In today’s digital age, it seems like everyone has at least one social media account. As of 2020, approximately 3.6 billion people use social media worldwide — and this number may increase to 4.4 billion by 2025. 1
Although social media hasn’t been around for a very long time, these platforms have transformed the way we communicate and interact with one another. However, social media use may have a negative impact on many people’s mental health, exacerbating feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Understanding how social media can impact our emotions is important; with this knowledge, we can develop a healthier relationship with these platforms and improve our mental health in the process. If you feel sad, lonely, frustrated, and spend an excessive amount of time on social media, it’s time to take a closer look at your online activities.
As humans, social interaction is vital to our psychological well-being. When we cannot see the people we love in person, social media gives us the tools to stay connected. While these platforms cannot fully replace face-to-face interaction, social media can provide a number of positive benefits.
Social media allows us to:
While the platforms do provide some benefits, other people report a negative experience using social media. We still do not know enough about the long-term impacts of social media use, and current trends suggest that there may be a strong connection between social media and mental health conditions.
These may include negative feelings about their life or appearance, an intense fear of missing out (FOMO), or worsened symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or self-harm. Certain online activities, such as cyberbullying, also have a severe impact on mental health.
When people post on social media, they typically share the highlights of their lives. However, when all we see on our feeds are positive experiences and achievements, we can feel worse about ourselves. 2
These highly-edited highlights of other peoples’ lives can directly impact our self-esteem, resulting in negative self-perception. We may see photographs of a popular celebrity who altered their appearance using filters, and feel bad about our appearance as a result. We might see someone we know announcing their engagement or an impressive new job, and question our own accomplishments.
While FOMO is a common phenomenon that we experience on and offline, social media can exacerbate these feelings of exclusion and envy. On sites such as Instagram or Facebook, we may see people at parties and events, hanging out with friends, or traveling to exotic locales — leading us to believe that others lead better or more fun lives.
FOMO can be very harmful to our mental health, resulting in lower self-esteem and higher anxiety levels. This fear may also compel you to check your social feeds more often, resulting in exacerbated feelings of FOMO and an intense compulsion to check each and every notification you receive.
Depression and anxiety are common mood disorders that affect millions of people across the United States. There is a correlation between time spent using social media and depression and anxiety symptoms, but it is unclear whether social media is the cause of these issues. 5
Because social media may foster feelings of FOMO, isolation, and low self-esteem, using these platforms may exacerbate symptoms in people who already have these conditions. Stepping away from social media may improve these symptoms. People who deactivated their Facebook reported fewer depression and anxiety symptoms, and saw increases in their overall happiness levels after just one month off the platform. 6
Social media can be a very unhealthy place for people struggling with suicidal ideation.
Cyberbullying and online harassment may trigger feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and instability, and when combined with pre-existing stressors, can increase a person’s risk for suicide. 7
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, you are not alone and help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak to a trained counselor.
While everyone’s relationship with social media is unique, using these platforms should not make you feel unhappy or anxious. If you log off Facebook or Instagram feeling worse about yourself than before you started scrolling, your feeds may be impacting your mental health — and you may want to reduce your screen time.
The emotions you feel immediately after scrolling through your feeds can provide insight on how social media is affecting your mental state. If you feel an overwhelming sense of sadness, frustration, jealousy, or loneliness after logging off, your social accounts may have a negative impact on your emotional well-being.
These feelings aren’t just in your head — there are direct correlations between social media use, mental health, and self-esteem. 8
Constant comparison is a hallmark sign of unhealthy social media use. These platforms almost promote comparison — when someone posts a picture of themselves, it’s easy to think about their popularity, looks, and life experiences in comparison to our own.
However, comparing yourself to other people on social media is extremely harmful to your mental health, and is more likely to make you feel depressed. 9 Social media comparison can also directly impact your body image, and may contribute to disordered eating patterns. 10
It is important for all of us to take breaks from social platforms — but if you can’t disengage yourself from your accounts or approach each experience with social media in mind, you may need to step away from the screen.
People who use social media more frequently have higher reports of depression. 11 In addition, social media addiction is a serious condition that impacts thousands of people each year, resulting in more depressive symptoms than those with healthier social media relationships. 12
If you spend every moment engaging with social media, you can see consequences in other areas of your life. You may feel distracted at school or work, or disconnected from your real-life relationships. These actions often lead to real-life harm, resulting in stunted self-growth and issues at school, work, and with the people around you.
Social media engagement triggers the reward response in our brains, leading us to crave likes, follows, shares, and comments after we post. 13 If you don’t receive the response you were expecting — or notice your engagement differs from other people you follow — you may feel worse about yourself than before you posted.
While these numbers feel meaningful on these platforms, it’s important to remember that online engagement does not equal real-life support. If you find that your self-esteem is directly tied to the number of likes you receive, you may need to step away from the screen.
Once you understand social media’s impact on your mental health, it’s time to reevaluate your relationship with these platforms. There are a few actions you can take to improve your online experiences and emotional well-being.
After re-evaluating your social media usage, add a few activities to your daily routine to foster healthier connections and improve your mental health.
While these activities can help improve your emotional experience, they cannot provide mental health care. Social media is usually not the cause of anxiety or depression — but these platforms can exacerbate these symptoms.
Visit a mental health professional to discuss your symptoms and discuss a treatment program that is right for your condition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected multiple areas of our lives, from our work and school schedules to our social calendar. Because staying safe during COVID-19 requires us to limit our in-person interactions, social media is becoming more and more important to daily life. However, the constant stream of virus-related news on these platforms can trigger even more stress and anxiety than usual.
If you are trying to balance social connections and mental health during the pandemic, integrate the following tips:
While the pandemic may worsen mental health conditions, help is still available. Many therapists are offering virtual sessions for your convenience, and if you rely on medication, you can receive pharmacy orders through the mail. Contact a mental health professional near you to discuss remote therapy availability.