Social Media and Mental Health
Most of us use some form of social media nowadays, whether that is Facebook, X formally known as Twitter, Instagram or even just WhatsApp. However, there is growing evidence that our social media use may be having a damaging effect on our mental health. This is particularly true for children—and our pages on Safe Social Networking Tips for Children, and Social Media for Children provide more information. However, it is also true for adults.
This page discusses some of the potential effects of using social media, and explains how these can create a vicious cycle. It also explores ways to reduce and manage your social media use so that it is ‘safe’ for your general mental health.
The Rise of Social Media
Social media—defined as sites that contain content created by users for other users—is very much a 21st century phenomenon.
Arguably the first social media site in the world, SixDegrees.com, was launched in 1997. Friends Reunited appeared in June 2000. MySpace and Facebook followed in 2003 (although Facebook was not branded as such in 2005). In the next couple of years, these ground-breakers were joined by YouTube, LinkedIn and Reddit, among others, with Twitter arriving in 2006. 2006 also marked the year in which LinkedIn first made a profit with its subscription business model.
This means that we have basically only had about 20 years—out of a human history of hundreds of thousands of years—to get used to social media. No wonder that many of us are struggling.
The Effects of Social Media
Social media has allowed us to connect to new and old friends, and reconnect to many that had slipped off our radar. School and college friends have found each other again, and families have been reunited. More mundanely, social media fulfils our human need to connect with other people. For many of us, it is hard to imagine a world without social media.
The Positive Side of Social Media
There is plenty that is good about social media, including being able to:
- Communicate and keep up with friends and family around the world;
- Network with people who share your interests and hobbies;
- Seek and provide support during hard times;
- Build connections in your local area;
- Buy and sell locally and nationally through marketplaces; and
- Obtain useful information, for example, from and about local businesses.
The problem is that social media is also designed to draw us in, and keep us there. The algorithms are designed to keep us scrolling, looking for more and more content. The dopamine ‘hit’ when our posts are liked or people comment favourably also keeps us coming back for more.
However, online connections cannot replace real life contact with other people.
This means that if we spend too much time on social media, and start to use it as a substitute for real contact rather than a supplement, we are likely to start experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation. Paradoxically, of course, that’s when we most need to go out and meet people in the real world. However, it’s also the time that we are most likely to turn back to social media for support.
Many of us also use social media as a sort of ‘security blanket’ when we are feeling a bit insecure in ‘real life’ social situations. It is much easier to sit down and scroll through your phone than to engage with other people. However, this is likely to simply increase feelings of isolation.
Some of us also use social media to manage our own moods. When you are feeling a bit down, or a bit bored, you may be turning to social media instead of finding a ‘real’ activity to help lift your mood. The problem here is that when you stop using social media, your mood hasn’t really changed.
Symptom or cause?
Many different studies have found connections between heavy social media use and mental health problems.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that social media use causes mental health problems, even if it can exacerbate them. It could be that people with mental health problems find it harder to go outside, and so use social media as a substitute. In other words, social media may actually be helpful because it stops them from withdrawing completely.
What is certainly true is that heavy social media use can lead to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and isolation—all of which can be forerunners of larger mental health problems.
The Negative Side of Social Media Use
Well-known problems with social media use include:
Feelings of inadequacy. We know that images on social media are not necessarily ‘real’. Even if they are unedited, they are unlikely to show the full story. People only ever post the ‘good’ bits of their lives. They don’t tell you about the bad days. However, that still makes it hard to see beautiful pictures of other people’s tropical holidays, or hear about their achievements—especially if your life is not going so well.
Fear of missing out (FOMO). It has always been a possibility that your friends were having more fun than you. However, social media has made that fear more obvious, and also more explicit. FOMO leads people to check their phones obsessively to ensure that they haven’t missed an update or a comment. It can lead to prioritising social media over real life—and therefore actually missing out on more.
Smartphone addiction, also known as problematic smartphone usage. Social media is designed to draw us in, and keep us there. It can lead to people becoming almost obsessed, focusing more on social networks than on real life. This, in turn, can lead to problems such as reduced attention span, inability to build relationships, and problems with mental and physical health.
