How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health?

It probably comes as no surprise, but more people are spending time on social media today than ever before. As of January 2020, exactly half of the global population are active users — an increase of 9.2% since 2019. For those with access to the internet, that percentage shoots up to 84%. In the United States, internet users aged 16 to 64 spent an average of two hours and 24 minutes on social media platforms each day.

It’s no wonder, then, that researchers have become more interested in the impact of social media on Americans’ mental health. Their findings are diverse, fascinating, and in some instances, quite surprising. However, these studies confirm that social media is affecting the mental health of adolescents and adults — with both positive and negative results.

social media and mental health

Why can’t we resist?

Human beings crave social connection. From the beginning of time, we’ve gravitated to other people, gathering in towns and villages, and interacting with one another in pubs, churches, and different social settings. People depended upon one another for protection and subsistence as well as friendship. Studies have shown that traditional social networks, communities, or groups “enable individuals and communities to form and maintain social capital, which allows individuals to draw on resources such as information and social support from other network members.” 

Today, though, our family members and those in our social circles are no longer living in the same household, town, or even country. People in the United States are spending more time working and commuting, with less time for personal, face-to-face interaction. But that doesn’t mean we still don’t crave it.

The advent of the internet allowed people to conveniently interact socially with people around the world from the comfort of their desk chairs. Social networking services like AOL’s Instant Messenger and Compuserve online bulletin boards gave way to social media platforms like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn. As the technology evolved and the video and photography components on smartphones and tablets became more sophisticated, visually-driven social networking sites like Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Pinterest took hold. Now, more than ever, online social networks provide many of the same benefits of their face-to-face, offline predecessors, fulfilling our basic need for human interaction. 

This need for social connection in varying degrees is in our DNA. A lack of social interaction invites loneliness, which studies have shown can be as detrimental to our physical health as smoking or obesity. Loneliness is equally devastating to our mental health.

The Good News About Social Networking

If we follow this train of thought, shouldn’t social media be the antidote for loneliness and the key to fulfilling our basic needs for community? In some ways, yes. Strong social connections of any kind can ease symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. They can boost self-esteem and self-worth, and of course, decrease feelings of loneliness.

Social networking sites can be a good substitute for face-to-face interaction for people struggling with a social anxiety disorder or those who lack social skills. People in marginalized groups, including LGBTQ individuals or those with mental disorders, can more easily connect online with others facing the same social challenges.

Social media sites offer other benefits. They help people raise awareness of and funds for social or community causes and provide instant updates on local, regional, and worldwide news. Even U.S. Presidents communicate to Americans via tweets! There are other opportunities to learn from others, too. Social media sites like Reddit pose questions for the sole purpose of gathering public comments. Plus, platforms like LinkedIn help us find jobs and make valuable career connections. And, dating sites like Tinder and Bumble help us find companionship, and, potentially, everlasting love.

Today’s social platform feeds are often responsible for helping us find products and services we want or need via friends’ referrals, product reviews, or ads. Advertisers market to their target audiences using user data and analytics provided by the social media platforms themselves. Then they serve up Pinterest or Facebook ads for just what we’re looking for when we’re looking for it — sometimes with a discount just for us. Just think about how many purchases you have made due to social media marketing.

So is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Many psychologists and mental health experts believe the answer is yes, and the reasons are wide-ranging.

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Social Media Addiction

The same devices that make connecting with our communities on social networking sites so convenient also make social media extremely difficult to resist. Notifications and alerts with their 24/7 dinging, ringing and buzzing make it challenging to concentrate on other, more critical aspects of daily life. We’re often compelled to immediately check our smartphones and tablets for fear that we might miss out on something important. Psychologists estimate that as many as 10% of social media users in the United States actually have a behavioral addiction to social media, whether they know it or not.

Social media addictions look a lot like substance use disorders or an addiction to gambling. Initially, a person’s social media interaction creates a favorable emotional state. Some neuroscientists have likened this “high” to an injection of dopamine — a feel-good hormone our bodies produce naturally. This good feeling leads to a preoccupation with social media to the point that people experience withdrawal symptoms when they aren’t on their social media platforms. Eventually, this preoccupation creates problems at work and home, but even that conflict can’t keep the addicted person away from their social media accounts. In this way, social media addiction becomes a severe mental illness.

