It's no secret that social media is an integral part of our daily lives. It has become even more popular over the last decade, with online social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter enabling us to stay connected 24/7 to people across the globe.
According to Data Reportal¹, there are 4.48 billion social media users globally, which equates to almost 57% of the total world population. The average social media user spends an average of 2.5 hours every day on social media.
While social media is beneficial in many ways, it is not without its drawbacks. More and more has come to light about the negative impact social media has on mental health². Several studies have found that social media can severely affect mood and cognition, especially among adolescents and young adults.
The pressure to keep up with social norms and what everyone else seems to be doing has caused many people to become addicted to social media and the cycle of comparison and seeking validation.
Social media constantly activates the reward centers of the brain – the same centers involved that flare up with addiction and attention-seeking behaviors. Our addiction to being online can take a toll on our social, emotional, physical, and mental health, and our overall quality of life.
Reports from the National Institute of Mental Health³ show that the lifetime occurrence of any mental disorder among adolescents is 49.5%, with 22.2% of adolescents anticipated to suffer a serious mental disorder.
Young adults between 18 and 25 years have the highest occurrence of mental illness with 25.8%, compared to 22.2% for people aged 26 to 49 years and 13.8% for adults aged over 50 years.
Research into how social media affects mental health has linked the rapid rise of social media usage to increased mental issues among teens and young adults⁴. Social media has been shown to cause harm through social comparison, peer pressure, social anxiety, and isolation cyberbullying, social addiction, sleep deprivation, mental health disorders, and self-esteem issues for users across age demographics.
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While there are benefits to using social media, it can result in psychological distress. Studies have established a strong link between heavy social media use and a heightened risk for anxiety, depression, loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts⁵.
Negative effects of social media use include:
Insecurity about your life and appearance
Even when you know images you see on social media are fake or exaggerated, they can still make you feel insecure about your own life and that you are not good enough. Most people only post positive aspects of their lives on social media, which means we only see a daily curated collection of unrealistically positive moments and this skews our perception into thinking their lives are like this all of the time.
Feeling stuck in the past
Social media use can be associated with feelings of rejection. While platforms make social interactions easier, it also makes it harder to escape negative or toxic social situations or relationships.
Fear of missing out (FOMO)
People often post updates about social gatherings, photos of what they're doing, and share information freely on social media. This can lead you to feel as if you're missing out on something exciting that someone is posting, and you can see when others participate in something that you were not invited to.
FOMO can compel you to check your phone constantly. A recent study found that young adults' social media use was associated with significant social isolation and feelings of loneliness⁶.
Social media can also increase bullying behaviors. Social media use is associated with an increased risk for bullying and social exclusion. Statistics show that 59% of teens report being bullied⁷ on social media platforms, with more other users subjected to offensive comments.
Bullies use social platforms to spread rumors, lies, or humiliating comments about other people that can cause psychological trauma. This increases the risk for poor social outcomes, loneliness, and depression.
Depression and anxiety
Social media is linked with social comparison, social isolation, social cruelty, and cyberbullying. These emotional states are associated with an increased risk for anxiety and depression.
Although social media has negative impacts on mental health, there are benefits when used in moderation. Social media enables you to:
Communicate with family and friends
Find and connect with new friends and communities that share similar ambitions
Find an outlet for self-expression and creativity
Seek or offer emotional support during challenging times
Access valuable information for learning
There are several indicators that social media may be negatively affecting your mental health, including:
Spending too much time on social media, even when with your friends
If you notice that social media has become a substitute for offline social interactions. You feel the need to constantly keep checking your social media when you are with your friends instead of being present in the moment with them.
Comparing yourself with others on social media
If social media is affecting your self-esteem and contributing to a negative body image.
If you receive constant threats or rumors and lies about yourself that affect your self-esteem. You may also worry that you lack control over what people post about you.
Being distracted at school or work
If you feel pressured to post regularly, get as many likes and comments on your posts as you can, or respond quickly to your friends' posts. Take note if social media is interfering with your performance at work or school.
Lack of time for self-reflection
If every spare moment you get, you only focus on your social media instead of on your other activities and well-being. This can cause you to “zone out”. Mindfulness, or being in the present, is associated with good mental health outcomes.
Worsening symptoms of depression or anxiety Rather than social media making you feel social, it can make you feel like your social life is not good enough. This can cause social isolation and loneliness, which fuels feelings of depression and anxiety.
If social media keeps you up at night scrolling or making it difficult for you to sleep. Being online can make your brain feel activated constantly, and the blue light emitted from digital devices disrupts your circadian rhythm. Using social media before bed often leads to an increased stress response that lowers sleep quality and duration.
Engaging in risky behavior to get more likes and engagement
If, in order to drive more traffic to your posts and gain more likes and comments, you engage in risky behavior like dangerous pranks, sharing embarrassing photos, or cyberbullying others. This can have harmful or even fatal consequences.