Isolation. Excessive social media use can lead to isolation from the real world. Without genuine connections with other people, we become lonely and lost. We need those real relationships, and social media is no substitute.
Self-absorption. Spending a lot of time posting selfies and updating your status can lead to an unhealthy focus on yourself. Social media is at its best when you are connecting and interacting with others. Looking only for ‘likes’ and endorsement for yourself is not healthy.
Cyberbullying. This tends to be a particular problem for teens and young people, but social media does seem to provide an ideal platform for bullying. It is always on, and young people cannot escape for fear of missing out even more.
There is more information about helping a child or young person who is being cyberbullied in our page on Cyberbullying.
Is Your Social Media Use Problematic?
There is no fail-safe method to test whether your smartphone or social media use is problematic. However, you should be concerned if:
- You are neglecting real life relationships in favour of being online;
- You spend a lot of time comparing yourself unfavourably with images or people on social media;
- You are distracted from your life, work or education, because of your perceived need to be online;
- Your social media use is affecting your health, for example, by affecting your sleep; or
- You find that you feel anxious or depressed when you have been using social media.
Changing Your Behaviour: Modifying Your Social Media Use
If your social media use is becoming problematic, you may need to take some steps to change your behaviour.
These steps might include:
1. Reduce your time online
A 2018 study in the USA found that reducing social media use to just 30 minutes a day was associated with a significant reduction in levels of serious mental health problems like anxiety and depression, as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation, and fear of missing out. However, even if you don’t feel able to cut your use to just 30 minutes each day, you can still benefit from becoming more aware of your use, and reducing it somewhat.
There are some suggestions for how you might reduce or manage your smartphone use in our page on Problematic Smartphone Usage, including both behavioural and technological solutions.
2. Consider your motivation
Many of us use social media as a way to fill a few minutes here and there, or to stop us from being bored. This usually means mindless scrolling, and has a way of filling far too much time. If, instead, you use it deliberately as a way to find specific information, or check in with a group of friends, your experience will be very different.
Next time, before you open your app, ask yourself why. If you are using it as a way to fill your time, it may be worth finding another option. For example, go for a walk, invite a friend to meet for coffee, or just read a book.
3. Change how you use social media
There are two ways to use social networks: actively and passively.
Active users engage with others. They post pictures or information, they comment on other people’s posts, and they engage with comments on their posts.
Passive users simply ‘lurk’. They may ‘like’ posts, but they don’t engage otherwise.
If you are a very passive user, try engaging with others. Social media connections may not be a substitute for real life, but using social networks actively (that is, posting and commenting) is better than mindless scrolling and liking.
4. Change your focus
If you find that using social media leaves you with feelings of inadequacy, change your focus.
Instead of thinking about all the things that you lack in your life, focus on the things that you do have. This may feel a bit ‘Pollyanna’, but there is plenty of evidence that positive thinking has a beneficial effect on your mental health and wellbeing.
It is also good to reflect on what is right and valuable about your world, and be grateful for it.
If you find this hard, consider keeping a ‘gratitude journal’, where you write down something good that happens every day. When you are feeling a bit down, you can look back in your book, and remind yourself of all the good aspects of your life.
There is more about being grateful in our page on Gratitude.
5. Actively engage with and make time for offline friends
One way to cut down your social media use—and improve your wellbeing more generally—is to engage with real-world friends.
This leaves you less time for scrolling social media, but it also builds those all-important human connections. If you can arrange to take some exercise together, that will be even better for your general health.
If you don’t have many friends nearby, consider using social media to find and opt into some of the wide range of ‘connect online/meet offline’ groups available.
A Final Thought
Social media can be a problem. It can pull us away from real life, and into a fantasy world where everyone’s lives are perfect, leading to feelings of inadequacy and isolation. However, there is also much that is good about it. It allows us to connect with friends and family at a distance, and build and maintain relationships. It can also be a way to make new friends locally, and build up networks.
The key is to use it to supplement real life, and not as a substitute.