How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health

How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health
Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Joshua Yager M.D.

Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Joshua Yager M.D.

Dr. Joshua Yager is an Atlanta native, board-certified family practice physician who is dedicated to the health and wellbeing of his community.

Table of Contents

Instagram made waves when it decided to hide likes, hoping to reduce the negative emotions tied to equating popularity with content sharing. But does this move truly address mental health concerns or is it just a temporary fix?

Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, a psychologist at McLean Hospital, believes Instagram’s decision is a tiny leap forward. She notes, “Despite eliminating likes, there are still avenues for comparison and feedback. People can still gauge themselves against others and comments remain.”

The Role Social Media Plays in Mental Health

We humans thrive on social interactions. Genuine connections boost our mental well-being, instilling happiness, self-worth, and comfort, while also countering stress, anxiety, and depression. On the contrary, a lack of such connections can jeopardize our mental state.

In today’s digital age, many turn to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram to establish and maintain connections. However, it’s crucial to understand that virtual interactions can’t replace the benefits of face-to-face interactions. While technology aims to bring people closer, excessive social media use can amplify feelings of loneliness and even magnify mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

If prolonged social media use leaves you feeling down, discontented, or isolated, it might be time to reassess your online habits and strike a healthier equilibrium.

What Drives Social Media Use?

Over the years, social media has emerged as both a blessing and a curse. It serves as a channel to combat boredom, showcase our best selves, and reconnect with loved ones. It has its advantages, promoting connectivity, information dissemination, and self-expression. Yet, it’s essential to recognize the impact it has on our mental well-being, influenced by the way our brains respond to it.

According to Pew Research Center (2021), 82% of American adults below 30 engage with some form of social media. Whiting and Williams (2013) highlight various reasons for its use, such as social interaction (88%), information-seeking (80%), pastime (76%), entertainment (64%), and relaxation (60%). Interestingly, many users admit to using social media out of the “fear of missing out” or FOMO. Research on FOMO has revealed that it often leads to a sense of overwhelming exhaustion from social media.

How Does Social Media Impact Mental and Emotional Health? What are the Signs?

Just like substances such as alcohol or drugs, frequent use of social media can rapidly exploit our brain’s reward system, specifically the dopaminergic pathways. When we compare the satisfaction derived from accomplishments like earning a good grade after hours of studying, it’s a slow process. In contrast, a quick glance at Snapchat or Instagram instantly triggers a dopamine surge, providing immediate pleasure. This repetitive action resembles the swift satisfaction smokers get from a cigarette. Over time, this rapid dopamine hit can become habit-forming, potentially leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. The act of sharing personal details on platforms like these stimulates the same brain region as addictive substances. This dopamine release happens within the mesolimbic system, especially binding to receptors in the nucleus accumbens.

Common indicators of excessive social media involvement are:

  • Constant preoccupation with social platforms.
  • Prioritizing social media at the expense of one’s health or personal relationships.
  • Needing to spend more time online for the same level of satisfaction.
  • Failed attempts to reduce or control usage.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like restlessness or anxiety when not using social media.

The Positive Side of Social Media

Social media platforms have several advantages. They allow users to:

  • Keep in touch with loved ones globally.
  • Connect with like-minded individuals or communities.
  • Advocate for causes or raise awareness on critical issues.
  • Seek or provide support during challenging times.
  • Establish connections for those in remote locations, facing social anxiety, or belonging to marginalized groups.
  • Express oneself creatively.
  • Discover useful information or learning resources.

The Downsides of Social Media

Despite its recent emergence, multiple studies have indicated a potential link between excessive social media use and a heightened risk of mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even suicidal tendencies. Some associated negative experiences include:

  • Feelings of inadequacy regarding one’s life or appearance.
  • Amplified fear of missing out (FOMO) leading to an unhealthy cycle of increased use.
  • A sense of isolation, despite being ‘connected’.
  • Worsening of mood disorders due to prioritizing virtual over real-life interactions.
  • Being a victim of cyberbullying.
  • Cultivating a self-centric mindset that could hamper real-life relationships.

Why Does Social Media Cause Depression?

Recent studies have started exploring the concept of ‘social media depression’, diving into understanding whether social media is a cause or a symptom. A 2015 survey involving college students deduced that platforms like Facebook could evoke feelings of envy, subsequently leading to depressive symptoms. Another 2019 UK-based study noted that individuals checking Facebook late at night experienced disrupted sleep patterns, subsequently feeling more depressed and discontented.

In a groundbreaking 2018 study by the University of Pennsylvania, researchers delved deeply into the relationship between social media usage and depression. The study’s methodology involved dividing 143 students into two distinct groups for a duration of three weeks. While one group maintained their regular social media habits, the other had their usage restricted to a mere 30 minutes a day, allocating 10 minutes each for Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

To maintain the integrity of the experiment, participants exclusively used iPhones. The researchers closely monitored phone usage data to ensure that each group adhered to the guidelines. Remarkably, in just a span of three weeks, the group with limited social media exposure displayed improved mental well-being. Consequently, the findings indicate a direct correlation between reduced social media usage and decreased feelings of depression and unhappiness.

The intriguing title for this University of Pennsylvania research was “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” The term FOMO stands for ‘Fear of Missing Out.’ It’s a phenomenon where individuals feel compelled to incessantly refresh their social feeds, driven by the anxiety of missing out on any updates.

