Social media use is the epitome of a double-edged sword. With so many positive and negative effects, it’s important that we take a hard look at social media and mental health.
While tweeting on Twitter, snapping on Snapchat, and posting on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok can be fun and a seemingly harmless form of socialization, there’s often more to the story.
Yes, social media can be educational, perhaps a bit relaxing, and maybe even a much-needed escape from the pressure and stress of life, but too much of anything can be bad. Excessive use of social media can lead to anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, and it’s just not something we talk enough about.
Read on to learn how to balance your social media usage so you can enjoy its benefits while avoiding most, if not all, of the potential negatives.
How Does Social Media Impact Mental Health?
Is social media bad for mental health? The short answer is yes, it can be for some people. How social media affects mental health, though, really just depends on each individual person. For some, it might actually enhance mental health.
Human connection is known to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Socializing helps us learn to navigate and cope with life’s challenges, can boost self-esteem, and can help us avoid loneliness while increasing joy and happiness.
Today, many people rely on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms to connect and form bonds with others. That said, while this can often be an enjoyable and healthy experience, digital connections struggle to replace in-person interactions.
Ironically, given the very name of it, spending excessive time on social media can actually lead to isolation and loneliness. The latest research also shows it can exacerbate existing mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Young adults are especially susceptible to these negative effects. A 2019 study found that young people who consume social media for more than three hours have higher risk of mental health problems.
If you spend a lot of time on social sites and have been experiencing increased feelings of loneliness, sadness, frustration, or a general sense of discontent, now is the time to reexamine your relationship with social media. Use the information and tips we’re sharing here to modify how, when, and how much you use social media so you can find that healthy balance, because it is possible.
The Bright Side of Social Media
Social media certainly isn’t all bad. As we’ve already mentioned, for some, it can have a positive impact on mental health when used appropriately. Virtual social interactions aren’t as psychologically beneficial as face-to-face contact, but they still can help us stay connected with loved ones, ultimately increasing well-being.
Some additional positive effects of social media include:
- Staying in contact with family and friends, even those who live far away
- Increasing awareness about worthwhile causes and prominent issues
- Networking with people of similar interests and ambitions
- Sharing your opinions
- Offering a platform to promote and display creative efforts with others
- Finding emotional support during challenging or difficult times
- Meeting new people and forming new friendships
- Learning valuable information and researching
- Marketing a business or brand
- Expanding your reach
Social media can also help ensure people who live in remote areas have access to vital societal connections and information they might not otherwise be able to find. So, we admit, it’s not all bad, but there’s definitely a darker side we must also explore.
Despite those numerous positive attributes, social media has some pretty distinct, and often severe, drawbacks as well. When looking at how social media affects mental health, it’s essential we look at both sides and really begin to scrutinize the unhealthy aspects.
“If someone tends to spend too much time on social media and starts to feel frustrated, lonely, sad, or dissatisfied, then it might be time to decrease screen time and find a healthier way to engage.”
Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC
Why is social media bad? Spending too much time on social platforms can create a repeating negative cycle. You may use social media more often when you feel depressed, lonely, stressed, or anxious. You might think (or convince yourself) that it’s helping you, making you happy, offering entertainment and letting you feel more connected.
However, excessive social media usage can create feelings of dissatisfaction, isolation, and inadequacy. These feelings may, in turn, cause or intensify anxiety, stress, and depression — those very feelings you might be trying to escape in the first place.
As symptoms continue to worsen, some people feel compelled to use social media even more, perpetuating a spiraling cycle. Negative effects of social media on mental health can include the following.
Fear of missing out (FOMO)
FOMO is a concept that’s been around a lot longer than social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms aren’t helping. Scrolling these sites and apps can trigger feelings that everyone else is living a better life than you.
When you feel like you’re missing out on so many good things, it can impact your sense of self-worth. It can make you feel anxious and lonely and can end up causing you to use social media even more.
Posting countless selfies and expressing your personal thoughts about every possible social situation can lead to an unhealthy sense of self. This type of self-absorption can put distance and drive a wedge between you and others in your life.
Body image issues
Body image issues are another negative effect that’s been gaining traction in recent studies. Recent research has found a trend so disturbing amongst young (primarily) women who use social media filters, a new term has been coined: Snapchat dysmorphia. While it’s not (yet) a mental health diagnosis, Snapchat dysmorphia occurs when people compare their actual appearance to filtered (altered) selfies.
Snapchat dysmorphia describes the deep-rooted feeling of wanting to change physical features to match filtered images. Feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness can surface as a result of the intense focus now being placed on — hear this: perceived — flaws.
The phenomenon has gone so far that plastic surgeons are now noting a striking uptick in people coming in for cosmetic surgery to alter their physical appearance to look more like a filtered depiction of themselves.
Depression and anxiety
Humans are social creatures by nature. We require connections in order to maintain mental health. Studies show that eye-to-eye contact with a loved one quickly reduces stress, regulates heart rate, and can reduce pain and inflammation.
The more social media interactions you have instead of human interactions can increase your risk of developing or worsening depression, anxiety, and other similar mood disorders.
