The Negative (& Positive) Effects of Social Media on Mental Health
Social media platforms’ invention and meteoric rise have revolutionized how we communicate with others and perceive the narrative of our lives. Today, social media platforms are integral to most adults’ lives, and many kids seemingly can’t function without them. Social media has many positive aspects, such as increasing social connection and decreasing loneliness, which was evident and necessary during the COVID-19 crisis. But there’s also a more sinister side to the addictive nature of the social media scroll.
Social media use has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes, and research has repeatedly tied its use to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness and found that it also may reduce self-esteem.
With social media use on the rise, and new platforms being developed every year, it is crucial to be aware of the potentially harmful effects of this technology so that we can use it more mindfully and positively. In this article, we will explore the positives of social media use, the research behind the potential adverse effects of social media, and techniques to protect yourself and others from the potentially harmful consequences of social media.
What Is Social Media?
Social media represents a suite of interactive technologies that allow users to share information, ideas, and interests through virtual communities and networks. These sites are full of primarily user-created content, meaning the platform developer sets a framework for the discussion, and users create the posts by sharing their thoughts or opinions and interacting with one another.
Some of the most popular social media platforms include:
Social media platforms have become a go-to for people accessing news, connecting with “like-minded” individuals, and communicating with friends and family. The sheer breadth of uses for social media makes its rapid rise in popularity understandable but poses many challenges when we consider limiting its use in specific populations.
Social Media’s Complex Interplay With Mental Health
People are social animals that need human interaction to thrive in life. Human beings crave companionship and require strong relationships with others to derive happiness and fulfillment. Having a reliable network of social connections can prevent anxiety, stress, depression, and loneliness and boost an individual’s sense of joy and self-esteem. People who spend excessive amounts of time isolated, for example, may experience detrimental impacts on their mental and emotional health, and this can lead to loneliness, depression, and even increased thoughts of death and suicide.
With this in mind, social media may fill our need for connection. They allow people to obtain these social interactions they so desperately seek, even if they are physically distant from others. The problem is that social media interaction, unfortunately, cannot replace the beneficial effects of face-to-face interaction with other people.
A growing body of research shows that social media use may harm a person’s mental health and increase feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, sadness, and, paradoxically, loneliness. We will further explore what these adverse effects are and why they happen.
Increased feelings of loneliness.
Social media’s original intent was to increase social connections and decrease feelings of loneliness. Studies have found that high social media usage is linked with just the opposite, increasing users’ feelings of loneliness and isolation. Some research has found that decreasing social media use to less than 30 minutes a day can help people feel less lonely and isolated and improve mental health.
Fear of missing out and increased social media use.
Social media sites tend to portray only positive highlights of a person’s life rather than encompassing daily life’s regular ups and downs. Overusing social media sites can cause people to constantly compare their lives to what they see on social media. This constant comparison can lead to a person feeling like others are having more fun or living more fulfilling and exciting lives than they are, a term referred to as fear of missing out or FOMO. FOMO can trigger insecurity, inadequacy, low self-esteem, and anxiety.
To cope with these feelings, research has demonstrated that FOMO may increase social media usage and decrease real social connection. This means the more time a person spends online, the less time they spend socializing with others. This can lead to a vicious cycle of an individual experiencing negative feelings sparked by social media usage and the person coping with those feelings by increasing their use of social media.
Increased depression and anxiety.
Depression and anxiety are common mood disorders that impact millions of adults worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of depression and anxiety in adults has risen from 36.4% in 2020 to 41.5% in 2021.
So, What Has Caused This Quite Drastic Increase in Depression and Anxiety? Is Social Media to Blame?
Research has linked increased social media use with higher rates of depression and anxiety. Interestingly, this may be due to the lack of support people receive from social media connections versus real life. People with greater reliance on social media connections for support had higher rates of depression and anxiety than those with face-to-face support networks, highlighting the importance of making and maintaining in-person relationships.