Parents should pay close attention to their child or teenager’s social media use and be aware of any warning signs that it is negatively affecting their mental or physical health.
According to the American Psychiatric Association⁸, 50% of mental illnesses develop by age 14, and 75% develop by age 24.
Warning signs include:
Changes in appetite and sleep behaviors
Becoming fatigued quickly
Being nervous, sweating, or trembling around other people or in crowds
Feeling restless or very anxious for no reason
Avoiding people and worrying about being judged
Irritability and difficulty calming down when worked up
Struggling with concentration
Struggling to make friends
Extreme self-consciousness – fearing embarrassment, humiliation, and rejection
Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
Losing interest in activities or hobbies that used to be fun
Having suicidal and death thoughts
Social pressures and developmental challenges are typical during childhood and adolescence. Social media can make these challenges more difficult to manage and fuel issues of low self-esteem, anxiety, bullying, and depression. It's therefore essential to talk to your children and teenagers about their social media use and mental health.
Set the tone
Start the conversation in a calm, unbiased way. Avoid emotional language and yelling when examining your child or teenager’s social media usage. Being non-judgmental fosters an open, trusting relationship that helps them to feel comfortable talking to you and being honest about their social media usage.
Ask them what platforms they use. Allow them to tell you how they use them and ask questions to understand their usage.
If you learn that they have been misusing social media platforms, remain calm. Avoid raising your voice or getting angry. Show them that you appreciate them opening up to you. Make sure they are engaged in the conversation and let them say how they feel.
Help them to socialize
Social media is a social tool, so suggest to your child or teenager how they can properly use social media. Encourage them to socialize offline with their friends, family, and classmates. Encourage them to sign up for more activities, join a team, or use social media in more positive ways.
Talk about privacy
Help them to understand that what they post online is permanent and that even if they delete it doesn’t just disappear. Teach them to enable privacy settings to ensure their information and activity are secure. Tell them why it's essential only to connect and engage people they know in real life.
If you notice negative patterns in the content your child or teenager views on social media, take action. Depending on their age, teach them about inappropriate content and cyberbullying.
Let them know how they can recognize negative online behaviors and what to do about them. You can also set limits for their time on social media if their use is significantly impacting their wellbeing.
The best way to minimize the negative impact of social media on mental health is to minimize social media use. Below are some strategies you can use to do this:
Be mindful of your social media usage habits
This means being more aware of your usage patterns. What is your pattern of social media usage? How do you use social media? How much time do you spend scrolling each day? Once you are conscious of your social media habits, you can develop proactive ways to limit your use and mitigate any adverse effects.
Make it difficult
If you are mindlessly scrolling anytime you have a spare moment, make it harder by regularly logging out of your apps or putting them in folders on your phone where they are harder to access. Sometimes, these extra steps are enough to deter you and make you realize that your use is unnecessary at the moment.
Set time limits
If you don’t feel able to monitor your usage, you can use timers, such as those on Instagram and Facebook, which monitor your use for you. They notify you when you have hit the time limit for your allocated social media use that day.
Schedule a specific time of day to log in to your accounts
Having a specific time to check your social media can help to reduce your usage and minimize the negative effects on your mental health. You could schedule 15 minutes during a break, 15 minutes during lunch, and 30 minutes after dinner.
Unfollow accounts that make you unhappy
Social media can make you compare your life with others, especially when you only see positive curated content. This can lead to you experiencing negative feelings, such as envy, anxiety, or social pressure. You can reduce the negativity by unfollowing accounts that you find uninspiring, judgmental, or make you feel bad for whatever reason.
Turn off notifications
Notifications from social media can also impact your mental health. They interrupt whatever you are doing, whether studying or socializing and distract you. Turn off notifications on your phone and/or for specific apps so you can focus on your day-to-day activities.
If you feel like your experience with social media is negatively impacting your life and you have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or loneliness, you may benefit from minimizing your social media usage as well as seeking professional help.
Talking to a mental health professional can help you build effective coping mechanisms and more effectively navigate your symptoms. They can also help you develop strategies that improve your wellbeing and help you reduce unhealthy habits.
Social media is a great tool for building and maintaining connections with others across the globe. For all of its benefits, it can also significantly negatively impact your mental health.
Social media addiction, social isolation, and loneliness are just some of the mental health issues linked to social media use.
If you are experiencing any warning signs of depression, anxiety, social media withdrawal, or other mental health issues, it is important to seek professional help.
Your doctor will determine the best course of treatment to help you to recover from the adverse effects of your social media use.
Global Social Media Stats | Data Reportal
Social Media and Mental Health (Tips for families of older kids and teens) | Common Sense Media
Mental Illness | National Institute of Mental Health
Social Media and Adolescents' and Young Adults' Mental Health | National Center for Health Research
Are You Feeling Suicidal? | Help Guide
Dealing with Loneliness and Shyness | Help Guide
Heart-Breaking Cyberbullying Statistics for 2021 | Data Prot
Warning Signs of Mental Illness | American Psychiatric Association