The impact of social media on performance optimization and mental health

Social media can be a good source of entertainment, information, and distraction, but it can also come at a cost. If you have a smart device with social media apps that send you notifications, you know how the drill goes. You see the screen light up, hear the buzz, or feel your device vibrate, and you immediately become aware that something interesting happened in the social media world. From the moment you notice that notification, you risk losing track of time as you get sucked into your favorite apps.

Excessive or compulsive social media use can become problematic. It can potentially contribute to the deterioration of your overall performance, mental health, resilience, and relationships. Here are some of the ways that excessive social media use can affect your performance across the domains of Total Force Fitness (TFF):

  • Constant notifications are distracting and can degrade your attention.
  • Frequent interruptions and increased time scrolling through social media can encourage procrastination, reduce work or school performance, and contribute to burnout.
  • Screen use before bedtime can disrupt your sleep.
  • Social comparison, the perception that other people have better lives than you, and the number of likes you get can affect your self-esteem.
  • Compulsive use of social media in a pattern that resembles addiction often co-occurs with depression and anxiety.
  • Spending lots of time online can reduce your relationship satisfaction and enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions, as well as increase your feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Your partner, friends, or family might feel bothered by your excessive social media use.
  • Social network–related conflicts often have poor outcomes (such as breakups, cheating, or divorce).
  • Spending long hours on your device every day reduces your overall activity level and contributes to a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Bad posture while using your device can contribute to muscle strain, neck pain, cervical spine dysfunction, and headaches.

4 ways social media keeps you hooked

Why do so many people fail to limit their social media use, even after they became aware of its negative impact? One major reason is that social media use activates the brain-reward system and triggers dopamine release in the brain. This chemical is responsible for making you enjoy the behaviors that trigger its release and motivates you to repeat them. Your brain naturally releases dopamine when you eat (especially sugar and fat), socialize, have sex, and finish a challenging project. Over time, your brain learns what things are rewarding and releases dopamine in anticipation of those behaviors to increase your motivation.

It feels good to talk about yourself. Many factors contribute to the rewarding nature of social media use. One of the ways you can use social media is to share information—images, videos, and text—about your life, opinions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, and doing so activates the brain-reward system. Humans love to talk about themselves and might not even realize that they do so 30–40% of the time that they engage in conversation. That percentage goes even higher in social-media interactions. Getting lots of attention and engagement (likes, comments, and shares) adds another layer of reward to the experience. You are wired to connect and, since birth, receiving attention and care eases your stress and helps you feel calm and safe.

Just 5 more swipes… The surprise component—you don't know what you will see on your timeline—also increases your motivation to come back to social media as often as possible. Sometimes you like what you see and get that dopamine boost, but not always. This pattern keeps your brain guessing the level of reward it will get each time you repeat the behavior. You keep repeating it until you get that same good feeling again. A similar process happens in gambling. The few seconds you wait for the slot machine to stop spinning increases dopamine levels and makes the process more rewarding. In the same way, the expectation for potential new followers, likes, comments, and exciting news makes social media rewarding and keeps bringing you back to check your accounts over and over again.

Lots of fun at your fingertips. On top of all that, social media provides an overload of sensory stimulation. Vivid colors, fast video clips, and engaging sounds enhance the experience while you look at your device and dopamine floods your brain. When you get off your device, the real world feels boring, and you might experience a temporary lack of excitement or pleasure in other life activities. This down phase can often lead to re-engagement in social media for more of that feel-good experience. Easy access to high-reward behaviors that require little or no effort can be dangerous. Over time, people can lose interest in other life activities, which take more effort than just looking at your device. This can be easy to justify, why go on a hike to waterfall when from your couch you can see videos of all the waterfalls in the world? When you hike you get the benefits of exercise and time in nature, but the easy, no-cost rewards from using social media are momentary and degrade your performance in the long run.

However, spending time in nature, hanging out with family and friends, going for a run, working on hobbies, or having a regular gratitude practice all require some investment of energy to generate a reward. A healthy diet of these kind of activites is critical for your long-term health, performance, and well-being.

