As we pay more attention to mental health and mental illness, it is challenging for psychologists and others to ignore social media’s role in mental health problems.
How social media can impact mental health
Depending on the circumstances, social media can have a positive, negative or neutral impact on mental health.
Positive impacts on mental health include:
- Meeting new friends and staying connected with old ones
- Sharing art, accomplishments or music
- Finding communities with shared interests
- Exploring and expressing thoughts, ideas and opinions
Negative impacts on mental health include:
- Exposure to harmful or inappropriate content
- Feeling inadequate or self-conscious because of how other people are portrayed on social media
- Extremely edited and manipulated images causing unrealistic beauty standards
- Cyberbullying, which can lead to depression and suicide
- Exposure to destructive or dangerous people
- Hacking and identity theft
- Too much personal information being shared and revealed online
- Privacy and data collection concerns
- Overuse or obsession interfering with sleep, personal life, school, friends and family activities
Teens spend a lot of time on social media; one study found that some teens spend as much as nine hours on social media daily. One study found that teens who use social media more than two hours per day were much more likely to rate their mental health as fair or poor. Of more than 6,000 teens surveyed, half said they had been victims of cyberbullying. This is a chief reason why social media usage can have such a negative impact on mental health. While this study involved teens, cyberbullying can take many forms on social media and is an issue for adults as well.
Warning signs of unhealthy effects
For many, social media is a great tool to stay connected and maintain relationships. However, it can also be dangerous and harm our mental health. It is important to examine your own mental health needs to understand what aspects of social media might be unhealthy for you and to keep an eye out for the warning signs.
Feeling worse about yourself
Social media is a highlight reel; most people share only the best parts of their lives online. Whether it’s seemingly perfect homes, conflict-free relationships or only the best-looking photos, you only see a small snippet of someone’s life. While the reality is usually so much different than these highlights, comparing yourself to the people you find on the internet is very easy.
Upward social comparison happens when you compare yourself to other people’s positive characteristics. Downward social comparison occurs when you compare yourself with their negative characteristics and typically leads you to think of yourself in a more positive light. While upward social comparison can cause you to make healthy, aspirational changes in your life, it can also make you feel inadequate, depressed or inferior.
Before the internet, upward social comparison happened in person, among family and close friends. Because of this, it was much less likely for situations to be manipulated and filtered. The internet has changed all that: Social media allows people to curate and edit their lives, only showing the most flattering angles and the most ideal information. With all this on display, it’s easy to feel worse about your reality because it doesn’t match someone else’s perfectly presented life.
Studies have shown that many Facebook users feel that the people they see on social media have better and happier lives than their own. Because information like number of friends, likes and comments is public, those vanity metrics are thought to measure genuine likeability and popularity. If you notice yourself feeling down after scrolling through social media or comparing yourself to others, try to remember that you’re watching an unrealistic, edited highlight reel and consider taking a break from those platforms.
Feelings of loneliness or anxiety
Social media can stir up feelings of loneliness and anxiety, especially when you see friends and family participating in activities that exclude you. When you post content, the end result is unpredictable; you don’t yet know how many people will like it or how many comments it will get. This unpredictability means you’ll keep checking your content to see the type of feedback it gets. The constant social pressure to share content and the comparisons that arise when your content doesn’t get the same engagement as those in your social circle can make you feel inadequate, lonely and anxious.
Cyberbullying is bullying using digital technologies and can be prevalent on social media. While friends and family can cyberbully you, you can also experience cyberbullying from strangers. Social media allows users to be anonymous, only sharing select information on the internet. Because of this, you cannot know if the person you’re talking to is real or if the information they’re sharing is true. This anonymity and ability to hide behind a fake persona makes it even easier for someone to cyberbully.
Some examples of cyberbullying include:
- Spreading lies about someone on social media
- Sharing embarrassing photos or videos of someone without their consent
- Contacting someone with hurtful, abusive or threatening messages, images or videos.
- Impersonating someone and sending hateful messages to others on their behalf or through fake accounts
Cyberbullying can take a toll on your mental, physical and emotional health. It can make you feel embarrassed and ashamed and cause you to lose interest in things you used to enjoy. It can also take a physical toll, causing you to suffer from headaches and lose sleep. In extreme cases, it can drive people to attempt suicide.
If you’re being bullied, reach out to a parent or counselor, or block the offending user on social media. If you’ve ever considered suicide or had suicidal thoughts, please reach out to a medical professional. Call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or use the Lifeline Chat online. Services are free and confidential.
Interference with everyday activities and relationships
Scrolling through social media is a normal and typical activity; however, for a small percentage of people, social media is an addiction. Social media addiction is a behavioral addiction in which you’re overly concerned about social media and constantly compelled to log on and use your social media accounts. When you are addicted to social media, you are so obsessed with putting effort into your social media channels that you neglect other important areas of your life.
You can recognize social media addiction in the following ways:
- Using social media having a profound impact on someone’s emotional state
- Obsession with social media
- An evolving use of social media over time
- Strong emotional reactions when somebody cannot use social media
- Excessive social media usage causing issues to arise with loved ones
How to manage social media and mental health
Psychologist Jacqueline Sperling recommends monitoring your emotional state before and after using social media to better understand its impact on your mental health. She suggests rating your mental health on a scale of 0 to 10 before and after using social media. Do this every day, at the same time, for an entire week. If you notice that you’re less happy after you use social media, consider modifying your usage and try to identify what aspects of social media made you feel sad. If you’re feeling happier after using social media, you can continue consuming content, periodically checking in to ensure it has a positive mental impact.
While you can’t always control what you see on social media, you can curate your feed so that your primary exposure to content makes you happy. Unfollow friends or accounts that make you feel sad, anxious or bad about yourself. Be sure to like and engage with feel-good content so that more of it appears in your feed.
If you find specific social media channels or platforms always make you feel negatively, consider eliminating them for a week. If that goes well, delete the app altogether. While it can feel like you are missing out, if it harms your mental health, it’s best to avoid those channels entirely.
Consider putting usage rules in place. Only use social media during specific windows during the day, don’t scroll through your feeds at night before bed and put the phone down during family time or while engaging in activities you enjoy.
Reaching out for help
The most important way to protect your mental health is to talk about your concerns with someone you trust. It is crucial to have someone to talk to, whether it’s a counselor, family member, teacher, spouse or mental health professional.