The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health
For better or worse, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snap Chat, and more are here to stay. For most people, scrolling through various social media platforms have become part of their daily routine. Oftentimes, these platforms serve as a primary means of maintaining relationships with people who do not live near us. Furthermore, social media platforms have become even more important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The roles of social media platforms in our society have rapidly changed since their inception. At times, it feels that we are “addicted” to social media, especially given the considerable amount of time that many people spend on these platforms. In fact, a recent study found that approximately 87% of participants spent an average of 7 hours a day on a screen (Mass General Brigham, 2023). Furthermore, the WHO identified digital burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” impacting healthy functioning in 2019 (Mass General Brigham, 2023).
Providers at Mass General Brigham (2023) note that social media platforms activate the brain's reward center, which releases dopamine and reinforces the behavior. Furthermore, these platforms are designed to be addictive and provide just enough reinforcement to keep people engaged for longer periods of time (Mass General Brigham, 2023).
While most people agree that social media can be harmful to mental health and well-being, the link is not as straightforward as it seems. Unfortunately, we often compare ourselves to other people’s social media posts. We wonder why our partners aren’t as considerate as the ones portrayed in those Facebook pictures. Additionally, we start to compare how many “likes” your posts receive compared to how many “likes” our friends’ posts receive. The use of social media often becomes a means of finding validation to replace meaningful connections that would have been made in real life without social media (Mass General Brigham, 2023).
However, social media often does not provide us with that validation or those meaningful connections. Rather, these platforms often increase the opportunities for toxic and/or harmful interactions. Additionally, regular social media use can lead to decreased sleep quality, depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance (Mass General Brigham, 2023).
Additionally, it is all too easy to fall into a pattern of spending more time on social media than we do engaging in real-life interactions (Stabler, 2021). Further, it is not uncommon to spend so much time on social media that self-care, exercise, and sleep hygiene is neglected (Stabler, 2021).
Conversely, research has found that social media may assist adolescents in strengthening bonds within existing relationships and forming new friends; ultimately reducing social isolation and loneliness (Keles, et al., 2019). Additionally, Chen and Li (2017) found that self-disclosure and communication conducted via mobile social media were positively related to social bonding and psychological well-being.
Given that research supports both positive and negative impacts of social media on one’s mental health, it is likely that terminating the use of social media altogether is not feasible. However, it is necessary to establish healthy relationships with social media to maintain one’s mental health. Fortunately, most of today’s smartphones come equipped with the ability to restrict the amount of time spent on social media platforms. Additionally, most smartphones can provide users with weekly reports regarding their screen time. I almost always recommend that my patients utilize these features to highlight exactly how much time they’re spending on their phones and limit their social media use.
Similarly, Mass General Brigham (2022) recommends taking a regular inventory of your emotions. Specifically, it can be helpful to pause and examine your emotional state both immediately prior to and after engaging with social media. If you find yourself feeling less happy, more anxious, and more upset after using social media, it is likely time to consider a change in your habits.
Providers at Mass General Brigham (2022) also recommend taking a step back from the news as this often increases anxiety and depression. Additionally, it is important to remind yourself that you do not need to respond to messages and notifications immediately. Rather, delaying your response can limit the time spent on these platforms. Furthermore, it is beneficial to work toward increasing your face-to-face interactions as these provide mental health benefits that social media cannot provide.
The relationship we hold with social media is complex and often difficult to fully understand. On one hand, social media has allowed us to maintain relationships that are difficult to maintain as a result of physical distance. Additionally, these platforms have allowed us to form relationships and gain exposure to communities that we may not have had the opportunity to gain otherwise. Conversely, research has found that social media can be extremely damaging to one’s mental health, sense of self-worth, and self-confidence. Like most things in life, it is important to establish and maintain firm, but healthy, boundaries around the use of social media platforms in order to protect your mental health.
About the Author
Dr. Montes is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.
Chen, H.-T., & Li, X. (2017). The contribution of mobile social media to social capital and psychological well-being: Examining the role of communicative use, friending and self-disclosure. Computers in Human Behavior, 75, 958–965. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.06.011
Keles, B., McCrae, N., & Graelish, A. (2020). A systematic review: The influence of social media on ... https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2019.1590851
Mass General Brigham. (2022, August 15). Power down: 5 Ways To Fight Digital burnout. Digital Burnout and Mental Health | McLean Hospital. https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/digital-burnout
Mass General Brigham. (2023, January 18). The social dilemma: Social media and your mental health. Here’s How Social Media Affects Your Mental Health | McLean Hospital. https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health
Ostic, D., Qalati, S. A., Barbosa, B., Shah, S. M. M., Galvan Vela, E., Herzallah, A. M., & Liu, F. (2021, May 25). Effects of social media use on psychological well-being: A mediated model. Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.678766/full
Stabler, C. M. (2021, September 1). The Effects of Social Media on Mental Health. Lancastergeneralhealth.org. https://www.lancastergeneralhealth.org/health-hub-home/2021/september/the-effects-of-social-media-on-mental-health