How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health?

There are lots of articles online about the supposed harms of social media. You might have heard that social media makes you depressed, for example, or that it leads to FOMO and leaves you feeling dissatisfied with your life.

But the truth is more complicated. Psychologists have discovered that social media comes with pros and cons. In this article, we’ll look at the facts about social media and mental health.

How does social media affect mental health?

Research suggests that the effects of social media on mental health are mixed. The benefits include opportunities to strengthen relationships[1] and access social support.[2] But some research has linked social media use with an increased risk of mental health problems, including depression.[9]

Sections

  1. The benefits of social media
  2. Downsides of social media
  3. Signs that social media is affecting your mental health
  4. How to use social media in a healthy way
  5. How to help a child or teen

The benefits of social media

Social media can be good for your mental health and relationships. It can help you stay in touch with people and causes you care about and could benefit you professionally.

1. Social media can help maintain friendships

If your friends have moved away or are too busy to meet up as often as you’d like, social media can help you stay up to date with their lives. It’s common to fall out of touch with friends over time, but keeping in touch online can maintain your friendship.

You might have heard that social media isn’t good for friendships because it encourages people to only interact in a superficial way. But research shows that this isn’t necessarily true.

For example, one study with over 5,000 Dutch adults found social media doesn’t weaken friendships. In fact, it often helps us interact more often with the people who matter most to us.[1]

2. Social media can help you meet new people

Social media can be very helpful to make friends online if you don’t have many opportunities to get out and meet people in your local area. It’s also great if you have a niche hobby or interest that not many others share. If you click with someone online and they live close by, you can move the friendship offline and start hanging out in person.

3. Social media can be a source of emotional support

You can use social media to give and get mutual support, anonymously if you prefer. If you feel alone or are struggling with a problem that you’d prefer to hide from your family and friends, or if you don’t have anyone to talk to, social media can be very helpful.

For some people, online-only friends are important sources of support.[2]

4. Some social media content is supportive

Social media can also be a useful source of information and support for people who are struggling with mental health problems.[3]

For example, some qualified mental health professionals share advice about self-care, mental health, and how to get treatment for mental illnesses. Some social media users have also campaigned against mental health stigma. Reading or watching content from people who share your problems can help you to feel less alone.

5. Social media lets you promote worthy causes

Social media has helped start several social justice movements and discussions. Through posts and statuses, you can promote charities and issues that are important to you.

6. Social media can help build your career

Social media can be a great way to connect and network with other people in your field. You can also use it to establish yourself as an expert or authority by posting or linking to original, high-quality content.

7. Social media can be a form of creative expression

Social media can be a healthy outlet for creativity. For example, if you like making art, uploading your creations is an easy way to share them with other people. It’s also an opportunity to give and receive feedback that can improve your work.

Negative aspects and risks of social media

Research has uncovered several potential negative effects of social media. But it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions. That’s because this topic is still quite new. What’s more, most studies looking at this issue use correlational designs; they aren’t carefully controlled scientific experiments.

So although some studies have found links between social media use and mental health problems, we can’t be sure that social media use is directly responsible. As you read this section, bear in mind that the research is still in its early stages.

1. Social isolation and loneliness

Although it may seem counterintuitive, some research has found a link between social isolation and heavy social media use.[4][5] Other studies have shown that, in general, heavy social media use is also associated with greater loneliness.[6]

It may be that lonely people tend to use social media more often, perhaps because they try to use it as a substitute for face-to-face relationships.[7]

Another possible explanation is that people who use social media excessively might spend less time hanging out with people face-to-face because they prefer to be online.[5] This may damage their friendships and lead to a sense of isolation or loneliness.

See more loneliness statistics for the US here.

2. Depression

It’s not clear whether there’s a reliable link between social media and depression. According to a recent literature review into adolescent mental health, the research findings are mixed.[8]

But according to one study with older people (aged between 19-32) there’s a clear link between social media use and the risk of depression.[9] Age—along with other factors—could be important, but it’s not clear exactly how or why.

Another study suggests that the way you use social media might be key. For people who use social media in a passive way—for example, reading what other people post but not participating or making connections with other users—there’s a positive correlation between social media use and symptoms of depression. But active social media use—for example, talking to others and making posts—is linked to a lower risk of depressive symptoms.[10]

Psychologists aren’t sure how to explain these results. It might be that people who use social media in a passive way are more likely to compare themselves negatively to others, but more active users are more focused on meaningful interactions.

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Look here for more depression statistics and data.

3. Anxiety

In one study with young adults, researchers found a positive link between time spent on social media, anxiety, and the likelihood of having an anxiety disorder.[11] Research has found that social anxiety is also associated with excessive social media use.[7]

According to the results of one study, you are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety if:[12]

  • You place a lot of value on social media; for example, you check your social media a lot, post frequently, and look for validation on the internet
  • You want to stay connected to other people as much as possible because you fear missing out on updates
  • You spend over an hour on social media per day

On the other hand, other studies have arrived at different conclusions. For example, one study followed the social media habits and mental health of 500 young people between the ages of 13 and 20. The researchers didn’t find a relationship between the amount of time the participants spent on social media and their risk of anxiety and depression.[13]

4. Unhelpful comparisons

Social media makes it easy for us to compare our lifestyles, bodies, income, and achievements to those of other people. Unfortunately, these comparisons can trigger feelings of social anxiety[14] and low self-esteem if you think that other people have better, happier lives.