Another noteworthy aspect of social media interaction is the psychological effects of receiving “likes.” When a user gets a “like” on their post, it triggers a dopamine release in the brain, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter. This dopamine release is naturally achieved through activities like exercise and is also a characteristic effect of certain recreational drugs and gambling.

Signs that Social Media is Impacting your Mental Health

It’s essential to understand that everyone’s relationship with social media is unique. There isn’t a definitive duration of usage, a set frequency of checking updates, or a particular number of posts that flags unhealthy behavior. Instead, it boils down to how social media engagement impacts your emotional state and other life facets, coupled with your underlying reasons for usage.

For instance, if your social media activities cause you to neglect in-person interactions, divert your attention from work or academics, or evoke feelings of envy, frustration, or sadness, it might suggest an issue. Similarly, if boredom or loneliness drives you to social platforms or if you post content out of spite to make others feel envious or annoyed, it’s perhaps a sign to reevaluate your online habits.

Signs that social media might be taking a toll on your mental well-being include:

  1. Substituting Real Interactions: You spend more time on social platforms than engaging with real-life friends. Even in social settings, you find yourself compulsively checking your accounts, often stemming from the fear that others might be having a better time than you.
  2. Comparative Thoughts: If you constantly measure yourself against others on these platforms, it might affect your self-worth or body image. This can even lead to unhealthy eating behaviors.
  3. Exposure to Cyberbullying: You may be at the receiving end of online bullying or feel anxious about the uncontrollable narrative others might be painting of you.
  4. Distractions in Professional or Academic Settings: You might find it hard to focus at work or school due to an incessant need to update your profile, get feedback on your posts, or stay updated with your friend circle’s activities.
  5. Lack of Introspection: If every free moment you have is consumed by social media, it robs you of the precious time needed for self-contemplation, which is vital for personal growth.
  6. Pursuit of Online Validation through Dangerous Means: You might resort to hazardous antics, share compromising content, bully others online, or use your devices recklessly (like texting while driving) just for online applause.
  7. Sleep Disruption: Do you have a habit of browsing social media as the last thing at night, first thing upon waking, or even during nocturnal awakenings? The blue light emitted by devices can interfere with your sleep patterns, which subsequently affects your mental wellness.
  8. Amplification of Negative Emotions: Instead of acting as a mood lifter, you might find that your anxiety, depressive symptoms, or feelings of isolation amplify post social media usage.

If you identify with several of these signs, it may be beneficial to reflect on your relationship with social media and consider if adjustments might improve your overall well-being.

How to Limit the Impact of Social Media Consumption

Understanding and acknowledging that an overconsumption of social media or digital content can affect one’s mental and emotional health is pivotal. Acceptance is the first significant step toward meaningful change. Fortunately, various strategies can be employed to alleviate the negative repercussions of digital overload, promoting a healthier relationship with our devices. Let’s delve deeper into the multifaceted approach one can adopt:

  • Awareness and Acceptance: Before any change can occur, one must first recognize that a problem exists. This involves understanding the symptoms of excessive media consumption, such as feelings of fatigue, anxiety, or loneliness after prolonged use.
  • Self-Monitoring through Tracking Apps: There are various apps available that monitor screen time and the frequency of unlocking your phone. These apps provide insightful metrics about your social media usage, which can be eye-opening. By tracking and analyzing your behavior, you can set targets to reduce excessive consumption.
  • Mute Those Notifications: One of the primary culprits behind incessant phone checking is the continuous barrage of notifications. Muting non-essential alerts can drastically decrease the urge to impulsively reach for your device.
  • Organize Your Digital Space: Reconsider the placement of frequently used apps. Moving them off the home screen or into a less accessible folder can reduce mindless checking. This small barrier requires an additional step, giving you a moment to ask, “Do I really need to open this now?”
  • Designated Charging Zones: Instead of keeping your phone within arm’s reach at all times, designate a specific area in your home for charging. This not only encourages physical detachment from the device but also reduces the likelihood of nighttime scrolling, promoting better sleep.
  • Setting Digital Boundaries: Implementing personal daily time limits can be immensely beneficial. By allocating specific “phone-free” times or even designating certain days as “digital detox” days, you’re allowing your mind to rest and recalibrate.
  • Grayscale Mode: A lesser-known trick is to adjust your phone’s color settings to grayscale. The lack of vibrant colors might make the screen less enticing, reducing the dopamine surge we get from vivid visuals.
  • Seek Real-Life Engagements: It’s essential to maintain a balance. Engage in offline activities that you love, be it reading, gardening, walking, or even cooking. This ensures that you are not entirely dependent on digital platforms for entertainment or emotional satisfaction.
  • Education and Continuous Learning: Stay updated with the latest research on the impact of digital consumption. Awareness seminars, workshops, or even webinars can offer a fresh perspective and provide tools to ensure healthy usage.
  • Mindful Consumption: Just as we are conscious of what we eat, being mindful of the digital content we consume is equally vital. Prioritize quality over quantity, and always check the credibility of the sources.

The key lies in moderation and conscious decision-making. While digital media offers myriad benefits and has become an integral part of modern life, ensuring that it doesn’t dominate our existence is crucial for holistic well-being.


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