Social Media and Depression

Another mental illness that can be caused or exacerbated by social media usage is depression. Ironically, the same social media posts that give us dopamine-like pleasure can also cause mental and emotional pain — especially when we compare our own lives to those portrayed in our social feeds. 

2017 study in the U.K. found that among 1500 Facebook and Twitter users surveyed, 62% reported feeling inadequate, and 60% said they felt jealous when comparing themselves to others. That’s bad news because another study conducted by the University of Missouri found that if Facebook posts trigger feelings of envy for a user, continued use of the social network can lead to depression. “We found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression,” University of Missouri Professor Margaret Duffy reported. “Facebook can be a very positive resource for many people, but if it is used as a way to size up one’s accomplishments against others, it can have a negative effect.”

These days, most people understand that the images and videos their connections post on their social media platforms are carefully curated, strategically posed, and highly manipulated using social tools like filters and airbrushing. These subconscious insights, however, don’t always keep us from feeling that our friends are leading more glamorous, successful, fulfilling, or exciting lives than we are living. We may feel insecure about our abilities, dissatisfied in our relationships, and generally inadequate when we compare these social media posts to our profiles.

There’s also a greater potential for misunderstanding comments or posts on social media sites than in person. During a face-to-face interaction or conversation, we take more than a person’s words into consideration. We watch their body language, facial expressions, and reactions to our words. This communication is called social context, and without this additional information — such as with simple social media posts — we only get a piece of the message. It’s easy to misconstrue a comment, read more into it than was intended, or take it too personally — and it’s worse if we already suffer from low self-image or self-esteem.

Adolescents and young adults are especially susceptible to social media-induced depression. Studies focusing solely on teens in the United States found increased use of social media led to a higher risk for symptoms of depression as well as disordered eating and body image concerns and problems sleeping. Teens are more prone to gauge their popularity by the number of “likes” they receive, which could lead them to do uncharacteristic or negative things to gain that attention. Some teens may also become victims of cyberbullying through social media. Cyberbullying is more prevalent among teen girls and is associated with multiple mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.

Social Media and Debt

Remember those perfectly-placed social media marketing ads that are so convenient and helpful? Well, they, too, can lead to mental health issues. Companies use social media analytics to show you ads in your social media feed if you’ve shown an interest in or need for a similar product or service. If you’ve searched Google for blogs about taking care of a new baby, for example, you might see Facebook ads for diapers. 

These marketing efforts are highly effective — so much so that in 2020, marketers are expected to increase their social media spending by 20%. These company’s target audiences enjoy seeing new products, and 13% of social media users say they’d be more likely to purchase something from an ad if it included a “buy button.”

When spending gets out of control, though, it can lead to debt, and debt or financial difficulties place people at three times greater risk for depression and anxiety. Social media marketing isn’t the only driver for social media-induced debt, though. Constantly comparing ourselves to others’ social media profiles may drive some people to spend more to “keep up with the Joneses.” Somehow, they believe that having the designer purse from a celebrity’s Instagram post or the same pair of jeans a friend is wearing in a Facebook pic will make them look or feel better. Instead, this sometimes just deepens their debt and worsens their mental health problems.

Therapy Can Help 

If you think your mental health is suffering because of your addiction to or relationship with your social platforms, your first step to improving your overall well-being is to admit you need help. Mental disorders are one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S., but unfortunately, many people still believe there’s a stigma surrounding mental health services. Mental health therapy is more accepted and accessible today than ever before (though there’s always room for improvement).

No matter what mental health issues you’re facing, consider making a teletherapy appointment with a great New York City therapist. The mental health professionals at Therapy Group of NYC understand the role social media plays in our lives today, as well as the potential mental health problems social networking can cause. We’ll help you get your mind and body in a healthy place so you can get beyond normal and all the way to great.

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