As much as we all love to scroll social media, most of us don’t think of it as something that’s good for our mental health. You’ve probably heard claims about how too much social media use can negatively impact you, especially if you’re a teen or a young adult.
But what does the research actually say? Are the negative effects of social media that severe? What about in moderate amounts? And could there be any mental health benefits to using social media?
Here are some answers about the positive and the negative aspects of social media.
How is social media beneficial to mental health?
Globally, we spend an average of two and a half hours every day on social media platforms like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and X (formerly known as Twitter). In 2020, Americans spent an average of 1300 hours on social media (over the year). Since we spend so much of our time on these platforms, it’s natural to want to know how it’s affecting our mental well-being.
Generally, both researchers and mental health experts agree that spending as much time as we do on social media has been harmful for our overall mental health. However, there may be some pros to social media use that could be worth paying attention to.
One possible advantage of social media for mental health is its social aspect. Reports show at least half of social media users say they use social media platforms to keep in touch with friends and family. Without social media, we may not have the opportunity to be in such close contact with our loved ones, especially those who live far away.
We know from research that having a strong social support network is positive for mental health. People with strong social systems have a lower chance of depression, anxiety, and stress. They have lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems, and can even live longer in comparison with people who are lonely.
Although there’s no evidence to suggest people who use social media are also more likely to benefit from these advantages of connection, if you’re using social media to strengthen your relationships, then that could be an advantage to your mental health.
The problem is, research indicates, actually, the reverse is true – the more people use social media in an attempt to maintain their social connections, the more lonely they tend to be. So simply using social media certainly isn’t enough to foster social connection, and could even be more harmful than helpful for your social well-being.
Destigmatizing mental health
Another possible advantage of social media in recent years is that it has done a great deal to destigmatize mental health issues in our society. People openly share about their mental health struggles on social media – there are nearly 20 billion views of videos with the hashtag #mentalhealth on TikTok alone.
Having personal contact with someone who lives with a mental illness is one of the key catalysts to decreasing personal stigma against mental illness. Mental health stigma is associated with poorer prognosis and access to treatment, so anything that chips away at this stigma could be beneficial for our community mental health.
In addition, social media can provide a safe space for people with mental illness to share and connect, even when they don’t have access to that same safety in their physical environment.
However, it’s also important to note, research has found up to 84% of TikTok videos about mental health contain inaccurate or misleading information. In some cases, the misinformation provided was potentially damaging to people’s mental health. So although it’s positive that mental health is being destigmatized through social media, we also need to be aware of how the sharing of information on social media could harm mental health as well.
Experts also say social media could be positive for mental health in some cases because it allows for self-expression. People, especially young people, can benefit from an outlet to be authentically themselves. Social media can provide that outlet – no matter where you live, or how much of an outsider you feel like in your family or community, on social media you’re able to find others who understand you. For example, a teen who has a strong interest in anime or cosplay can find others who have the same interests.
This could be a very important advantage of social media, especially for people who are marginalized within their communities.
Delve into the world of technology addiction with Dr. Jantz as your guide. Teenagers and young adults devote up to 8 to 12 hours daily to screens, struggling to break free from the addiction. In this podcast, Dr. Jantz explores the issues surrounding excessive technology use, especially for the younger generation, and offers strategies to overcome it.
Although there can be positive aspects of social media for mental health – not to mention the benefits it has to businesses, education, and more – it’s important to look at both sides. And, unfortunately, research has found social media use is generally linked with worse mental health outcomes, particularly an increased risk for depression.
Here are some of the negative effects of social media for your mental health.
There is a large body of evidence suggesting problematic social media use is closely linked to higher rates of depression. One 2021 meta-analysis found depression was linked to time spent on social media, intensity of social media use, and problematic social media use.
And it’s not just young people – studies show social media use can also increase adults’ risk for depression.
This isn’t necessarily a causal relationship. In other words, we can’t say for certain social media use causes depression. Depression is a complex health condition that doesn’t have a singular cause. But lots of things can raise your risk for depression, and according to the research, social media use seems to be one of them.
On top of that, depression and social media can become locked in a vicious cycle. People who use social media may be more likely to be depressed, but depressed people may also be more likely to turn to social media. Each reinforces the other.
Research on how social media affects the brain has found that social media “likes” can act in the same way as certain drugs, like stimulants, in our brains. Dopamine is a brain chemical that acts on the reward circuits of the brain. When dopamine is released, we feel pleasure and motivation; some healthy activities that release dopamine include exercise and sex.
According to Harvard University, every notification we receive from social media – whether it’s a private message, a view, or a “like” – causes dopamine to release, which reinforces whatever behavior came before it (posting or scrolling through social media). This is the same thing that happens when people become addicted to drugs – the drugs release an influx of dopamine, and the behavior (drug use) is reinforced.
You want to do it again and again – whether “it” is drugs or checking social media – to get that dopamine hit. This can cause you to become addicted to using social media.
Self-esteem and body image
Social media use has also been highly linked to poor self-esteem. On social media, people tend to post the highlights of their lives. Although this is slowly changing, no one wants to share their lowest points with others. While this is understandable, it can create a situation in which – as the saying goes – we’re “comparing our insides to people’s outsides.”
We may find ourselves comparing our own lives against the picture-perfect depiction of others’ lives shared on social media.
In a similar way, social media can negatively affect body image as well – especially for teens. The abundance of filters and edited pictures across social media can set an unrealistic standard for beauty and body shape.
How to use social media in a healthy way
So is social media good or bad for your mental health? The truth is, it isn’t necessarily either. How social media will affect your mental health depends on so many factors, including your mental health history, the ways in which you use social media, and what your life is like outside of social media. Like most things in life, social media isn’t “all good” or “all bad.”
Research has shown you can protect yourself against the negative effects of social media by using it mindfully. In other words, don’t scroll mindlessly. Be conscious and intentional about what you consume and post on social media. How do you feel after using social media? What are the signs that social media is starting to affect your mental health in a negative way?
If you’d like holistic mental health support to improve the relationship you have with social media and yourself, our team at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. We offer holistic and proven treatment for a range of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. Here, you will find a safe and respectful environment where you can focus on emerging as your true and best self.
Our unique Whole Person Care approach ensures that your treatment will address the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life.
We can help you find ways to manage your social media use, feel more confident in your true self, and heal from mental health conditions like depression. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you and your family.
Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...
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