are very different, as a matter of fact, and aren't interchangeable. Let's take a look at the difference between the two, as well as how each of them impacts your mental health.
Let's start with social connections. There's a large amount of scientific research providing strong evidence that connecting and interacting with others regularly in-person (or on video meetings or phone calls, in the pandemic era) and not solely or mainly through social media can positively impact mental health --- but what is it about social interaction that creates this effect?
Well, firstly, the social interaction needs to be characterized by positive resonance, which sounds really complicated but simply means that the social interaction should have shared positivity, mutual care and concern between the people participating in it. The connection and empathy felt during interactions that have positive resonance activates a part of the nervous system, called the parasympathetic nervous system, that triggers feelings of positivity, while experiences of unmanaged stress activate a different part of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers feelings of depression and anxiety.
Having a few strong, close relationships with people you care about deeply and interact with regularly can increase your feeling of meaning or purpose, the feeling that you have a reason for being alive and that you have something to do. Having a purpose in life is extremely important not only for your mental health, but for your longevity (your ability to live a long life). Finding meaning in life has been associated with a reduction in mortality for elderly people, and people who felt they had a strong purpose in life are found to be less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's or cognitive impairment. In addition, these people have a slower rate of cognitive decline compared to people who don't feel that their lives are meaningful. Finally, people with a strong sense of purpose are less likely to have strokes and heart attacks, and even have lower levels of inflammation in their bodies. Social interaction also gives you the opportunity to practice acts of kindness, which can improve both your self-esteem and your mental health. And, you know, it's kind.
Convinced yet? Consider this: A 75-year-long study of 268 male Harvard graduates and 456 men from inner city Boston concluded that the single most important predictor of happiness and longevity among them was having strong social connections. (1).
In contrast, let's take a look at social media. While it may seem a bit counterintuitive, as social media certainly can feel similar to actual social interaction, social media is as detrimental to your mental health as social interaction is beneficial to it. A study of about 1800 young adults ages 19-32 rated the frequency and length of social media use among them. Those in the top 25% (those who used it most frequently out of the group) showed significantly higher rates of depression than those in the bottom 25% (those who used it least frequently) (2). In addition, a study of sleep quality, media use and emotional health in 467 adolescents found that social media use was associated with poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem (3). While social media can feel connecting for a short time, it makes you feel more isolated in the long-term. This is because, unlike in a positive social relationship, there's no positive resonance --- often, you're interacting with people whom you don't know very well and who don't really know you, and as a result there can't be all that much personal care nor empathy in either direction. Therefore rather than making you feel more connected you feel more alone, because you're choosing to interact with people with whom you don't share any real connection, which makes you feel as though you have no real connections. And it doesn't help that the anonymity of the internet tends to bring out the worst sides of many people, resulting in a lot of hate on social media that's not beneficial to anyone's mental well-being or self-esteem. Finally, social media can also create a sense of peer pressure, for example when its users post pictures or videos of themselves that glamorize things like eating disorders and underage drinking or smoking, which, if the people who see this media then feel like they need to participate in as well (to feel "cool", perhaps) it can further harm both their physical and emotional health.
To conclude, positive social interaction is vital to good health. The feeling that you have strong positive connections with a few important people in your life can boost your self-esteem, happiness, and overall mental well-being. However, you can't substitute social media interactions for true social connection, and attempting to do so will likely ultimately result in increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, as well as reduce the quality of your sleep, which further impacts your mental health. (See my article on sleep for more information on that). One good personal interaction with a close friend easily beats a thousand likes. All in all, social media isn't a substitute for social interaction, and it's not a good idea to use it often. Get out and spend quality time with family or friends, even if it's from a six-foot distance.
1. Grant W.T. Study of adult development. Harvard Second Generation Study. 2015. https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/grantandglueckstudy
and Mineo L. Good genes are nice, but joy is better. The Harvard Gazette. April 11,2017.
2. Lin L.Y., Sidani J.E., Shensa A., et al. Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression Anxiety. 2016;33(4):323-331
3.Woods H.C., Scott H.#Sleepyteens: social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. J Adolescence 2016;51:41-49