- In less than two decades, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have become ubiquitous.
- Despite how common social media use has become in daily life, its impact on mental well-being is not fully understood.
- Evidence suggests that social media use is not inherently positive or negative, but is instead more closely related to the individual’s relationship with it.
- However, there are a variety of mental issues associated with social media use, so understanding how it affects the human psyche is critical.
What Is the Connection Between Social Media and Mental Well-Being?
It is easy to overlook the fact that only 5 percent of adults in the United States used social media as recently as 2005. That number climbed to 69 percent by 2016, and in 2021, it leveled out at 72 percent, or roughly 3 in 4 adults. In a little over a decade, social media has gone from something that very few people used to something almost everyone uses.
As with any technological development that is adopted rapidly, we do not have a complete understanding of the problems social media can cause. However, there is no doubt that the use of intangible platforms can lead to very tangible consequences.
Take a recent and unprecedented example: the storming of the Capitol in 2021 was organized on social media, and if it were not for hundreds of people using social media platforms to call for it, the attack likely never would have happened at the scale it did—if at all.
When social media platforms have the potential to influence human behavior on a scale large enough to cause social upheaval, they certainly have the potential to harm the individual psyche. At the same time, that does not mean social media use is always negative.
Is Social Media Use Bad for Mental Health?
While there is evidence that social media use can have negative effects on mental wellness, it is unfair to say that social media use is always bad. Yes, it has the power to change human behavior, but those changes can be positive, negative, or both.
Is social media use bad for mental health? Not necessarily. Can social media use be bad for mental health? Certainly. It is vital for individuals to understand their relationship with social media to understand how it affects them and adjust their behaviors accordingly.
What Are the Positive Effects of Social Media?
A recent study found that social media use can be positive, but the two most important factors are:
- How much it is used
- How emotionally connected an individual is to the social media platforms
When people use social media as part of their everyday routine and interact with the content others share, it can positively impact social well-being, positive mental health, and even self-rated health.
However, when the individual feels emotionally connected to social media platforms (e.g., obsessive checking of notifications, feeling disconnected when others are not online, competing for likes, binge-scrolling, etc.), then social media use has a negative association with social well-being, mental health, and self-rated health.
Thus, mindful use of social media is generally beneficial as long as the individual does not become too emotionally attached to the platform itself in lieu of social connections.
Related reading: What is Internet Addiction and How is it Diagnosed?
Common Issues Associated With Social Media Use
While social media use is not inherently positive or negative, it can cause issues when used excessively or as a substitute for real emotional connections, leading to:
“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Theodore Roosevelt said long before social media came to be. Unfortunately, the mechanisms underlying social media do not work without comparison, so it should not be surprising that excessive social media use can cause people to feel less satisfied in life.
The motivation behind social media use is acceptance. Social media platforms make it easy to measure social acceptance based on the number of followers, likes, or comments. As humans, we naturally compare our lives to those of people we perceive as socially accepted. We tend to emulate them and almost always come up short, especially compared to how people present their lives online.
When someone’s sense of self-worth is derived from social media, it is only in comparison to others and cannot stand on its own. Excessive social media use, then, can be at the root of excessive lifestyle comparisons that may fuel depressive states.
Bullying behaviors have become prevalent on social media platforms, in part because people can engage in bullying with anonymity and a seeming lack of real-world consequences. People who may not bully others in real life might be tempted to do so online, and this can lead to negative outcomes. For example, students who experience cyberbullying are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who do not.
Obsession With Perception and Body Image Issues
It is important to be aware of how others perceive us, but when we become obsessed with the perception of others, we forget that what is most important is how we perceive ourselves. Social media use encourages us to look at ourselves from the outside rather than from within, and this can lead to serious issues related to self-perception and body image.
A False Sense of Reality
Social media use can amplify body image issues by luring us into a false sense of reality, one where filters can distort our notions of beauty and well-being. It is critical to remember that the way people present their lives on social media is carefully manicured. People are inclined to show only the good things—the things that make them appear worthy of social acceptance—while concealing the messier side of life.
Social media often presents only the good, so when people spend too much time on social media, their perception of reality can be warped into believing the only life worth living is one that is always “good.” In reality, an important component of emotional regulation is understanding that life has its ups and down, and life would never be good if there was never any bad.
The Allure of Instant Gratification
At the same time, many things in life are worth waiting for. Education, work, relationships, hobbies, exercise—all of these areas of life require patience if they are to amount to anything worthwhile. The value of engaging in them is not always apparent in the present moment, but that does not make them any less important or worthwhile in the long run.
Social media platforms are designed to provide a quick, immediate release of dopamine that keeps us coming back for more. As discussed above, this can lead to positive effects, but even too much of a good thing can be bad. When social media becomes the primary source of positive feelings in life, we may miss out on activities that require delayed gratification and instead choose the easier route.
How Can PCH Help?
While unhealthy social media use can lead to negative outcomes, the good news is that the solution is fairly straightforward if you or someone you care about is struggling with it: use social media platforms less frequently, and when you do use them, be mindful of the emotional impact they have.
Do you feel better after scrolling through your social media feeds? Then you probably have a healthy relationship with social media. On the other hand, if you feel worse after or find yourself scrolling to the point that you want to do little else, it might be time to examine your relationship with social media.
If you think social media use might be leading to more serious mental issues, PCH is here to help you understand potential connections. Find out if we’re right for your needs and when you’re ready, get in touch to request a confidential consultation.