Social Media and Its Toll on Mental Health

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The Covid-19 pandemic, according to the WHO, has triggered a more than 25% increase in reported depression and anxiety. 1 Even before the pandemic, however, mental health declined.

Social media may be partially to blame for an overall decline in mental health, particularly in adolescents. Social media has become increasingly popular until it has become a regular part of many people’s lives.

On average, the time spent on social media daily hovers around 147 minutes. 2 Social media is integral to many people’s lives. Unfortunately, it may also be decreasing their overall mental health.

How Does Social Media Impact Mental Health?

Studies about the impact of social media on mental health in young adults have increased substantially in recent years as data continues to grow. One recent study noted that adolescents who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media were at significantly increased risk for mental health disorders. 3

However, adolescents are not the only ones who can suffer significant negative mental health impacts due to social media use. Adults may also be at higher risk for mental health impacts when they spend excess time on social media. 4 Social media impacts mental health in several ways.

Social Media can Become Addictive

Social media is expressly designed to be addictive to its users. When users visit social media platforms, they often get a quick rush of dopamine, the “pleasure hormone.” The brain craves dopamine. Often, particularly in individuals with ADD or ADHD, that search for dopamine becomes incredibly intense, making it hard to break away from a behavior known to provide that dopamine rush. 

Social media offers a quick “hit” in several ways:

Unfortunately, as social media addiction continues, many people spend time on social media instead of engaging in other activities. They may be perpetually preoccupied, checking in on their phones even when they should be engaging with friends and family members or participating in other social interaction. Over time, social media satisfaction’s initial “hit” may decline resulting in depressive symptoms. Unfortunately, because the brain has latched onto social media as a vital source of dopamine, it may continue seeking that rush, even in the face of missing out on real-world experiences.

Comparison Can Increase Feelings of Inadequacy

Social media is usually filled with other people’s “highlight reels.” Most people do not go to social media to post about their failings. An athletic teen might post about the triumph of a competition won or a new high achievement but might not post about days of striving. 

Parents often post photos of smiling families gathered around fun activities but may not post pictures of the arguments that fill the day or the messes in a house. Often, brands and influencers clean the mess out of a specific area before taking a photo for social media. 

Other people might post photos of themselves engaged in fun activities: out for a day at the beach or the lake, a theme park, or a fun shopping excursion. 

Meanwhile, watchers may start to compare themselves to those “highlights” photos. They may feel they have yet to reach the same heights or engage in the same activities. “Am I doing enough?” soon starts to fill their minds. That comparison can quickly become unhealthy and lead to feelings of inadequacy, even though most people are comparing their everyday normal–or even their failures–to others’ highlights.

Social Media can Increase Feelings of Loneliness

Social media was designed to help encourage people to connect. It helps people keep in touch with loved ones far away and allows friends to come together worldwide. Unfortunately, in many people, it also significantly increases feelings of loneliness.

Social media users often feel psychological distress as they note friends and loved ones engaging in activities without them. In other cases, they may feel as though they’re outside of many of those activities looking in, especially if they weren’t invited to join in.

Social media may also be used more heavily by people, especially kids and teens, who already feel isolated. Unless suffering from social media addiction, users may not be on social media when they are out with friends and family. On the other hand, when they’re at home, many users are more likely to scroll on their phones or other devices for extended periods. However, limiting social media use actively decreases those feelings of loneliness and depression, according to some studies. 5

Social Media May Raise Depression and Anxiety

The more people use social media, the more they may notice depression and anxiety increasing. 6 Social media can quickly trigger feelings of depression due to the constant weight of comparison leading to mental health issues.

In many cases, people will struggle with feeling that they are not as “good as” the people in their social media feeds or the idea that they might be missing out on opportunities. That constant comparison can raise overall depression.

Furthermore, the inability to get the dopamine hit associated with scrolling social media may make it much more difficult for many people to engage in everyday activities, which may not seem, at first, to offer the same level of joy.

