In recent years, social media platforms, which allow individuals to connect virtually with others through a shared network, have grown in popularity at a formidable rate.
Indeed, recent estimates indicate that around half of the global population, around 3.8 billion people, are using these networks (We Are Social, 2020).
Social media platforms are designed to hold our attention. As such, they are pervasive by nature and have altered how we interact with others, with more of us moving our social interactions online.
Remarkably, the average user will spend approximately 2.5 hours per day on social media.
However, what are the psychological consequences of using these platforms? And are there any benefits?
As social media grows in popularity, this question has increasing relevance as we navigate our way through the digital age.
This article contains:
- Effects of Social Media on Mental Health
- How Does It Affect Relationships and Social Skills?
- Findings Related to Depression and Anxiety
- Does It Affect Sleep Quality?
- The Impact on Students and Teens
- Effects on Body Image and Self-Esteem: 4 Studies
- The Other Side of the Coin: 4 Positive Effects
- 6 Ways to Improve Your Relationship With Social Media
- Helpful Apps and Tools
- A Note on Its Impact on Society
- Useful PositivePsychology.com Resources
- A Take-Home Message
Effects of Social Media on Mental Health
The question of whether online technology-facilitated mental health disorders should be recognized by the World Health Organization and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been a subject of considerable debate over the past decade.
Some have argued that problematic smartphone and social media use demonstrates the features of addiction, with key characteristics including impaired control (excessive use, unsuccessful efforts to stop, craving for use), withdrawal phenomena, and social or psychological problems exacerbated by use.
To date, research into the effects of social media on mental health has primarily focused on the potentially adverse effects of Facebook, now used by over 2 billion users worldwide.
In an exploratory one-year study into Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD), social media’s deleterious effects were investigated in a sample of 179 students with Facebook accounts (77% female; Brailovskaia & Margraf, 2017).
At baseline, according to different diagnostic models, between 0.6% and 4.5% of participants met the cut-off criteria for FAD. One year later, 1.7% to 8.4% met the FAD criteria, with a tripling of individuals displaying “withdrawal.” Further, FAD was positively related to the personality trait of narcissism, as well as stress, depression, and anxiety.
However, empirical evidence remains inconclusive, and a causal link has not yet been established. Moreover, as discussed later, several studies point to the psychological benefits of using social media. This is important to remember as we review the current research.
How Does It Affect Relationships and Social Skills?
Social media has revolutionized the way we interact with the world around us.
We can now stay in touch with friends and family worldwide, allowing us to be socially connected to others 24/7.
Compared with pre-social media times, we can develop friendships with many more individuals through our online communities.
However, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Some may suggest that an obsession with our social world online diminishes the quality of healthy relationships we build face-to-face.
Typically, when we engage in face-to-face interactions, a large portion of social information is conveyed by non-verbal communication. When we try to understand others, we consider cues such as tone of voice, facial expression, posture, and eye contact (Knapp, Hall, & Horgan, 2013).
In cyberspace, these cues are disrupted. As such, we may have less information available to help us interpret information correctly. This is important as good communication and the ability to build positive relationships with others are crucial in successfully navigating our way through the world.
As more of our lives move online, computer-generated nonverbal messages (e.g., emoji) are likely to have increasing relevance.
Findings Related to Depression and Anxiety
Globally, anxiety and depressive disorders are common disabilities affecting millions of people every year (World Health Organization, 2017). While numerous factors can contribute to the onset, maintenance, and recurrence of anxiety and depression, there is a growing interest in social media’s potential effects on psychological vulnerability.
Research indicates that the volume of social media use is a crucial factor in predicting mental health outcomes. More explicitly, several studies show that a more significant number of hours spent on social media daily is linked to both anxious and depressive symptomatology (Lin et al., 2016; Vannucci, Flannery, & Ohannessian, 2017). However, findings are not conclusive.
