Learn about the negative and positive connections between social media and mental health and how you can navigate them.
Social media is the new smoking.
We’ve all heard the message in one way or another—social media is addictive. The recent warnings against social media are especially directed at teens; the term “screenager,” for example, communicates the dreaded image of teenagers sucked into their phones, eyes glued to the latest social media updates.
But how does social media specifically impact our mental health? Is it truly ‘the new smoking’ in that it not only gets us addicted but also has health consequences such as anxiety and depressive symptoms? On the flip side, are there any benefits to our mental health? Or is the connection too hazy for us to make conclusions either way?
In recent years especially, there has been extensive research on the potential mental health downsides of social media, and many studies have drawn worrying conclusions. One 2019 study found that people who deactivated their Facebook accounts for one month reported lower depression and anxiety, as well as an increase in happiness and life satisfaction. A 2013 study found a link between Facebook and lower moment-based happiness and life satisfaction; the more people used Facebook in a day, the more moment-based happiness and life satisfaction decreased. A third study examined how much people used social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, and found that the longer people spent on these sites, the more they felt socially isolated.
In this last study, the correlation between social media usage and a perceived sense of social isolation is especially important; perceived social isolation is one of the most physically and mentally damaging sentiments. A possible explanation for why Facebook makes people feel socially isolated is something called the comparison factor: a rabbit hole of comparing ourselves to others who appear on our feeds. Typically, we quickly make either an ‘upward’ judgment, where we believe that someone else is better than us, or a ‘downward’ judgment, where we believe ourselves to be better. Surprisingly, a 2014 study found that both judgments are harmful and tied to depressive symptoms.
Another facet of social media that has been linked to anxiety and depression is social media’s ability to disrupt sleep. When people stay up late online, screen-light can interrupt the circadian rhythm, and additionally, some wake up several times at night to check or respond to messages. Poor and irregular sleep is harmful both physically and mentally, further contributing to anxiety and depression.
Additionally, the fear of missing out—termed “FoMO”—is exacerbated by social media. FoMo is a common reaction to scenarios such as when people see posts flaunting parties or gatherings they missed out on or weren’t invited to. Teenagers are especially susceptible to anxieties surrounding missing out since social connection carries more weight in developing years.
Beyond this, especially for teenagers, body image for both genders is often harmed by social media use. Teenagers start to become judgmental of their bodies and compare themselves to others. Because the culture of Instagram revolves around people posting their best pictures, many fall into the practice of editing posts to enhance their body and erase blemishes, which only worsens others’ images of their appearances.
Finally, cyberbullying is an extremely harmful consequence of social media. Cyberbullying has a stronger correlation to suicide attempts than face-to-face bullying—people can’t escape cyberbullying, and others such as teachers and parents are not aware of it. This is not only an intense issue, but also a wide-spread problem, with one study reporting as many as 72% of teens saying that they have been cyber bullied before.
Clearly, there are several correlations between social and worsened mental health. But can we blame social media for this? In other words, does correlation imply causation here?
A 2020 study synthesized relevant existing studies to examine how connected social media and mental health really are. The study began hunting for articles through keywords such as “social media,” “mental health,” “social media AND mental health,” from which they gathered a total of 1,623,600 search results (using Google Scholar). After removing duplicate papers and determining relevance, they selected 16 research papers to study. They found a general association between social media use and mental health issues, with anxiety and depression as the most measured outcomes from the studies. Despite this general association, they determined that “it is not possible to conclude that the use of social networks causes mental health problems,” due to several of the studies being “cross-sectional”—research that describes characteristics, but does not determine cause-and-effect relationships (since it doesn’t manipulate variables). Ultimately, they highlighted the importance of further research to clarify why social media negatively affects some people’s mental health while it also can have no effect or positive effects on others’ mental health.
Indeed, for the flood of articles exploring the downsides of social media, there is also research revealing the upsides. For example, during adolescence, connection with peers is especially important—and social media can provide opportunities for social connections, allowing individuals to keep in touch more easily with people who live further away. Furthermore, during the pandemic, social media has played an important role in allowing people to connect in a safe, socially distanced way.
Additionally, social media and the internet may be especially important for teens and young adults experiencing varying symptoms of depression. A national survey of 14 to 22-year-olds reveals that many teens and young adults suffering from moderate to severe depression symptoms look to the internet for support—90% researched mental health issues; 75% found others’ stories through blogs, podcasts, and videos; 38% used well-being focused mobile apps; 32% used texting and video chatting to reach out to health providers. In terms of social media, 30% of those with depression said that social media is “very” important to them feeling less alone, and 27% said it is “very” important for getting inspiration from others (compared to only 7% of those without depression for the former, and 13% for the latter). And more people (30%) said social media helps them feel better when they are depressed, stressed, or anxious, than worse (22 %).
The survey did also show some worrying flip sides—for example, youth with depressive symptoms are more likely than youth without symptoms to say that they feel left out when they use social media.
Overall, past research and surveys showcase that social media affects people in different ways, and, as of yet, we can’t force one conclusion down everyone’s throat.
“The pressures of social media clearly present real challenges for many young people, but social media and other online resources offer real opportunities to engage and provide support for those who are struggling,” said Margaret Laws, CEO of healthcare company Hopelab.
Social media is both correlated with mental health downsides and upsides—and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate them.
Pay attention to how you feel after using social media, and let that dictate whether you want to keep using it, and how much time you want to spend on it.
And even though the “screenager” trope of a teen glued to their phone makes many roll their eyes, what is useful is to be aware of what your social media usage looks like. When your social media usage crosses into checking apps excessively, fearing missing out, and feeling disconnected from friends when not on social media, you may want to reflect on the negative effects it might have on you, and reconsider how you use social media platforms.
Ultimately, we should all try to be more mindful social media users.
Allcott, Hunt, et al. “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” Stanford, 8 Nov. 2019, web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/facebook.pdf.
Karim, Fazida, et al. “Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review.” Cureus, Cureus, 15 June 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7364393/.
Mir, Elina, et al. “Social Media and Adolescents' and Young Adults' Mental Health.” National Center for Health Research, www.center4research.org/social-media-affects-mental-health/.
Roeder, Amy. “Social Media Use Can Be Positive for Mental Health and Well-Being.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 28 May 2020, www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/social-media-positive-mental-health/.
Walton, Alice G. “6 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 3 Oct. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/06/30/a-run-down-of-social-medias-effects-on-our-mental-health/?sh=cb5becb2e5af.