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Social Media and Heart Rate Variability: What's the Connection?

Social media has become an integral part of our lives, especially during the pandemic. We use it to stay connected, informed, entertained, and sometimes, distracted. But how does social media affect our physical and mental health? Specifically, how does it impact our heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats and an indicator of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) function?


HRV reflects the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our ANS, which is like the control center of our body's stress and relaxation responses. The sympathetic branch is like the gas pedal; it speeds things up when we're stressed or excited. The parasympathetic branch is like the brake; it slows things down when we're relaxed. A higher HRV means that our heart can adapt to changing situations and demands and is associated with better health outcomes, such as lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. A lower HRV means that our heart is less flexible and more rigid and is linked to higher stress levels, anxiety, and inflammation.


Several studies have explored the relationship between social media use and HRV, and the results are not very encouraging. Here are some of the main findings:

  • A study by Gao et al. (2019) found that excessive social media use was negatively correlated with HRV in college students and that this effect was mediated by social comparison and envy. The more time students spend on social media, the more they compare themselves to others and feel inferior, which lowers their HRV and increases their stress. This finding should raise concerns about the potential health risks of excessive social media use.

  • A study by Settanni et al. (2018) found that social media use was associated with lower HRV in adolescents. Personality traits moderated this effect, and one of them was 'neuroticism '. 'Neuroticism' is a trait that reflects emotional instability and vulnerability to stress. Specifically, social media use had a more substantial negative impact on HRV for those who scored high on neuroticism.

  • A study by Hunter et al. (2018) found that social media use was related to lower HRV in young adults. The type of social media platform influenced this effect. A 'social media platform' is a website or application that enables users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. For example, using Facebook and viewing harmful content (such as news, politics, or violence) was associated with lower HRV, while using Instagram and viewing positive content (such as nature, art, or humor) was associated with higher HRV.

These studies suggest that social media use can have a detrimental effect on our HRV and our ANS balance, depending on how much, how often, and how we use it. However, they also imply that we can use social media more mindfully and beneficially. By limiting our exposure, choosing our platforms and content wisely, and avoiding social comparison and envy, we can protect our HRV and our health. This offers a hopeful perspective, showing that we can enjoy the positive aspects of social media without compromising our well-being.


References:


Gao, Q., Dai, J., Fan, F., & Kang, L. (2019). The impact of social media use on college students’ subjective well-being: The mediating role of social comparison and envy and the moderating role of self-esteem. Current Psychology, 1-10.


Hunter, J. F., Hooker, E. D., Rohleder, N., & Pressman, S. D. (2018). The use of smartphones as a digital security blanket: The influence of phone use and availability on psychological and physiological responses to social exclusion. Psychosomatic Medicine, 80(4), 345-352.


Settanni, M., Marengo, D., Fabris, M. A., & Longobardi, C. (2018). Heart rate variability and personality in adolescents: A variable- and person-oriented approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 154-160.

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