Cyberbullying can Impact Kids, Teens, and Adults

Cyberbullying is a serious phenomenon that has increased substantially in recent years, along with the rise in social media usage. Many teens will participate in cyberbullying due to peer pressure or the anonymity afforded by screens, which may make those comments feel less personal than they would in person. 

Unfortunately, adults may also engage in devastating cyberbullying, negatively affecting self-esteem. Cyberbullying can, in turn, lead to higher rates of depression or anxiety. 

Many teens and adults alike have a hard time removing themselves from social media even after they become aware of the damaging impacts of that content and those behaviors, due in part to fear of missing out on further social connections or the search for further dopamine.

Heavy Social Media Users May have a Higher Rate of Self-Harm

Self-harm is a serious problem for many adults and adolescents. Unfortunately, heavy social media users may have a higher rate of self-harm than those who are more mindful of their social media use. Because heavy social media use can invoke a greater overall risk of depression, it may cause a corresponding likelihood of self-harming behaviors.

What is the Fear of Missing Out?

Fear of missing out, also known as FOMO, is the feeling that others are experiencing better things or have better lives in general. The fear of missing out suggests that others engage in more fun activities or do better things. Unfortunately, social media is a potent tool that can significantly increase the fear of missing out.

News Feeds are filled with other people’s highlights. This one headed off on a fun vacation. That one took the kids on a great trip to the local amusement park. Another spent a great, relaxing afternoon at the park. 

The backgrounds in many people’s photos are carefully chosen to create the illusion of the best-case scenario. Messes are cleared away or shoved into a corner. Many people will go out of their way to cover up or edit away imperfections. Unfortunately, that can lead to feelings of inadequacy and that ongoing “fear of missing out” in others who view those seemingly perfect snapshots of their lives. 

Fear of missing out can cause depression, increased anxiety, or a scramble to “keep up” that many people can’t afford. In some cases, it can lead to overspending and other financial woes.

Millennials and the Fear of Missing Out

Millennials, in particular, note that social media can lead them to overspend: 49% note that social media have influenced them to spend money on experiences, according to the 2019 Modern Wealth Survey from Charles Schwab. 7 72% note that they have wondered how their friends can afford the expensive experiences they’ve posted about on social media. While Americans strive to save, with 59% considering themselves to be savers, those social pressures can rise astronomically, especially when many people post about spending across their social media platforms.

Those activities look compelling. They look exciting. Many people feel that engaging in those activities will help boost mental health, which may cause them to over-schedule themselves or to overspend on the things their friends have shown off on social media.

Unfortunately, while those activities may create a brief dopamine surge, many people are dissatisfied again before they know it. Before they know it, they’re back on their social media feeds, clicking through and finding more things that others seem to be doing better.

The fear of missing out is not caused by the individual’s available funds or schedule. Social media alone is responsible for a high level of that fear of missing out, which seems to decrease when people spend less time on social media.

Does Social Media Only Affect Adolescent Mental Health?

Parents often worry about how social media affects young people’s mental health. With mental health challenges increasing in children and adolescents, parents must remain aware of the potential dangers of social media and how they can support their young people as they fight those damaging addictions.

It is not, however, young people alone who find their mental health impacted by social media usage. The effects of social media have the potential to negatively impact all users. Spending too much time on social media can lead to becoming addicted to social media apps.

Around 45% of social media users between 18 and 22 and 52% between 23 and 38 report that they are “somewhat or completely” addicted to social media, according to a study from 2019. 8 Younger users may note overall lower levels of addiction. However, those younger users may also spend more time, in general, online: Users between 16 and 24 may spend as much as 3 hours per day on social media. 9

While their peers’ impressions of them may more fully shape younger users’ mental health, that does not mean that older users can avoid the social media effect on their mental health. Heavy social media use can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm in adult users just as much as it can in adolescents. Many American adults note that social media may damage overall mental health.

Damaging Fear of Missing Out as an Adult

The devastating impact of fear of missing out can be just as potent for adults as for adolescents. Adults may strive to “keep up with the Joneses” as never before, including paying more attention to others’ purchases and activities on social media. They may feel pressured into engaging in a variety of activities. 

