Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, logging on and catching up via social media platforms has become a way of life for many people. That’s not surprising because social media provides easy-to-access platforms that allow users to share ideas, find out about activities in their area, and connect with family and friends. It’s become such an integral part of our everyday lives that, according to Statista, more than 3.6 billion people worldwide—or 49% of the world’s population—used social media in 2020. And that number is projected to rise to nearly 4.41 billion by 2025. (16)
Yet, despite its popularity, social media can be a double-edged sword. On average, users spend nearly two and a half hours on social media sites each day. (16) A growing number of studies show that all of that time spent getting lost in Facebook feeds, Pinterest inspo, or Twitter tweets may not be good for our collective mental health. (12) And that’s particularly true when it comes to the psychological effects of social media on youth. (4)
Continue reading to learn more about social media’s effects on mental health.
Social media’s effects on mental health
It’s no secret that much of what users find on sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat doesn’t reflect reality. Instead, these sites are filled with the highlight reels from friends and family showing only the best parts of their lives. This can adversely impact a user’s self-esteem, and that can increase the risk of mental health issues, including:
Did you know? When it comes to social media and mental health statistics, studies show that girls and women are more likely to experience mental health problems than their male counterparts. (8)(10)(27)
Unpacking social media’s negative effects
Social media and anxiety
Social media has been linked to increased anxiety, particularly among people who already become anxious during face-to-face social interactions. According to one systematic review published in Computers in Human Behavior Reports, socially anxious people often turn to social media as a way to compensate for a lack of in-person relationships. Yet, this review also found that socially anxious people often don’t find the support they seek from these sites. (17)
Social media and depression
It might seem like a logical conclusion to assume that increased time spent scrolling on social media sites would boost a sense of connection to others. However, according to a study of Facebook users by the University of Houston, consistently seeing someone else’s posts heralding their career, relationship, travel, or other life highlights is directly linked to a greater risk of depression. The study also noted that more frequent logins were correlated to a higher incidence of depressive symptoms. (22)
Another study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that frequently checking social media accounts can trigger the “fear of missing out,” known commonly as “FoMO,” and spark feelings of isolation and loneliness. This may, notes the study, contribute to depression. However, according to the researchers, limiting social media to approximately 30 minutes per day appeared to improve users’ well-being. (9)
But, when it comes to depression, other studies suggest that the quantity of time spent on social media may be less important than the quality of the content consumed. (7) Findings in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture point out that negatively comparing oneself to others on Facebook (or other platforms) can lead to depressive symptoms. This study strengthens earlier findings stating that the quality of social media interactions could ignite feelings of depression and a negative focus on a user’s own problems. (6)
Social media and self-esteem
Research suggests that the more time users engage in liking or commenting on other people’s social media posts, the more likely they are to experience a drop in self-esteem. This was especially true for pre-teen and teenage girls. (11)(23) Other studies have found that, compared to boys, young girls are more likely to unfavorably compare themselves to others when it comes to appearance or body image. This, in turn, can contribute to the development of eating disorders. (15)
Did you know? The more time spent on social media, the lower the self-esteem of users, particularly if they are more passive in their engagement. (25)
Social media and sleep problems
Good quality sleep plays an integral role in maintaining good mental health. (5) Yet a growing number of studies report that social media—especially when used just before bedtime—can decrease sleep quality. (28) One study from Finland suggests that FoMO may be keeping some users up at night scrolling their feeds, and this was shown to adversely influence the quality of sleep. This was especially true among working professionals. (24) Other researchers note that social media use is linked to delayed bedtimes and poor sleep quality that can worsen mental health issues like anxiety or depression. (20)
The psychological effects of social media on youth
Kids and teens are among the most vulnerable to the negative effects of social media because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and their susceptibility to peer pressure. In addition to the mental health problems listed above, young people can also experience cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content, and sexting. (18) Not only can this worsen anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and sleep quality, it can foster a social media addiction. (30)
Of more concern, teen and pre-teen users are at an increased risk of self-injury and suicide. (1) According to one study of 467 young adults, those spending significant time on social media were more likely to engage in vaguebooking—posting unclear but alarming posts to gain attention. Vaguebooking has been found to signal loneliness, anxiety, and decreased empathy. It can also be predictive of suicidal thoughts and may be a warning sign for parents and mental health professionals. (4) Suicide “challenges” are a fairly new phenomenon putting young users at even greater risk. These challenges, such as the Blue Whale Challenge, give users a series of increasingly life-threatening tasks that must be completed before ultimately ending with the user’s suicide. (13)
Did you know? Young adults were among the earliest social media adopters and continue to use these sites at high levels. (21)
The positive effects of social media on mental health
For all its negatives, there are distinct positives to social media. These include:
- Accessing entertainment platforms
- Enhancing creativity
- Exchanging ideas
- Fostering one’s individual identity
- Increasing exposure to diverse people and experiences
- Maintaining a connection to family and friends
- Sharing pictures and experiences with others
- Staying up-to-date on local activities that can lead to in-person experiences
- Supporting those with experiences that are similar to the users (18)(19)
Managing the negative effects of social media
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are several ways to reduce the negative impact social media can have on mental health. These might include:
- Keeping your phone on airplane mode
- Leaving your smartphone in another room
- Limiting the time you spend on social media sites to specific hours each day
- Turning off notifications (2)
Parents can also talk with their kids about the benefits and potential risks of using social media while encouraging the child to practice critical thinking. The APA also suggests setting a good example by using social media responsibly while fostering strong media literacy skills in their pre-teens and teens. This has been shown to help shield kids from the negative impact surrounding self-esteem and body image issues. (2)
The bottom line
For all the benefits social media provides, studies show that its use can also increase the risk of multiple mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, and more. Children and teens may be especially vulnerable to the negative aspects of social media. While there are steps you can take to reduce some of the harmful effects of sites like Facebook, Snapchat, or TikTok, if you or your child finds that social media is causing significant harm, consider talking with your healthcare provider or a mental health practitioner.
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