Other studies have shown no relationship between time spent on Facebook and depression (Jelenchick, Eickhoff, & Moreno, 2013; see Seabrook, Kern, & Rickard, 2016, for a systematic review). This suggests that other contributory factors may play an important role in predicting anxiety and depression due to social media use.
For example, other contributory factors may include individual differences relating to how one feels about or experiences social media. As such, this could be a more pertinent indicator of social media effects than the quantity of exposure alone.
Pertinently, several studies show that the addictive or problematic use of social media is more directly associated with anxious and depressive symptomatology (Andreassen et al., 2016).
It follows that a direct causal link between social media use and anxiety and depression has not been established. This means that potential mediating factors must be considered in more detail. For instance, as we’ll discuss later, social media use has been shown to influence sleep quality (Levenson, Shensa, Sidani, Colditz, & Primack, 2016).
Perhaps then, it is the lack of sleep that affects psychological disorder levels, rather than social media in its own right.
Does It Affect Sleep Quality?
While it may feel like browsing through our social media helps us switch off and relax before bedtime, the research indicates that using social media can negatively impact our sleep quality.
In general, social media use has been related to poor sleep (Levenson et al., 2016). The association seems to be significantly heightened when used in the 30 minutes before bed (Levenson, Shensa, Sidani, Colditz, & Primack, 2017). The mechanisms underlying this relationship may be via the direct displacement of sleep, through delayed bedtime and reduced total sleep time (Cain & Gradisar, 2010; Scott, Biello, & Woods, 2019).
However, because of social media’s interactive nature, effects may be indirect, through heightened cognitive, emotional, or physiological arousal. While it may seem obvious, getting in a heated Twitter debate about recent political affairs is not going to help you switch off and sleep.
Besides, the blue light emitted from screen-based devices can suppress the secretion of melatonin, the hormone made by the pineal gland, which is responsible for regulating our sleep–wake cycle and preparing our bodies for sleep (Bhat, Pinto-Zipp, Upadhyay, & Polos, 2018; Tähkämö, Partonen, & Pesonen, 2019). Without typical melatonin levels, we may remain in a state of cognitive arousal, affecting our ability to fall asleep.
The Impact on Students and Teens
The online and potentially anonymous nature of social media poses a new set of challenges for adolescents and young people.
While social media presents extra opportunities for young people to socialize with their friends, develop their sense of identity, and proactively engage in social topics, it also means that they can be increasingly exposed to cyber threats.
These include cyberbullying, cyber-racism, emotional blackmail, grooming, radicalization, and pressure to partake in sexting, amongst others. All these digital threats may contribute to adverse mental health outcomes in young people.
Cyberbullying, for example, is associated with depression, suicidality, anxiety, aggression, substance misuse, and self-harm, as well as low self-esteem, loneliness, stress, peer problems, and decreased life satisfaction (Kwan et al., 2020).
Research has further indicated the harmful effects of cyberbullying on academic achievement (Myers & Cowie, 2019).
In young people, the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased substantially over the past few decades (Polanczyk, Salum, Sugaya, Caye, & Rohde, 2015). Alarmingly, suicide is also on the rise (Bould, Mars, Moran, Biddle, & Gunnell, 2019), which has brought about questions surrounding the influence of technology on young people’s wellbeing.
Indeed, social media’s impact on adolescent mental health has received considerable media attention due to the tragic suicides of Molly Russell and Jessica Scatterson after extensive social media use.
From neuroscientific research, we know that the prefrontal cortex, an important region for emotion regulation, isn’t fully developed until early adulthood (Ladouceur, Peper, Crone, & Dahl, 2012). Therefore, children and adolescents may be more vulnerable to some of the harmful content they may be exposed to on social media.
It follows that it is crucial to continue understanding the potentially damaging mental health implications of new technologies in the digital era.
Effects on Body Image and Self-Esteem: 4 Studies
Self-esteem refers to a “favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the self” (Rosenberg, 1965).
It is not surprising that social media, which can promote social comparison or self-evaluation (Haferkamp & Krämer, 2011), has been shown to impact how we feel about ourselves.
