The conversation around social media and our mental health can go in endless directions, but one popular feature has a particularly intriguing aspect to it: Memories. Spend a few minutes on Facebook, and the platform will show what you were posting one, two, or even 12 (!!!) years ago today. Log on to Instagram, and a single tap will bring you back to whatever selfie you were taking at this time last year.
On the surface, having the option to go back in time is kind of fun. Who doesn’t love a trip down memory lane? At the same time, I often find myself having mixed feelings about social media memories. Facebook statuses from 2008 make me cringe more often than not, and sometimes a particular memory will leave me wondering if I was happier at another point in my life. A friend recently told me she was having similar feelings in regards to a rough patch in her relationship. Every time a photo of her having fun with her husband came up, she felt sad.
When I think about it, it makes sense. Studies show that we tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses, a phenomenon known as “rosy retrospection.” At the same time, it’s hard to believe these memories don’t have the power to give us a little boost and make us feel happier.
To get to the bottom of exactly what these "memories" are doing to our mental health, I talked to holistic psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW. She said the primary emotion these digital memories evokes is nostalgia—but whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate. “Theoretically we could take a few moments and scroll through old photos at any point to remind us of what we were doing a few years ago, but the fact that these platforms do it for us makes it feel like a 'surprise,'” she explains. That surprise might lead to a little dopamine hit if the memory is good, but it could also lead to feelings of dread, disappointment, or sadness if the memory is a grim one.
When do social media memories get tricky?
Stone says social media memories probably aren’t harmful to most people’s mental health on a day-to-day basis unless Facebook or Instagram is surfacing a memory that’s particularly harmful or triggering. That being said, the “rose-colored glasses” phenomenon can be a real issue for a lot of people. “Oftentimes these pictures will induce a feeling of sadness and longing for something—perhaps an old relationship or a time in your life where you felt differently, happier, or less stressed out,” she explains.
When these feelings come up, she says it’s important to remember that these pictures are merely a snapshot, and not reflective of the full picture of your life at that time. “Even if one part of your life was going really well, chances are there was something else you were struggling with concurrently—it’s just that the picture doesn’t capture that.”
If you find yourself being triggered by social media memories on a regular basis, Stone advises taking action. Set limits around the time you spend on social media (skipping a day or two here and there never hurt anyone), and turn off any notifications that might alert you to these memories. “Or, try doing something to bring yourself back into the present moment, such as re-engaging with your current surroundings or talking to somebody nearby,” she suggests. “That can be enough to snap you out of it.”
Can social media memories be a good thing?
Should we all be up in arms about the many ways social media memories are harming our mental health? Stone doesn’t think so—social media isn’t all evil, and it can provide us with a nice boost of happiness every now and then.
“Social media is one giant dopamine feedback loop,” she explains. “It’s absolutely possible that these memories can bring us some joy when we’re presented with an image of a particularly happy moment or day from your past. That will certainly give you pleasure!”
The takeaway? Social media memories might trigger sadness or even trauma, but when you take proper precautions, they can have little effect on your life—or better, provide you with a little dopamine boost. That’s not so bad, right?