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  • Is Social Media Helpful or Harmful for Mental Health?

    Excessive and unhealthy use of social media can have devastating effects on mental health, especially in adolescents. The exact ramifications of social media use on mental health depend on exactly which social medium is being used, and the individual using it.

    Social media are technologies which can take the form of apps, websites or other online services that enable communication between users. Among the most popular platforms are YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Social media has significant reach and impact, with estimates of 4.08 billion people using social media worldwide as of 2020. These outlets can be divided into several categories, from blogs, microblogs, such as Tumblr and Twitter, forums, to social network sites like Facebook, and more.

    There are a few upsides to the boom in social media usage. For starters, it allows people to build communities, and network with people for jobs. It can provide social connection to individuals who feel isolated and can facilitate communication between family and friends that may live far away. Factors like these can improve mental wellbeing.

    One of the major mental health concerns associated with social media has to do with its addictive nature. Some mental health experts hesitate to call excessive social media use an addiction, because of the wide variety of uses of social media. However, the addictive nature of most social media outlets is well established.

    Many explanations exist for why social media is so addictive. One points to human evolutionary biology, how humans evolved to be social creatures and how our brains release dopamine when we make social connections. Social media streamlines these connections, and adds a level of novelty to them, which would not have existed prior.

    Then there are the design features that make social media addictive. Many platforms such as Instagram have an “infinite scroll” feature, where no matter how far you scroll, there will automatically be more generated content to consume, even if it means showing posts multiple times on a feed. This continuous reinforcement keeps the user attached to their screen for longer amounts of time.

    On top of addiction, there are a number of other negative mental health consequences that come with using social media. For example, social media has mixed effects on self-esteem and has the potential to be devastating to self-esteem, especially for teenagers. There are questions about the causal nature of this relationship though, given that people with already low self-esteem are more likely to use social media in a damaging way.

    Many people may also experience depression due to their use of social media, especially in adolescents. One explanation for this is that social media bombards young people with images of people living more ideal lives, which can lower their self-esteem, thus leading to depression. This ties into the social defeat model for depression, which states that feeling a perceived loss of status could trigger depression.

    Another behavioral phenomenon associated with depression is known as Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO. This term was coined in 2004 to describe apprehension towards being out of the loop on social networking sites. FOMO is indicative of a psychological dependence on social media for social connections, and ties into the addictive nature of social media. An abundance of FOMO is likely to predispose someone to anxiety disorders. There also appears to be a correlation between this phenomenon and lowered self-esteem. Those who use social media are susceptible to cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, like all bullying, can have serious mental, physical, and emotional effects. Around 10% of teenagers report experiencing bullying on social media.

    It may be difficult to tell when social media use becomes unhealthy or “too much.” Screen time may not be the best indicator, because social media use may be healthy in some circumstances. When you start experiencing symptoms similar to addiction, like reliance on social media, and withdrawal symptoms from pulling away from social media, it may be time to cut down on your use. If social media is negatively affecting your mental health in any of the aforementioned ways, such as contributing to depression, anxiety, or stress, you may want to evaluate whether your use of social media is helpful or harmful. If you experience cyber-bullying, or you feel like you are missing out if you are not constantly checking social media, then you may want to consider reducing your use.

    If you have already developed an addiction to social media, stopping can be difficult. But there are ways to reduce social media use.

    Try setting a screen time limit on your phone or computer. Some devices have features like this which are built in, but you may have to use an external app. You should focus on which forms of screen time are the most damaging to your health; for example, if you notice yourself feeling more anxious after using Twitter, but appreciate connecting with family and friends on Facebook, then set heavier limits on Twitter. Turning off notifications from certain apps will also reduce your urge to check social media.

    You should also try limiting your use of your phone to certain times of the day. Maybe turn off your phone when you are eating meals, or at social events. Right before falling asleep is not the best time to check Instagram, so maybe set limits for when you normally go to bed. Using electronics right before going to sleep can also cause insomnia, which can exacerbate symptoms like depression and anxiety.

    Changing the way you use social media may be an effective method of curbing social media-related anxiety and depression. Instead of passively scrolling through feeds, you might find more fulfillment if you use social media to connect with a community, by making posts or directly communicating with people. This difference is known as “active” vs “passive” social media use and may indicate whether your online habits are healthy or harmful.

    If symptoms like anxiety and depression persist even after limiting social media use, you may benefit from seeing a psychologist or other mental health professionals.