Woman using social media apps on her smartphone

For plenty of us, focusing on and filtering information can be a challenge. Gutenberg opened the information floodgates first with the invention of the printing press. Similarly, all the devices and channels we now use to access that information, with social media playing a starring role, made information more available—and took away social restrictions on who publishes new content.

So why would having more access to information be a problem? Because of the health effects of social media. As Paul Hemp pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, “Researchers say that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives—combined with the personal and social expectation that, say, you will answer every email message—can deplete and demoralize you.”

As more and more information is hurled at us more frequently and in new, more invasive ways, our attention span diminishes while we simultaneously feel guilty for not being able to keep up. Then we’re faced with the dilemmas of whether sources and their information are credible. And heaven forbid we receive conflicting messages. The irony of this is, though researchers warn of social media’s potential ill effects on health, it’s also one of the newest vehicles healthcare professionals can use to connect with their patients.

Side Effects of Social Media: Pros and Cons

The average person spends nearly two hours a day on social media. In the course of a human life, that equates to 5 years and 4 months spent staring at the screen. But research suggests that level of use isn’t healthy for everyone.

A 2015 study conducted by Ottawa Public Health found that teenagers who were logged in for 2 hours a day were more at risk for mental health problems, including psychological distress and thoughts of suicide. However, researchers were careful to point out that despite the clear connection between social media and mental health, causality cannot be determined. Heavy social media usage may play a role in poor mental health, but it is also likely that poor mental health drives users to satisfy unmet needs through social media, opening a vicious cycle.

Satisfying those needs through social media is not necessarily a bad thing. Aaron Harvey, who founded Intrusive Thoughts, a resource network for people struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), told one reporter that if users access social media for connection and community, its original purpose, “then the benefits outweigh the costs.” Harvey also said he believes that while it’s easy to blame social media for poor self-esteem, social media isn’t the problem. How we engage with it and allow it to penetrate our daily lives, on the other hand, is.

Social media and mental health: There are some proven benefits.

  1. Fosters community and togetherness, giving even those who live alone more potential connections
  2. Allows users to keep in touch with friends and family members from great distances
  3. Makes it easy to gather lots of information quickly

However, the reverse is also true for some who use social media.

  1. Decreases number and quality of in-person interactions
  2. Encourages dependency on devices, which can cause anxiety for those trying to keep up with notifications and alerts
  3. Causes depression in some heavy users who compare their lives to friends’ online representations

As with anything in life, moderation and balance are key. Social media has become such an ingrained part of our existence that it isn’t realistic (or necessarily beneficial) to cut it out completely. Instead, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health Dr. Brian A. Primack explained, “Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use.” One potential positive use would allow patients to connect with their healthcare providers on these platforms.

Self(ie) Help

There are a few steps you can take to help yourself navigate social media in your personal life with less stress.

  1. Turn down the notification noise to a dull roar.
    “Alerts and notifications can increase anxiety,” Harvey pointed out. Try turning off your application notifications, and only check social media during certain times of the day.
  1. Introduce a level of purpose to your social media channels.
    Focus on who and what you follow on social media feeds. Eliminate the things that increase your anxiety. “If you had to go with one primary social channel, what would it be and why?” Harvey asked. “I think there’s a lot of pressure on people to be on every platform.” No, you don’t have to deactivate your Facebook—or your Instagram, your Snapchat, and your Twitter—“but at the end of the day, you have to take a step back and figure out what’s actually meaningful for you and not just on trend,” he said.
  1. Balance social media with real-world interactions.
    Don’t lose sight of your current ways of connecting with friends. If you’ve always met up once a week or had a Friday night phone call, a group text isn’t an appropriate replacement.

The Social Media and Healthcare Connection

Some health professionals are beginning to use social media and other new technologies to meet the general populace where they are and bring healthcare to them.

“We see social networking sites, which may be a problem for some, also being a solution,” Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold of the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego said in a statement reacting to the Ottawa Public Health study’s findings. “Since teens are on the sites, it is the perfect place for public health and service providers to reach out and connect with this vulnerable population and provide health promotion systems and supports.”

Here are just a few of the ways healthcare professionals are using social media and other new technologies to connect with patients.

Using the Internet as the world’s largest medical library. The wealth of information online, and the ease with which it’s updated, means doctors can stay up to date on the latest research, technology, and treatments. (And a smartphone is a lot less unwieldy than those thick medical tomes.)

Encouraging accountability between patients and providers. Reviews are ubiquitous on social media, and doctors work with the knowledge that any patient can publish their experience in a matter of minutes. Sixty percent of doctors feel that social media has improved the care patients receive.

Producing apps so patients can track progress toward health goals. There are 165,000 health-focused apps out there, and half of them are free. These apps can help encourage patients to achieve their goals or track progress between doctor’s appointments. Apps geared toward diet, stress, sleep, exercise, reproductive health, medication reminders, mental health, and diabetes are just a sample of what’s out there.

Creating accurate, credible resources. Because anyone can publish information online, some healthcare providers feel a responsibility to provide their patients with content they can trust—and to share that content on social media. And patients tend to be more receptive to content from doctors than from health brands. Even more striking—60 percent of people said they trust social posts from doctors more than any other group out there.

Maintaining social media accounts for offices or practices. More than half of all physician practices in America have a Facebook page. Medical professionals also have a presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and even 4Square. These accounts offer patients a way to leave and read reviews as well as helping doctors reach more potential patients and recruit staff.

Scheduling appointments and following up with patients. When patients can use social media to request appointments and doctors choose this channel for follow-up conversations, agile response time is a big benefit.

Social media may just be a powerfully effective way for providers and patients to communicate, according to cardiologist Dr. Kevin Campbell. “Patients are already in cyberspace, and social media allows physicians to figure out what they are thinking, what they are doing, [and] what we can do better to serve the patients’ needs.”

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