The Link Between Social Media and Mental Health

Verywell / Catherine Song

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in social media use. According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans in the U.S. use social media.

People use social networking tools to stay in touch with family and friends, get their news, and share their political views. This has some researchers wondering about the long-term effects of social media use.

Because social media use is still relatively new, there are no long-term studies documenting its effects. But several studies indicate that social media impacts mental health in a number of ways. The increasing reliance on and use of social media puts a large number of Americans at an increased risk for feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, envious, and even ill over social media use.

Why Social Media Is Growing in Popularity

Aside from the fact that social media allows people to reconnect with family and friends that live far away or that they have lost touch with, it became a vital communication tool during the pandemic.

Social Media Supports Connections

People used social media to share information and connect with others when stay-at-home orders kept them from meeting in person. It became a vehicle for social support and connectedness that they would not otherwise have had.

Social Media Makes People Feel Good

Social media has a tendency to reinforce use. People quickly become hooked on checking their statuses for comments and likes as well as perusing other people's posts.

Using social media sometimes activates the brain's reward center by releasing dopamine, also known as the feel-good chemical. This dopamine release, in turn, keeps people coming back because they want to repeat those feel-good experiences.

Social Media Boosts Self-Esteem

Social media also can boost self-esteem, especially if a person is viewed favorably online or gets a number of likes or interactions on their content. And social media allows some people to share parts of their identity that may be challenging to communicate in person.

Social media can be particularly helpful for people with social anxiety who struggle to interact with people in person.

How Social Media Impacts Mental Health

Researchers are discovering that there are some downsides to social media, particularly with regard to mental health.

Social Media Use May Contribute to Depression

For a technology that's supposed to bring people closer together, it can have the opposite effect—especially when disagreements erupt online. Social media has been linked to depression, anxiety, and loneliness. It can make people feel isolated and alone.

One 2017 study found that young people who use social media more than two hours per day are much more likely to categorize their mental health as fair or poor compared to occasional social media users.

A large-scale study of young adults in the U.S. found that occasional users of social media are three times less likely to experience symptoms of depression than heavy users.

Social Media May Hurt Your Self-Esteem

Social media can cause you to experience feelings of inadequacy about your life and your appearance. Even if you know that the images you see online are manipulated or represent someone else's highlight reel, they can still cause feelings of insecurity, envy, and dissatisfaction.

Fear of Missing Out

Another mental health phenomenon associated with social media is what is known as FOMO, or the "fear of missing out." Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram exacerbate the fear that you're missing something or that other people are living a better life than you are.

In extreme cases, FOMO can cause you to become tethered to your phone where you are constantly checking for updates or responding to every single alert.

Social Media Can Lead to Self-Absorption

Sharing endless selfies as well as your innermost thoughts on social media can create an unhealthy self-centeredness that causes you to focus on crafting your online image rather than making memories with your friends and family members in real life.

In fact, strenuous efforts to engage in impression management or get external validation can have psychological costs, especially if the approval you're seeking is never received. Ultimately, the lack of positive feedback online can lead to self-doubt and self-hatred.

Impulse Control Issues

Excessive social media use can lead to impulse control issues, especially if you access your social networks using a smartphone. This means that you have round-the-clock access to your accounts, which not only makes it easy for you always to be connected, but can affect your concentration and focus. It can even disturb your sleep and compromise your in-person relationships.

Social Media May Be Used As an Unhealthy Coping Mechanism

Social media can become an unhealthy way of coping with uncomfortable feelings or emotions. For instance, if you turn to social media when you're feeling down, lonely, or bored, you're potentially using it as a way to distract you from unpleasant feelings.

Ultimately, social media is a poor way to self-soothe, especially because perusing social media can often make you feel worse instead of better.

Press Play For Advice on Reducing Screen Time

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares effective ways to reduce screen time.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Signs Social Media Is Impacting Your Mental Health

Because everyone is different, there is no set amount of time spent on social media that is recommended. Instead, you need to evaluate how your social media use is impacting your life, including how you feel when you don't use social media as well as how you feel after using it.

A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study suggests that self-monitoring can change one's perception of social media. According to the lead researcher, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt, PhD, using social media less than you normally do, can lead to significant decreases in loneliness and depression. By using self-monitoring and making adjustments, people can significantly improve their overall well-being.

Social Media Distracts You

If you find that your social media use is impacting your relationships or is distracting you from work or school, it may be problematic. Additionally, if scrolling through social media leaves you feeling envious, depressed, anxious, or angry, then you need to re-evaluate your use.

It could be that you need to detox from social media and spend some time offline in order to safeguard your mental health.

You Use Social Media to Avoid Negative Emotions

Social media also could be an issue if you tend to use it to fight boredom or to deal with loneliness. Although these feelings are uncomfortable and it's only natural to want to alleviate them, turning to social media for comfort or as a distraction is not a healthy way to cope with difficult feelings and emotions.

As a result, it may be time for you to reassess your social media habits. Here are some additional signs that social media may be having a negative impact on your life and your mental health:

  • Your symptoms of anxiety, depression, and loneliness are increasing.
  • You are spending more time on social media than with your real-world friends and family members.
  • You tend to compare yourself unfavorably with others on social media or you find that are your frequently jealous of others.
  • You are being trolled or cyberbullied by others online.
  • You are engaging in risky behaviors or taking outrageous photos in order to gain likes.
  • Your work obligations, family life, or school work is suffering because of the time you spend on social media.
  • You have little time for self-care activities like mindfulness, self-reflection, exercise, and sleep.

A Word From Verywell

If you're spending a significant amount of time on social media and you're beginning to notice feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, frustration, and loneliness that are impacting your life and your relationships, it may be time to re-evaluate your online habits.

If you find that even after adjusting your social media use, you're still experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, it's important to talk with your doctor so that you can be evaluated. With proper treatment, you will soon be feeling better.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. Social media fact sheet.

  2. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Social media use and mental health among students in Ontario. CAMH Population Studies eBulletin. 2018;19(2).

  3. Lin LY, Sidani JE, Shensa A, et al. Association between social media use and depression among U.S. young adults. Depress Anxiety. 2016;33(4):323-31. doi:10.1002/da.22466.

  4. Chou H-TG, Edge N. “They are happier and having better lives than i am”: The impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ livesCyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2012;15(2):117-121. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0324

  5. Hunt MG, Marx R, Lipson C, Young J. No more FOMO: limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2018;37(10):751-768. doi:10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.