Social media and its impact on health and wellbeing


Know someone who posts that they're not doing well or aren't happy? This might be their way of reaching out for help.

Psychologist Victoria Kasunic suggests checking in with them on a more personal level. "Send a private message or pick up the phone. Posting an 'Are you okay?' in a public forum may not be enough," she says.


The number of people joining networks like Facebook and Twitter doubled between 2008 and 2010 to 850 million - but the amount of male users plummeted three per cent during that time period, according to the Pew Research Centre.


of social media users are women.


The number of online friends the average Australian has.


The number of 'real life' friends the average Australian has.


The number of monthly active Facebook users as of December 2011. That's a lot of status updates!

When was the last time you visited Facebook or Twitter or updated your blog? If you're like many Australians, it was probably within the last few days. Charmaine Yabsley explores how this may affect your health.

Social media can be a wonderful tool, helping us source information and communicate with friends around the world. But what happens when we use social networking sites to be, well, less social and physically active in real life?

For many of us, social media has become part of our everyday lives. We tweet, blog, update and upload regularly - for work and personal reasons. Around 80 percent of the Australian population is online, ranking our nation as having one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world.

And, according to a 2012 Nielsen Online Rating survey of 5,000 Australians aged 16 years and over, online social networking is a big reason we log on: close to half of all online Australians participate in social media sites on an almost weekly basis, we spend around 22 hours on it every week and 69 percent of us log on several times a day. In today's technological world, it seems some of us may feel we don't exist without being online.

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Despite the rise in popularity of social media in recent years, research into its impact on our health is still in its infancy. Recent US social media guidelines warn of a condition called 'Facebook depression', which may affect vulnerable or troubled teenagers who are heavily dependent on social networking and their online friends.

In the report, author Dr Gwenn O'Keeffe says, "It can be more painful than sitting alone in a crowded school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down, because Facebook provides a skewed view of what's really going on... teenagers will scan Facebook to find evidence that everybody else is having a better, happier and more glamorous life." On the other hand, Chris Tanti, CEO of headspace (Australia's National Youth Mental Health Foundation), believes social media can play an important supporting role in our mental health.

"The strong sense of community and belonging fostered by social networking services has the potential to promote resilience among young people," he says. "While there are concerns [about social media], the good news is that young people are developing the skills to cope."


And it's not just for teenagers and young people either - in fact, the highest growth audience for social media is women aged 50 and over. Psychologist Victoria Kasunic also sees social media as a positive influence and useful tool. "We are naturally social creatures and there is something about the immediacy of positive reinforcement that people do benefit from." But, she warns that it's all about moderation. "We can be quite lazy to call people, and have become non-committal in our relationships," she says.


It's not just your emotional status that can be affected by social media. If the time you spend posting and tweeting is largely on the computer, your physical health can be impacted too.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost 80 percent of us spend three or more hours sitting during our leisure time. Add to that the time we spend idle at work, meal times and to get around by car or public transport, and realisation dawns that we may spend most of our waking hours being inactive. And this has long-reaching effects on our health: long-range obesity, heart problems, depression and diabetes.

"When you spend so long sitting down, your metabolism slows down and your energy requirements are reduced," says exercise physiologist Chris Van Hoof. "However, people seem to be eating just as much as they have always done, but moving less." The likely result? "Weight gain, especially if you indulge in sugary or other energy-rich snacks." In short, the more active you are, the better - even small movements, like standing up, can improve your blood sugar and blood fat levels.

You can take steps to ensure you're moving as often as possible throughout the day. "Set an alarm on your computer to remind you to get up and get moving every 30 minutes. Get a drink of water or go for a short walk around the block," says Van Hoof.

Plus, who says you have to be idle to use social media? More and more these days, we access it on our smartphones while we're on the move - another great way to cut down the time you spend sitting.


So what are the telltale signs that your use of social media may be getting out of hand? Experts suggest taking time out if you: feel a need to spend more and more time on social media; constantly think about or plan to use it; feel anxious, moody or restless if you can't use it; try and fail to cut down on social media; or neglect other areas of your life in favour of using it.

For Michelle Thomson, 21, social media sites began to stop her from meeting and socialising face to face with friends. "Every time I unlocked my phone, I would look to see what everybody else was up to; again when I woke up, and last thing at night before I went to sleep."

If this sounds like you, it may help to think about why you use social media. "If you feel that you're beginning to lack real life contact, be proactive," says Kasunic. "Step away from the computer, pick up the phone or get out and meet your friends. Take control of your social life rather than allowing social media to control you."

Michelle explains that breaking free from her habit wasn't as hard as she thought it might be: "The first week after I deactivated my account was a bit weird, but now I don't miss it. I catch up with friends in person or on the phone".

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