Social media habits are shifting with current events — should PCPs take a break?
Social media habits are changing amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide movement for racial injustice and other divisive political arguments, according to results from a recent national survey.
The survey, commissioned by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, found that among 2,041 respondents, 56% said that their social media habits had changed due to tensions stemming from current events.
The change in habits varied among respondents. While 29% reported that their use of social media increased due to tension surrounding current events, another 20% said that these tensions led them to take social media breaks.
“This is a first step to documenting current shifts in thinking about social media habits,” Ken Yeager, PhD, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healio Primary Care.
Yeager noted that of survey participants, 30% indicated that they were “doom scrolling,” or “reading article after article about negative/bad things that are happening.”
In addition, he said many participants reported feeling anxious or angered by social media posts, and some said they were “unfriending or blocking” people who were posting a growing amount of negative content on social media platforms.
Healio Primary Care spoke with Yeager and John Robert Bautista, RN, PhD, MPH, Bullard Research Fellow at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, to learn more about when the general population should take a mental break from social media, and when physicians should do the same.
Social media ‘diet’
“Similar to having a balanced diet, we need to take a break from social media for our mental health’s sake because all things should be done in moderation,” Bautista said.
Yeager noted that a patient’s social media “diet” — their daily exposure to media — varies depending on the needs of the patient.
He said people should take a break from social media if they notice their screen time has a harmful effect on their mood.
“In today’s fast paced digital world, information is pouring in at an unprecedented rate,” Yeager said. “It is not unusual for folks to be on their devices, with their television on at the same time.”
He also said that constantly shifting dialogue from the pandemic, to social and racial injustice to political issues may make it difficult for people to process the meaning and develop an understanding of all these events.
“Setting limits on the amount of time you spend watching television news is a great place to start,” Yeager said. “Turning on your television news channel and leaving it on all day and night sets a pattern of taking information without a chance to process this information.”
Yeager said most people who use social media and other internet platforms “are unaware that they are unknowingly selecting the news that will be delivered to them based on their previous choices of what to read or watch in social media.”
Bautista added that based on the accounts people follow, “social media can create an illusion of the world that may not be necessarily representative of reality.”
To allow people to process the influx of content surrounding current events, Yeager said “the best advice is to slow your digital consumption. Understand the source.”
He added that “using time away from your news feed to take a walk outside, to work in your garden, to have lunch with friends are all options that provide the kind of support you need to counter all of the negative information consumed.”
PCPs on social media
“Physicians and health care providers are facing unprecedented stressors during this pandemic,” Yeager said.
Seeing information related to the pandemic, including health care challenges and PPE shortages, may remind physicians of their risk for contracting the novel coronavirus, he added.
“After an exhausting shift, engaging in social media can be good if it serves as a distraction,” Yeager said. “However, if it provides information counter to the health care providers’ experience, it may be detrimental to them.”
Bautista added that “although social media presence may seem to be a hot commodity for physicians nowadays, it is important to temporarily disengage from social media to focus on things that matter to you.”
He noted that while there has not been a study directly linking physicians’ social media use to burnout, one study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that the intensity of social media use while at work can contribute to a common sign of burnout, emotional exhaustion.
Another study published in Computers in Human Behavior, Bautista said, showed that using Facebook may not directly cause depressive symptoms, but it could predispose users to experience envy and can subsequently increase the risk for depression.
“Just imagine you, as a doctor/nurse, browsing Facebook and seeing most of your friends just relaxing at home during the pandemic while you are stressed as a frontliner,” Bautista said. “If you are not mindful of your [social media] use, that scenario would somewhat elicit feelings of envy, which might lead you to feel depressed.”
Like any technology, social media has pros, including access to a fast flow of information and a quick source of entertainment, Bautista said. But it also has cons, like becoming overwhelmed by the amount of information and negativity online.
“However, I believe that [social media] provides more benefits than risks as long as we are aware of taking our [social media] breaks and doing meaningful activities during that break,” Bautista added.
He suggested that during these breaks, physicians can engage in mindfulness training, talk with their families and have “me time.”
Yeager said for many physicians, combating tension on social media and in life means spending more time with family, friends and loved ones.
“There becomes a heightened awareness of the importance of family time during difficult challenges faced in this year,” he said.