Numerous studies have looked at the link between depression and social media use. Results strongly suggest that depressive symptoms are significantly higher in relation to more time spent and intensity of use on social platforms.
Research shows that nearly 60% of teenagers have been cyberbullied on social media or harassed online. Bullies increasingly use social platforms to attack, spreading painful lies and starting or perpetuating rumors that can cause victims long-term emotional scarring.
New potential mental health conditions
Various other mental health concerns related to social media use have come to light in recent years, including the not-yet-fully-understood correlation between tic disorders and the use of platforms such as TikTok. Psychiatrists have described the number of teenage girls developing uncontrollable movements as an “explosion of tics.”
We know that anxiety is a root cause of unintentional twitching found in tic disorders. However, more research needs to be done for us to have a full understanding of any role social media might also play.
For now, there’s concern that tic disorders can be triggered by watching others on a screen — there’s even a popular hashtag that garners billions (yes, with a “B”) of views: #tourettes, posted by teen girls looking for support and acceptance as they try to navigate sudden tics they’ve developed when using social media.
Signs That Social Media Is Affecting Your Mental Health
There are several signs or red flags your social media use is becoming (or has already become) unhealthy.
Avoiding face-to-face interactions is a big one, especially if you’ve previously been a social person who enjoyed people and had a lot of friends in the past.
Another big clue might be realizing your priorities have changed. For example, if school or work was something you took pride in, dedicated a lot of time to, and wanted to be successful at, but things have changed now, take note of that. If you find you now feel apathetic or struggle to remain motivated, you should start looking at what caused this shift.
Other factors that can signal social media is affecting your health include you:
- Compare yourself or your life to others on social media (especially people you don’t actually know)
- Spend more time on your social feeds than you do with actual people
- Are more distracted at work, school, or when with friends
- Have been cyberbullied
- Don’t have time to self-reflect or do things that help you grow
- Notice your sleep is suffering
- Have begun engaging in risky behaviors (particularly if you’re doing so to gain attention, likes, or follows)
“Social media can cause us to have negative thoughts about how we look, how we dress, or our lifestyle. It can cause a feeling of isolation when we spend too much time in cyberspace and not enough time with friends and family. If someone is feeling more depressed or anxious, then it might be a good idea to examine social media use and focus on reducing the time spent on it. A lot of people struggle with the idea of FOMO (fear of missing out), which can make them feel like others are having more fun and enjoying life while they are not.”
Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC
Minimizing the Negative Impact of Social Media
The truth is, social media and mental health can affect us all in a negative way if we let it. It’s something everyone needs to be aware of. Then, if it becomes a problem, it can be addressed right away. There are a number of proactive measures you can take to ensure the time you spend on social media is as healthy as possible.
“Start by being more mindful of how long you are on social media by using an app to track it, turning off notifications, removing some social media apps from your phone, leaving your phone out of reach when you go to bed, or turning your phone off at certain times during the day.”
Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC
If you’re wondering how to improve your mental health, consider these tips as they relate to social media and technology.
Download an app or use the tracking feature on your phone to monitor how long you spend on social platforms each day. Most people are surprised at how much time they’re actually scrolling.
Use the information to set a realistic goal about how much thought, energy, and time you’re willing to give to social media each day. You don’t have to quit altogether but setting limits can be a good way to minimize negative impacts on your life.
Spending less time on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms can be a good thing. Replace some of that social time with healthy activities like working out, gardening, meditating, volunteering in your community, learning a new language, or spending time in nature.
Power off devices
Turn your cell phone or other devices off during specific periods each day, like when you’re driving, working out, in a business meeting, eating dinner, playing with your children, at school, or spending time with friends socializing. Turn off devices and leave them outside your bedroom to charge overnight.
Turn off notifications
You’ll be far less distracted during the day if you turn social notifications off. It’s difficult to resist checking every time you hear beeping, dinging, buzzing, and ringing alerting you to the latest posts, replies, and activity (see: FOMO).
Instead, set limits about how often and when you’ll check your social feeds. Start out small, like limiting checking to every 15 minutes. Then, gradually increase the time between checking to 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and so on.
Why is social media good? Mainly social interaction. It can put you in touch with old friends, enhance communication with loved ones, and offer you access to a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips.
Why is social media bad? The negative effects of social media and mental health include potentially becoming self-absorbed, feeling overly dependent on acceptance from people you might not even know, and increasing your sense of loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health conditions. Unhealthy use of social media can lead to social anxiety or any other socially related mental health conditions.
It’s important to be mindful of social media and mental health. If you find that you’re spending increased time on various platforms, and you’re noticing negative side effects, it’s time to set some rules about how you use social media.
If, after limiting your social media exposure, you’re still experiencing mental health symptoms that are interfering with your ability to function, it’s time to look deeper at what may be the root causes.
Anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other conditions are treatable, but it’s important to get help. Talk therapy and short-term use of medication can be highly effective in helping you to feel better again, regardless of what mental health conditions you’re struggling with and whether social media is contributing to your symptoms. Online therapy at Talkspace can be a great place to start making steps toward good mental health. Reach out today.
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