Worse, that fear of missing out can cause some people to get lost behind the camera, so focused on taking that perfect photo for social media that they forget to enjoy the moment. Unfortunately, those activities may spark less joy and have less overall impact when focusing on social media activity instead of enjoying it.

Enhanced Feelings of Loneliness

Most adolescents naturally gather peer groups around them, which can help stave off feelings of loneliness. They have regular peer interactions at school, in sports, and during club times. However, it may be challenging for adults to get out, make friends, and connect. While social media can offer a chance for adults to come together and connect, many, especially stay-at-home parents or adults who typically work from home, may find that it needs to be a better substitute for actual peer relationships. 

Social media can throw that loneliness into sharp relief, especially as virtual connections post about getting out with others and the activities they may have enjoyed.

Higher Risk of Depression or Anxiety

Adults who engage in regular social media usage may have the same higher risk of depression and anxiety experienced by adolescents. Heavy social media usage may seem, on the surface, to offer an essential opportunity for entertainment and connection. On further examination, however, it may cause adults to suffer from a higher risk of depression and even self-harm. 

The constant comparison on social media may be more potent for some adults than adolescents, especially as they strive to build a home or take steps to build their lives. Despite knowing that social media presents a “highlights reel” for viewers’ consumption, many users have difficulty separating it in their minds. As a result, they may become discontent with their activities, housekeeping, plans, or lifestyle.

Social Media and Mental Health Recovery in California

The social media conundrum remains a serious problem for many people. Social media can impact mental health or make it challenging to recover from mental health conditions. If your overall mental health is deteriorating with social media, help may be needed. 

At Healthy Life Recovery, we offer treatment focused on helping address various mental health conditions and addictions. We can help break social media additions, develop positive coping mechanisms, and expand awareness of potentially problematic behaviors that may interfere with your mental health or overall recovery. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support you in your recovery.

Dr. Sanajai Thankachen

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen graduated from Adichunchanagiri Institute of Medicine in 2000. He completed his residency in psychiatry in 2008 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York. Dr. Thankachen is currently working with Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists in an outpatient practice, as well as working at multiple in-patient psychiatric and medical units bringing his patients the most advanced healthcare treatment in psychiatry. Dr. Thankachen sees patients with an array of disorders, including depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, anxiety, and dementia-related problems.

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Sean Leonard Bio Image

Edited for Clinical Accuracy By:

Sean Leonard, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Sean Leonard is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. He received his master’s degree in adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner from Walden University and a second postmaster specialty in psychiatry mental health nurse practitioner from Rocky Mountain University. Sean has experience working in various diverse settings, including an outpatient clinic, inpatient detox and rehab, psychiatric emergency, and dual diagnosis programs. His specialty areas include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and OCD.

More About Sean Leonard

  1. 1. World Health Organization. “Covid-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.” 2 March 2022. News release.
  2. 2. Statista. “Daily time spent on social networking by internet users worldwide from 2012 to 2022.” 2022.
  3. 3. Riehm, K. E., Feder, K. A., Tormohlen, K. N., Crum, R. M., Young, A. S., Green, K. M., Pacek, L. R., La Flair, L. N., & Mojtabai, R. (2019). Associations Between Time Spent Using Social Media and Internalizing and Externalizing Problems Among US Youth. JAMA psychiatry, 76(12), 1266–1273.
  4. 4. Karim, F., Oyewande, A. A., Abdalla, L. F., Chaudhry Ehsanullah, R., & Khan, S. (2020). Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Cureus, 12(6), e8627.
  5. 5. Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Dew, M. A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., & Primack, B. A. (2018). Social Media Use and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: A Cluster Analysis. American journal of health behavior, 42(2), 116–128.
  6. 6. Hunt, Melissa G., Marx, Rachel, Lipson, Courtney, and Young, Jordan. “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” December 2018.
  7. 7. Charles Schwab Corporation. “2019 Modern Wealth Survey.”
  8. 8. Statista. “Share of online users in the United States who report being addicted to social media as of April 2019, by age group.” 2019.
  9. 9. Georgiev, Deyan. “How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?” May 12, 2022.
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