What Effect Does Social Media Have on Our Mental Health?

From my first Bebo account to Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok; as a millennial, social media has been a major part of my life. In fact, whether we like to admit it or not, it’s a major part of most people’s lives. Most of those growing up in the 21st century haven’t known life without it. Social media is a way of meeting new people, maintaining relationships and reconnecting with people from the past. But it’s also increasingly where people find out their news, promote their business or even earn a living from.

Social media messages and notification icons

Since its inception, people have wondered what effect social media would have on our mental health with many attributing social media as a cause for the increase in mental illness among younger generations in the UK today.

But is there any evidence that social media is bad for our mental health? And if there is, what can we do about it?

Well a systematic review was published in June 20201. This reviewed the current evidence about the effect of social media on mental health to see if any conclusions could be drawn. This review only found 16 studies that fit the criteria to answer their question and of those, eight were cross-sectional studies which means that whilst they might find a correlation, they are unable to comment on any causal link. Several studies did find an association between using social media and a negative impact on mental health but the systematic review concluded that there was not enough evidence to robustly say whether or not there is a causal link nor how it might come about 2,3.

Woman checks social media whilst on train

It’s an incredibly difficult question to answer because we are attempting to oversimplify what is actually a really complex issue. There are so many different social media platforms and they are used in very different ways. Does it make a difference which platform you are using? Is it purely about time spent on social media or does it matter what you are doing on it? For example, if you are just scrolling, is that more or less harmful than if you are posting? What if you only use it to speak to friends or family? Everyone uses social media differently and at the moment, we just don't have detailed, reliable evidence to tell us whether what we are doing is harmful or not.

That being said, we can still think about the potential effects of social media on our mental health and we can each think about our own social media use and how it might be impacting our own mental health.

Firstly, there’s the time spent on social media. As a population, we are generally less active, less sociable and spending more time on our own than ever before leaving us feeling lonely and isolated. Unfortunately, this has only amplified since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. So perhaps it’s not about what we are doing but what we are not doing whilst we spend time on social media. Another important point is bullying. It has become far too commonplace and difficult to police. In the past, you could get away from your bullies, you might have felt safe in your own home, whereas now, people often feel like they can never escape it.

Young girl illuminated by staring at phone in the dark.

Others argue it is more about the way that social media leaves us feeling. We document everything on social media - where we are, who we are with, what we are doing and what we are eating. Fear of missing out (or FOMO) is heightened when you see not just what your friends are doing but what hundreds or even thousands of people are doing. Particularly for young people, social pressures may feel stronger than ever before.

And that leads me on to the next point: opinions! In the past, people worried what their neighbours might think of them. Nowadays people worry what thousands of strangers on the internet think of them. Rumours and gossip spread instantly. You can be an instant sensation or an instant failure and everyone has an opinion.

The problem with that is that we have evolved to care what people think of us. Thousands of years ago we relied on our group to keep us safe from danger. Belonging protected us. This is why we care so much about what others think. But our group used to just be our family or tribe. Now it’s thousands of people. No wonder it feels overwhelming sometimes!

Concerned man looking at his phone

What about social media addiction? Is it possible to be addicted to it?

Well, social media platforms use algorithms designed to keep us scrolling. It rewards us for behaviour it likes. For example, if you post often on Instagram, your posts show up more often on other people’s timelines and you will receive more likes. Likes make us feel popular and therefore happy. We are designed to be sociable animals therefore social interaction feels rewarding to us.

Addiction to social media isn’t a physical addiction but a behavioural one similar to those found in gaming, gambling and sex addictions. A study in 2010 looked at which areas of the brain light up for those with social media addictions found both similarities and differences compared to other types of addictions. The theory that many people subscribe to is that receiving a notification on social media releases a hormone called dopamine which stimulates the “reward system” in the brain. The behaviour is reinforced by the positive reward and we repeat the behaviour again. This is why many people find they just can't put their phone down!

Young man with phone and laptop in bed.

What’s so wrong about that you might ask? Well, firstly, many people find themselves spending much longer than they wanted to on their phone. And secondly, is the effect it has on our self-esteem and relationship with ourselves. We may come to depend on those likes in order to feel good about ourselves, and, as with most addictions, we become tolerant of the positive feeling and need more of it to get the same “buzz” we used to feel. This translates to needing to spend more and more time on social media.

Whilst we may initially feel worse when we limit our social media use, we will eventually feel better again as we adjust and stop craving that high, we used to get from notifications.

So, it can’t all be bad, what about the positive effects of social media?

Well, there certainly are some and I don’t think I need to tell anyone how vital social media has been to get us through this global pandemic. I think it has benefited the mental health of many of us to be able to stay in touch and connect with friends and family even though we couldn’t see them. It’s also a great outlet for creativity and self-expression. Personally, I find it a great way to connect with like-minded people and raise awareness about mental illness.

Professional woman looking at her phone

But, if you want to know if social media is having a negative effect on your mental health, ask yourself these questions:

 

  • How do you feel when you use it?
  • Do you spend longer than you would like to spend on social media?
  • Do you feel in control of your social media use?
  • Would you like to cut down?
  • Do you think your social media use is impacting on other aspects of your life, for example are you neglecting work, friends, studies etc. because of it?
  • How do you feel when you limit your time on social media?
  • Have others commented that you spend too long on social media?
  • Do you find yourself comparing yourself to others on social media?
  • Are you using social media to mask other problems in your life like stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness or boredom?

 

Being honest with yourself and recognising the problems that social media is causing you is the first step. Changing your behaviour is the more difficult one.

You can use the cycle below to think about what stage you might be on in terms of motivation for changing your behaviour.

Transtheoretical Model showing distinct stages of change

Five Practical Things You Can Do

You won’t be able to easily change your behaviour without motivation and commitment to change; but there are some practical things you can do to limit your social media use or make it a more positive experience.

 

  1. Setting alarms to limit scrolling time e.g. 30 minutes at a time
  2. Limiting number of times you check social media per day 
  3. Having a social media free day every week and deleting your apps
  4. Regularly check your follow list and unfollow those that make you feel bad about yourself
  5. Consider addressing any underlying causes of your social media use - this might include spending more time with friends/family or taking up a hobby for boredom, strategies for dealing with stress or seeking support for anxiety/depression

 

What I can say is that social media has become a fundamental part of everyday life and I don’t see it going away any time soon. The effect of social media on mental health is not at all straightforward or clear-cut. Until we do more research and have more evidence, we have to rely on being able to recognise the effect that social media is having on us individually by monitoring what we are doing, how we are using it and how it leaves us feeling.

 

Want to keep learning?  Find out more about the author, Dr Natalie Ashburner.


Mental Health and Wellbeing

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