But it can also work the other way around: how you feel about yourself and your life can make you more likely to make unhelpful comparisons. For example, one study found that people who have a low quality of life with little social support are more likely to compare themselves unfavorably to others.[15]

Research shows that the quality of your relationships can also make a difference. For example, one study of 514 married adults found a positive correlation between social media comparisons and depression. But this link was much stronger in people who were unhappy in their marriages.[16]

5. Poor body image

Social media is full of edited, carefully posed photos of seemingly perfect bodies. Psychologists have tried to find out whether looking at these images could cause poor body image.

Research findings have been mixed. For example, some studies have found that viewing edited, idealized images can make women feel more dissatisfied with their bodies.[17] On the other hand, one review found that social media only has a small negative effect on body image.[18]

There hasn’t been much research looking specifically at male body image and social media. But it seems likely that boys and men could be negatively affected by looking at unrealistic male figures, such as very muscular bodies.[19]

6. Fear of missing out (FOMO)

If you see posts of other people having a great time, you may feel as though you’re missing out. It can be especially hard if you see your friends enjoying themselves without you.

People who experience a high level of FOMO are more likely to suffer stress, fatigue, poor sleep, and negative moods.[20]

7. Disrupted sleep patterns

If you use social media late at night, the blue light from your phone screen could prevent your body from producing the right amount of melatonin, a hormone that helps you get to sleep. Research also shows that for some people, social media eats into the time they would normally spend sleeping, which can lead to sleep deprivation.[21]

Social media is full of engaging content, which might feel more appealing than sleeping.[21] It’s easy to say to yourself, “Just five minutes more,” only to find yourself still online an hour later. This can have a negative impact on your mental health and overall well-being. Sleep deprivation is linked with depression, anxiety, and increased stress.[22]

8. Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can take many forms, including threats, cyberstalking, and sharing photos or other content without permission. Cyberbullying victimization (CBV) has been linked with anxiety, depression, and risk of substance abuse in teens and adults.[23]

9. Social media addiction

Problematic social media use is a common issue. For example, in one Statista survey, 9% of people aged between 18 and 64 claimed that the statement “I am addicted to social media” fitted them perfectly.[24]

Social media addiction isn’t officially recognized as a mental health problem.[25] But some psychologists believe that excessive social media use can be a type of behavioral addiction.[25] Using social media can trigger the release of dopamine and other “feel-good” chemicals in your brain, which can drive you to spend more time online.

For example, if someone likes or shares your post, you’ll probably feel a quick rush of happiness. As a result, your brain learns that social media feels good, and you may feel compelled to use it more often. In extreme cases, users start to put social media above their face-to-face relationships, studies, and work. This can lead to poor academic and job performance.

Signs that social media is having a negative impact on your mental health

For most people, moderate social media use doesn’t cause any issues. You probably don’t need to cut it out of your life completely. But it’s a good idea to know the signs of problematic or excessive social media use.

Here are some indicators that it’s time to rethink your relationship with social media:

  • Feeling inadequate or sad after browsing or posting to social media
  • Feeling tired due to lack of sleep
  • Doing risky things for online approval
  • Poor performance at school or work due to excessive time on social media
  • Feeling worried or upset due to cyberbullying
  • Withdrawing from face-to-face friendships and preferring to communicate online instead of in person
  • Worsening depression or anxiety
  • Feeling irritable, stressed out, or angry when you can’t access social media
  • Becoming distracted by social media when you’re with other people
  • Difficulty cutting back on social media use, even when you want to spend less time on it

How to have a healthier relationship with social media

If you are spending too much time online, or you suspect that your favorite apps are making you feel anxious or low, try these strategies to improve your relationship with social media.

1. Set realistic goals for time spent online

Most phones record how much time you spend using apps and websites. Check your daily usage. If it’s higher than you’d like, decide how much time you’d like to spend online per day, and set yourself a realistic goal. You might find it easier to break your goal down into several smaller milestones.

For example, if you currently spend 2 hours per day on Instagram, you could set yourself an ultimate goal of 30 minutes instead. But going from 2 hours to 30 minutes per day could seem like a big leap. Cutting back to 1.5 hours for a few days, then 1 hour, and then finally to 30 minutes may be more feasible.

2. Turn your phone off at specific times of day

It’s harder to casually check your social media if your phone is off. Try to get into the habit of turning it off at the same time every day or week. For example, you could turn your phone off after dinner or every Sunday afternoon.

Alternatively, instead of turning your phone off completely, try an app that blocks social media sites and apps, such as Freedom.

3. Use fewer social media platforms

Psychological research shows that the more social media platforms a person uses, the more depressed and anxious they are likely to be.[26] So if you use multiple platforms, think about cutting back. Try to pick just one or two.