Many studies, in both adult and adolescent populations, have found an association between social media usage and lower self-esteem (Woods & Scott, 2016; Saiphoo, Halevi, & Vahedi, 2020).
This may be due to an increased tendency toward upward social comparisons (when people compare themselves to someone they perceive to be superior; Wheeler, 1966), which naturally tends to induce more negative feelings (Buunk & Gibbons, 2006).
However, these days, just like the magazines, the content that we share about ourselves is carefully curated and frequently represents a ‘highlight reel’ of our best bits. Moreover, images are often heavily manipulated with filters and editing. This gives people a false sense of social comparison, leading people to feel inadequate or to evaluate themselves poorly (Wang, Wang, Gaskin, & Hawk, 2017).
Consequently, this effect is particularly noteworthy in assessing the relationship between social media and body image perceptions. Exposing individuals to unrealistic beauty standards may have negative consequences for how we feel about our appearance.
Indeed, in a systematic review by Holland & Tiggemann (2016), it was found that social networking is positively related to body image concerns and disordered eating. Effects were significantly heightened for individuals who took part in image-based activities such as posting pictures of themselves or scrolling through Instagram.
A note on perfectionism
The visual culture brought about the likes of Instagram and Facebook has many of us projecting what appears to be the perfect lifestyle. This, in effect, may make us feel inadequate, as we compare ourselves to figures who continuously seem to be more successful than us in some way.
Continually reaching for this, quite frankly, unattainable perfectionism has shown to have adverse consequences on our mental health (Flett & Hewitt, 2014). Concerning its negative influence on adolescents, this is explained exceptionally well in the below TED Talk by Dr. Thomas Curran:
The Other Side of the Coin: 4 Positive Effects
Social media is not all bad. If used correctly, it can have many rewarding benefits.
One of the biggest pros of social media is that it encourages prosocial behavior. It enables us to connect with like-minded people, even if they are not in our immediate families or communities. This can be particularly important for ethnic or sexual minority youth, who may often experience feared stigma and loneliness (Larson, Wilson, Brown, Furstenberg, & Verma, 2002; Hogan & Strasburger, 2018).
Similarly, self-disclosure may be less threatening via online communication, making early intervention easier for troubled youth (Shapiro & Margolin, 2014).
Social media sites may also provide a platform for educational information on mental wellbeing, which may further reduce the stigma so often attached to psychological disorders or treatments. It additionally provides a potential platform for eHealth interventions for mental disorders (Ridout & Campbell, 2018).
Relatedly, some research shows that routine social media usage has been positively associated with social wellbeing, positive mental health, and self-rated health (Bekalu, McCloud, & Viswanath, 2019).
In turn, the authors of the study found an intense emotional connection to social media, apparent by behaviors such as checking apps excessively and feeling disconnected from friends when not logged on, which is associated with adverse outcomes.
6 Ways to Improve Your Relationship With Social Media
Whether you feel like your relationship with social media is negative or positive, there’s always room to improve.
Here are some suggestions to help you maintain a healthy dynamic with your social world online:
1. Be mindful of how you feel
Try to be aware of how social media is making you feel. It may affect us at some times more than others, depending on what else we have going on in our lives. Social media can often get us down when we start to compare our lives to others or experience FOMO (fear of missing out).
Remember, social media is not the full picture. Don’t compare your own life to someone else’s highlight reel.
2. Be selective
Remember that if certain friends, influencers, work colleagues, or organizations are upsetting you with their social media content, it’s okay to unfollow them.
Your priority, first and foremost, is to protect your mental wellbeing. Please don’t allow yourself to be force-fed their emotional abuse, manipulation, and tirades.
3. Keep it out of the bedroom
Think about limiting social media use in the 30 minutes before bedtime. If you absolutely must use social media before bed, try to avoid activities requiring high engagement levels.
For example, scrolling through pictures is likely to be less stimulating than debating recent political affairs.