Check out our article on the undertreatment of anxiety in adults for more context on this dangerous trend. Simply put, the US medical system, and especially primary medical care, does not put enough emphasis on anxiety as it becomes an ever-greater part of the nation’s healthcare picture.
Dr. Linda Dolin, medical director at The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center says, “Anxiety and depression have become more prevalent in the United States over the past few decades. There are several reasons for this not least of which is the advent and rise of social media.” She continues, “It is startling how many adults have succumbed to the decidedly negative aspects of social media yet there is very little medical structure to help them through their consequent struggles. Of course, mental health must be treated holistically and there may be one or more other causes of their anxious or depressive feelings, but reducing social media use is an effective step in the continuum of care.”
Children and Teens’ Social Media Use
The growing minds of children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the potentially harmful effects of social media. Children’s and teens’ brains are not fully developed, and they may lack the insight, social skills, and coping mechanisms that adults have to protect them from harm. With the ever-growing use of social media among this population and increasing rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, and psychological distress, researchers have examined the link to identify a connection and hopefully reveal potential avenues to mitigate adverse impacts.
A meta-analysis of research on the links between depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in teenagers who used social media revealed some interesting findings. They found that increased time on social media may put teens at risk for many mental health concerns. They discovered that teens’ attitudes and the behaviors they engage in while using social media, such as social comparison, may have an even more significant impact on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Teens who use social media to compare themselves to others, whether through unrealistic body images or life achievements, may experience higher rates of depression and anxiety.
Are There Positive Effects?
Recent research has primarily focused on the potential negative impacts of social media on its users, but what about the positive effects?
Building Connections and Fostering Supportive Communities
Social media has the undeniable possibility of facilitating connections between people who otherwise wouldn’t meet. This provides a platform for supportive communities, allowing people to connect with family, friends, and like-minded individuals worldwide. Feeling like you belong to a group and have a community provides emotional support and may promote mental well-being. This can be particularly helpful for people who are socially isolated and have limited access to social interaction, such as those who live in rural areas or people with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Increasing Awareness and Promoting Social Change
Social media is a powerful tool that can be used to raise awareness for various causes. Whether banding together behind a friend going through a significant illness or sharing an interesting article on the war in Ukraine, social media provides a platform for people to amplify their voices and advocate for important causes. Social media hashtags and viral video trends have promoted awareness of mental health issues, amongst other causes. The ability for people to come together on a platform and mobilize in communities to impart change is undoubtedly a force for good.
Find An Outlet for Self-Expression and Creativity
Social media allows people to showcase their talents and accomplishments in art, writing, music, or acting with the click of a button. Having an easy way to share their creative passions can help promote a person’s self-esteem and find communities to develop these gifts further. Social media platforms are an excellent way for emerging artists, musicians, and content creators to gain exposure to a vast audience which may open doors for their careers.
How to Protect Yourself From Harmful Effects of Social Media
Social media should be used with caution, and there are specific techniques an individual can employ to protect themselves and promote a healthier relationship with these platforms.
- Set Boundaries and Limit Screen Time: Many studies have shown that reducing screen time also reduces social media’s adverse effects. You can limit your exposure by establishing specific times when you will engage in social media.
- Practice mindful social media use: Pay attention to your emotions and mental state when scrolling through your favorite platform. Notice how certain content makes you feel and reevaluate if engaging with this type of account benefits your mental health.
- Seek support and connection offline: Nothing can replace face-to-face connections. Prioritize spending time with the people you love in person over social media time.
- Talk to a professional. If you or a family member seem to have taken social media use a bit too far, there is nothing wrong or weak about speaking to somebody. Remember, this is your long-term mental health at stake.
Social media has impacted how we share ideas and communicate with others, but this has not been without a potential negative toll on mental health. Although there are many positives to social media platforms, such as creating a sense of community, raising awareness for important causes, and sharing creative talents, overuse can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. The crucial lesson moving forward is to use social media responsibly and mindfully to avoid potentially harmful outcomes. Teaching our children and teens to do the same can also help them remain conscious social media users through adulthood.
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