4. Use social media only on your computer

It’s probably much more convenient to use social media on your phone rather than on a computer screen. So if you make it a rule to only use social media on your computer, you might automatically end up using it less often.

5. Reflect on why you use social media

When you open a social media app or site, ask yourself, “What’s my motivation right now?” Take a moment to reflect on whether you are about to use social media in a healthy way. When you’ve answered this question, you can choose whether to continue.

For example, if you want to wish a friend “Happy birthday” or send your mother a photo of your new puppy, you are probably using social media in a healthy way to connect with people who are important to you.

But if you are logging on just because you are bored, or because you want to check up on your ex-partner’s profile to see whether they’re dating someone else, your behavior might be unhelpful or even self-destructive.

Try not to post on social media just for attention or validation because if you don’t get it, you may end up feeling worse. It can also help to ask yourself, “Will I feel bad if people don’t react to or ‘Like’ my post?”

6. Unfollow accounts that make you feel bad

Following or blocking accounts that make you feel inferior, depressed, or anxious could improve your mood. When you look through a feed or profile, ask yourself, “How is this actually making me feel?” If it’s making you feel worse, unfollow or block. Be honest with yourself about how social media affects you.

7. Invest in face-to-face relationships

Online friendships can be a fantastic source of support, but they aren’t a substitute for face-to-face interaction. If you’ve been using social media as a stand-in for in-person friendships, it might be a good idea to try meeting new people in your local area. In most cases, offline friendships are of higher quality than online friendships.[2]

We have a few guides that will help you make friends and build a social circle, including:

If you’ve fallen into the habit of catching up with your friends online instead of hanging out face-to-face, reach out and suggest that you meet up in person. For example, you could say, “Hey, we haven’t actually spent much time together lately! Would you like to grab a coffee sometime?”

8. Pursue other hobbies and interests

If you tend to use social media as a distraction, try coming up with some alternative activities. You could give yourself a list of things to do when the urge to go online hits.

Ideally, these should be things that occupy your hands so that you can’t use social media at the same time. For example, you could try crafts, cookery, sports, reading books, or playing with a pet.

For more ideas, check out our list of fun things to do with friends or fun things to do by yourself.

9. Seek therapy for underlying mental health issues

If you think you use social media to distract you from anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems, you may benefit from working with a therapist, either face-to-face or online.

If you want to try face-to-face therapy, Psycom’s guide to finding affordable therapy is a useful resource.

We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and are cheaper than going to a therapist's office.

Their plans start at $64 per week. If you use this link, you get 20% off your first month at BetterHelp + a $50 coupon valid for any SocialSelf course: Click here to learn more about BetterHelp.

(To receive your $50 SocialSelf coupon, sign up with our link. Then, email BetterHelp’s order confirmation to us to receive your personal code. You can use this code for any of our courses.)

How to help a child or teen with unhealthy social media use

If you’re a parent or carer, you might be wondering how you can teach your child to have a balanced, healthy relationship with social media. Here are a few tips that can help them use social media safely.

1. Track the amount of time your child spends online

You could use an app to track and limit the amount of time your child spends on social media sites and apps. There are many free and paid options available. Tom’s Guide and PCMag have app reviews you may find useful.

Alternatively, you can enforce social media breaks. It’s not realistic to expect your child to stay away from social media completely; it’s now a normal part of life for young people. But if they are spending hours on it every day, or if their social media browsing is getting in the way of their studies and other activities, you could restrict their access. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a useful free tool you can use to draw up a “Family Media Plan.”

2. Talk about social media

An app can be a good way to gain some control over your child’s social media use, but they are definitely not a perfect solution. For example, your child could just use someone else’s phone to go online, or they could find a way of getting around the app’s settings.

Encourage your child to become a responsible social media user who can make sensible choices online, with or without a parental control app. If you keep the lines of communication open, you may be in a better position to help your child if they come across anything that worries or upsets them.

It can help to talk about what social media platforms your child or teen likes to use, who they talk to, and the kind of accounts they follow. Try not to be dismissive or judgmental. Take a genuine interest in what your child looks at and does online. You could also talk about the latest social media trends and ask their opinions. It’s also a good idea to remind them that social media isn’t always an accurate representation of people’s lives.

3. Encourage your child to socialize face-to-face

Social media can be a great way for your child or teen to stay in touch with their friends, but it’s no substitute for in-person socializing. Suggest that they hang out with friends face to face instead of relying completely on social media or messaging apps.

4. Encourage your child to take up new hobbies

If your child spends a lot of time on social media because they are bored, they might benefit from a new hobby. Consider enrolling them in a hobby that gives them an opportunity to meet other children, make new friends, and practice their social skills. Sports, theater groups, orchestra, or Scouting could be good options.

5. Set a good example

Finally, remember that children and teens are unlikely to take your advice seriously if you don’t take it yourself. Keep an eye on your own social media habits and lead by example. For example, make a point of putting your phone away during meals and try to stay off social media late in the evening.

Show references +

Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages SocialSelf’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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