4. Monitor usage
Handily, social media platforms such as Instagram now give users insights into how long they spend on the platform each day. Keep an eye on this. If you find that this figure is excessive, consider ways you might minimize your usage.
5. Time limits
Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube now include a feature that enables you to set a time limit for usage. If you feel that you are spending too much unproductive time on social media, it may be a good idea to use this feature.
6. Take breaks
At least once a week, try to refrain from using social media. Jot this down in your calendar.
During the time you would have typically spent on social media, schedule in a different activity, away from your phone. This may be reading a book, going for a long walk, or calling (not texting) a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while.
Helpful Apps and Tools
If you find yourself struggling with your mental health because of social media, it may be an idea to try some different apps for a while instead:
Mental health apps
Headspace is an app that teaches the user mindfulness and meditation skills designed to tackle common mental health problems such as stress and anxiety.
Similarly, Calm is a popular meditation app for sleep and relaxation.
Apps for teens
In the same way, Think Ninja is an app that helps 10–18 year-olds develop the skills they need to cope with daily stressors and low mood.
Tools for parents
It can be worrying when children start using social media. Wing is an app for parents that uses psychology and artificial intelligence to detect human emotion and digital threats such as cyberbullying.
Rather than encourage ‘parental spying,’ Wing only alerts parents when there’s a serious threat to the child’s wellbeing. Wing also offers positive parenting resources and advice on keeping children safe online and encouraging mental wellness from a young age.
A Note on Its Impact on Society
The internet and social media have changed the way we live and interact with others in profound ways. Through digital media, we now build friendships, apply for jobs, and sometimes find romantic love.
Like its impact on mental health, social media has influenced society in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, it allows us to share informative and interesting articles, and it gives businesses a new way to engage with their customers.
On the other hand, there is an opportunity for the rapid spread of misinformation, which may be detrimental to our wellbeing, especially in regards to health-related content.
As we move forward, and in light of its continuing popularity, it will be increasingly important to identify and address the potential damage that social media has on society at large.
Useful PositivePsychology.com Resources
When social media becomes overwhelming, there are numerous techniques on our site to help lessen its impact:
- These self-esteem worksheets for adults and teens may help boost self-esteem through various activities. It’s important to remind yourself that feeling good about yourself should be based on all the wonderful things you do in life, not the number of likes you receive on an Instagram post.
- Cultivate mindfulness with a little help from this introductory article outlining how to get started. Regularly practicing mindful thinking may help you apply this technique to your relationship with social media, helping you become more aware of its impact on your wellbeing.
- Get better sleep with useful resources, including techniques and audio recordings, to help you get a good night’s rest.
- Grow gratitude by completing a gratitude journal. When comparing ourselves to others on social media, it’s easy to forget about all the things we have in our lives for which to be grateful.
- Invest in your relationships with a little help from this exercise. Research has shown a direct link between investment in positive social relationships and wellbeing. Sometimes it’s good to reassess the value that certain acquaintances or friends in your social network bring to your life. Make sure you are devoting the majority of your time with those who are positive and supportive.
- Manage toxic relationships – both offline and online. Negative social relationships can be a significant source of stress and unhappiness, influencing our wellbeing and quality of life. Use this exercise to identify toxic relationships in your life and identify whether you need to move away from individuals who cause you distress.
- 17 Self-Compassion Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, this collection contains 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.
A Take-Home Message
Science indicates that social media can be both negative and positive for our mental health. Like with many things, the key lies in how we use it.
Social media can be an excellent platform for enhancing wellbeing, connecting with others, and sharing interesting information. However, it can also promote more insufficient sleep and unhealthy social comparisons, which may add to feelings of anxiety or depression.
It’s a good idea to stay mindful of how social media is making you feel. If it’s becoming overwhelming, it may be an idea to take a break or limit usage.
Importantly, remember to apply critical thinking skills to the content you see online – things are not always what they seem.
If you wish to find out more, our Positive Relationships Masterclass© is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.
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