You are wired to be right. The confirmation bias makes you more likely to notice and remember information that confirms your existing beliefs—something that is true for everyone. This often happens without you realizing you are doing it. The reason everyone has the confirmation bias is because there is an infinite amount of information for you to consider at any moment in time, and it would overwhelm your brain to process it all. The confirmation bias acts as a filtering system so the “most important” information—the information that aligns with your worldview—gets priority. Other information that might shatter the way you see the world gets pushed aside so you can use that mental energy more effectively. This can be troublesome because it happens outside of your awareness, and it is common to assume that everyone is seeing the same evidence you see. When others point out evidence that contradicts your beliefs, you might believe that they are biased, illogical, ignorant, or at worst, evil. Experts call this “naive realism.”

Naive realism can get supersized on social media. Even though you’re probably exposed to many different opinions on social media, confirmation bias makes you more likely to remember, notice, and value the information that agrees with you! Social media sites use algorithms that customize content based on user activities (what posts you like or comment on, what content you read, what links you click, etc.). By doing this, social media sites curate your online social networking experience to show you information that will keep you engaged, which is often information that already aligns with your beliefs. This can make you even more confident that the way you see the world is right and that “the others” are biased, illogical, ignorant, or evil, which can lead to political extremism. A 2019 poll found that more than 75% of troops believe that the military has become more politically polarized in recent years.

Social media self-check: How much is too much?

Each person and situation is different, so there’s no hard answer to how much social media use is too much. Below is a list of 20 signs that your social media use might be problematic. Reflect on how many of these are true for you, and which ones you want to change about your social media use.

  1. I spend lots of time thinking about or planning to use social media, even when studying and working.
  2. I feel the urge to use social media all the time.
  3. I feel anxious, restless, troubled, irritable, frustrated, or sad if unable to use social media.
  4. I check social media first thing when I wake up and before starting any task or activity and use it intermittently throughout the day, even while working or studying.
  5. I check my device all the time to see if I received new notifications.
  6. My performance on social media (number of followers, likes, comments, and shares) is an important part of my identity and self-worth.
  7. I feel worse about myself or feel that I’m missing out on experiences others seem to be having when I use social media.
  8. I tend to lose track of time when I’m on social media and my usage has increased over time.
  9. I try to hide or lie about the time I spend on social media.
  10. I have tried to reduce or stop social media use without success.
  11. My social media use increases procrastination and reduces my work or school performance.
  12. I constantly use my device during social gatherings, meals with friends and family, and personal conversations.
  13. I experience trouble sleeping, eye strain, muscle tension, neck pain, headaches, and reduced physical activity level as a result of excessive social media use.
  14. My family or friends have complained about my social media use.
  15. Time on social media has prevented me from exercising, eating healthy, praying, meditating, or being present with others.
  16. Thinking about what I can post on social media causes me to struggle to stay present when spending time with others or while attending events.
  17. I often regret what I post on social media.
  18. Spending time on social media builds feelings of hate towards specific groups of people.
  19. I often engage in heated, polarized discussions on social media and risk breaking meaningful relationships because of it.
  20. I constantly compromise safety and use my mobile device while driving.

Break the habit

If you need to reduce your social media use, try the tips below:

  • Establish self-binding strategies. Most devices allow you to set daily time limits or block the use of specific apps during certain times of the day. But even if your device doesn’t have this capability, you can put it away during your core work hours and set a time to use social media. Additional self-binding strategies might include not bringing your device to the dinner table, leaving the device in another room when you go to bed, or placing it in the back seat of your car while you drive.
  • Eliminate the cue that triggers the habit. Checking social media often happens in response to seeing a notification from an app. If your brain learns that every time a notification pops up on your screen you open the app, it might be very hard to resist the urge to repeat this habit. The best solution in this case is to disable notifications altogether.
  • Reduce sensory stimulation. Part of the rewarding nature of social media use comes from the overload of sensory stimulation. Try setting your device to grayscale and see if that reduces your over-interest in social media.
  • Take a social media cleanse. Deleting apps or taking a break from social media can help you find more healthy behaviors to spend your time on. Ideally, the break should last until you notice that the urge to use social media is gone. When you are ready re-engage with social media, set firm limits up front to avoid repeating the cycle of excessive use.

To learn more about how you can optimize your social media use, check HPRC’s Social Media Optimization infographic below.

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