How is social media affecting your mental health? More than you might think. The advancement of technology in today’s world has brought the world closer than ever. While many of us utilize numerous social media platforms to stay connected with people around us, excessive use can have negative consequences to our mental health.
Social media platforms are intricately designed to be entertaining, captivating users’ attention in a short period of time.
Humans are intrinsically wired to connect with other human beings. This social connection we form with others can impact the way we feel. For example, spending time with our loved ones can create an irreplaceable bond and bring us closer. Connecting with others can also alleviate feelings of loneliness, help with stress reduction, provide a support system, and improve your quality of life. Ironically, social media platforms that are designed to bring our society closer have created a social dilemma where people are feeling more isolated, anxious, and depressed.
As of 2024, there is about 313 million social media users in the United States. That number climbs to over 5 billion people around the world and is expected to approach 6 billion by 2027. The average person spends an astonishing two and half hours of their time on social media each day. To put that into perspective, if you started using social media at age 10 and continued till age 80, you’d have spent over seven years of your life on these apps.
With statistics like these, we all need to be asking about the long-term risks to our health, including our mental health. But what does the science actually tell us about the links between mental health and social media use? Here’s the latest science, and steps we should all consider taking today. (Psychology Today)
There are numerous contents on social media that are addicting to users, often getting a quick rush of dopamine. Dopamine is often described as the “pleasure hormone” in your body. Your brain will reinforce behaviors that can bring a rush of dopamine, and this explains the additive behavior we see in excessive use of social media. Especially for individuals who are diagnosed with ADHD, this addiction to social media can be extremely difficult to break away.
Social media often only portrays a person’s accolades, achievements, and embellished lifestyles. There are no social media posts of family problems, financial struggles, work stress, and mental health issues. What is portrayed on social media is not an accurate portrayal of a person’s life. Despite the unrealistic portrayal on social media, we fall in the trap of constant comparison with others. That comparison can quickly propagate feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy, and the fear of missing out.
Google “social media” and “mental health,” and you’re sure to get a lot of hits. Prominent themes in news stories include higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress especially in younger people. Yet the actual scientific research tends to be more split on the topic. So what does the research say? Let’s review some of the largest analyses looking at the links between social media use and mental health published in the last few years:
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Problematic social media use in youth is linked to higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress (2022 systematic review and meta-analysis)
Social media can create community, but when used excessively, it’s linked to depression and other mental health disorders (2022 meta-analysis of countries across the world)
Social media use correlations with worse mental health in youth are described by some studies as “small to moderate,” while others looking at the same data reported the associations as “serious, substantial or detrimental,” suggesting disagreement in interpretation of the data (2022 umbrella review of data)
Young adults with higher social media use may feel more socially isolated (observational data, 2017)
As you can probably tell, even the most comprehensive journal articles on this topic have rather conflicting messages. Yet there are some key stable themes that we can extract from all this work that can help guide us towards safer social media use for our brain health.
Our digital devices, especially our smartphones, are packed with technology and apps designed to capture our attention. Companies behind these products are largely incentivized to keep us looking at the screen, not necessarily happy.
Children and youth may be at higher risk for negative mental health outcomes from social media use than adults.
Problematic (unhealthy) social media use is emerging as a clear risk factor for worse mental health, but the definition of this term is unclear. Usually, it’s something similar to characteristics of addiction (e.g., preoccupation, compulsion, withdrawal).
Social comparison that occurs due to social media exposure may increase risk for worse mental health outcomes, and this may be more of an issue for young women.
Social media can provide meaningful connections to people who might not have access to strong in-person networks specific to their interests or needs.
What does this mean for how we might approach social media use?
With most people on Earth participating in at least one social media platform, it’s unlikely that the social media genie is headed back into the bottle anytime soon. Some have argued for large-scale restrictions on social media use for children and adolescents while others propose an outright ban. How and when a person engages with social media will always be unique to the individual, but when looking at a personal approach to use, most will benefit from asking if their use passes the test of T.I.M.E. (adapted from Brain Wash).
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Is your time spent on social media time restricted? If not, can you set a time limit that you feel comfortable dedicating to social media?
Is your social media use intentional, or are you falling prey to doom scrolling, social comparison, or the plans of the app developer that’s trying to steal your attention?
Is your social media time mindful or mindless? Do you find yourself losing large chunks of your day to scrolling? If so, consider reevaluating your use.
Does your social media use enrich your life? Does it educate you? Connect you with others? Provide an opportunity to grow your business? If it’s hard to answer yes, it’s likely that your apps are extracting more from you than you’re getting in return.(Psychology Today)
The social media dilemma remains a complicated issue for today’s society. We must be aware of dangers that come with excessive use of social media and be more conscientious about mental health issues that can result from addiction to social media. When was the last time that you were able to put down your phone and enjoy the companionship of your loved ones without feeling the pressure to post something on social media?