In the past ten years, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn have profoundly changed the way we interact and communicate with others. Facebook alone has over a billion active users, and the number of people using it is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.
The widespread use of social media in today’s society has led to a large body of preliminary research into the impact of social networking on our mental health, a controversial subject due to the relatively recent explosion of social media usage and the challenges faced by researchers delving into this new territory.
While some studies find detrimental effects of social media on mental health, others find positive outcomes of engaging with social media. It seems that the bottom line is that those who use social media should understand the ways in which online social networks can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other mental issues and take steps to ensure their social media use and interactions are healthy.
Who Uses Social Media?
Social media use has steadily risen since it first became popular in 2005. As of January 2014, 89 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 engage with social media, as do 82 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 49.1
Sixty-five percent of older adults aged 50 to 64 use social networking, and nearly half of all adults over the age of 65 use it.
Facebook is by far the most popular social networking site, used by 71 percent of all online adults.
Social Media, Anxiety and Depression
The advent of social networks and their wild popularity among their many users have increased the time we spend in front of the computer, according to an article published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.2
This has led to reduced family interaction and a lower intensity of interpersonal communication in the wider social circle. It has also led to more feelings of depression and anxiety, especially among people who are predisposed to these feelings or who have preexisting mood or anxiety disorders.
Some of the ways in which using social media can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression include experiencing feelings of envy, joining unhealthy online communities and engaging with social media too often or for too long.
A recent study from the University of Missouri found that envy among social media users can lead to symptoms of depression.3
The researchers point out that Facebook and similar social media sites can be healthy and fun, as long as you use them for the right reasons: to keep in touch with family and friends and share your thoughts and ideas with a broader audience.
But when you begin comparing your life to other people’s experiences, resentment, frustration and dissatisfaction with your own lot can lead to feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and sadness—the classic symptoms of depression.
Unhealthy Online Social Communities
Tumblr is a popular social media site, and like other photo and blogging platforms, social networks form around particular interests, including eating disorders, depression, self-harm behaviors and other mental illnesses. Rather than a healthy supportive community, these types of networks attract young people who glamorize mental illness by posting dark poetry, beautiful and haunting photos of emaciated women, images that elicit sadness and memes that glorify self-pity, self-hatred and sometimes even suicide.
An expose published in The Atlantic explores these types of communities and discusses whether they blur the line between clinical depression and simple negative emotions.4
The article cites Dr. Stan Kutcher, an adolescent psychiatry expert who sees a disturbing trend of romanticized depression. “I see that on lots of social media. Not just Tumblr,” he says. It’s interesting to note that most of the people who haunt these networks are women and girls, who are conditioned to dwell on their negative emotions more than boys and men are.
Tumblr found the problem with these communities serious enough to warrant a preventive measure so that when someone searches “depression,” “suicide,” “hopeless” or similar tags, they’re redirected to a special message: “Everything OK? If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self-harm issues or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.”
A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical School found that the more time young adults aged 19 through 32 spend on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.5
The more time young adults aged 19 through 32 spend on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.
This large-scale study found that participants used social media an average of 61 minutes per day and checked their various social media accounts 30 times each week. More than 25 percent of the participants had high indicators of depression. Participants who checked their sites the most frequently had 2.7 times the risk of depression compared to the participants who checked least frequently.
Since the study didn’t identify cause and effect, researchers can only surmise the reasons for the increase in depression. It could be that people with depression may turn to social media to reduce feelings of sadness and isolation, or it could be that social media itself could be at the root of the depression for a number of possible reasons:
Engaging with social media with few meaningful results may lead to a lower mood.
Engaging heavily with social media could fuel internet addiction, which is associated with depression.
More time spent online offers more opportunities to be cyber-bullied or engage in other types of negative interactions that can lead to feelings of depression.
Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D, director of University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, concludes that it’s important for clinicians, when dealing with young people, to strike a balance between promoting positive use of social media while redirecting problematic use.
Social Media, Cyberbullying and Suicide
A number of high-profile cases of suicide as the result of cyberbullying have led some researchers to focus on how social media may promote or prevent suicide.
An article published in the American Journal of Public Health cites increasing evidence that social media can influence behavior related to suicide.6
One of the specific ways this may occur is through cyberbullying and cyber harassment.
According to a study of 2,000 middle school students, victims of cyberbullying were nearly two times as likely as non-victims to attempt suicide. The same study found that offenders of cyberbullying were 1.5 times as likely to attempt suicide as non-cyber bullying adolescents. Additionally, a review of survey data collected between 2004 and 2010 indicated that 20 to 40 percent of adults had a lifetime history of being bullied online.
Researchers note that although cyberbullying isn’t a sole predictor of suicide, it can foster feelings of hopelessness, isolation and instability in people who are already emotionally or psychologically ill.
Although cyberbullying isn’t a sole predictor of suicide, it can foster feelings of hopelessness, isolation and instability in people who are already emotionally or psychologically ill.
On the other hand, a number of organizations use social networking sites specifically for suicide prevention, providing links to suicide hotlines and prevention websites as well as educational and support resources that may help reduce suicides, including those associated with cyberbullying.
Social Media Addiction
Addiction is a serious illness, and many experts are cautious about throwing around the term to describe someone who over-uses the internet or social media. Addiction is characterized by compulsively engaging in a behavior, such as drug abuse or gambling, that causes problems in your life. Although the internet and social media addiction aren’t included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used to diagnose mental health conditions, experts have developed a set of criteria to use to diagnose addiction to the internet, which can be modified to indicate a social media addiction. In order to receive a positive diagnosis, all five of these criteria must be met:7
Are you preoccupied with social media even when you’re not on a social networking site, for example thinking about previous activity or anticipating engaging in social media later?
Do you need to use social media for increasing amounts of time in order to feel satisfied?
Have you tried to control your social media usage, such as cutting back or stopping, without success?
Are you restless, depressed, irritable or moody when you attempt to cut down on or stop using social media?
Have you ever stayed online for a longer period of time than you intended?
In addition to the above criteria, an addiction diagnosis requires that at least one of the following symptoms is present:
Has your social media use caused problems with your relationships, employment, education or career?
Have you lied to family members, a therapist or someone else about the extent of your social media use?
Do you use social media as a way of escaping your problems or relieving feelings of depression or anxiety?
A social media addiction may increase the risk of depression, anxiety, interpersonal problems and hostility. In fact, researchers have noted a high prevalence of mental illnesses co-occurring with Internet addiction.
Treatment for social media addiction will include intensive therapy. The general consensus among experts is that total abstinence shouldn’t be the primary goal of treatment or therapy. Rather, abstinence from problematic use and finding a healthy balance between real life and social media should be the goal.
A cognitive-behavioral approach offers treatment strategies to help individuals curb their unhealthy online behaviors while promoting healthy internet use. These include:
Disrupting your usual social media schedule and instead visiting sites on a new schedule
Engaging in scheduled real-life activities to prompt logging off
Setting time goals for social media usage
Developing a personal inventory of activities you can’t find the time to do due to social media usage and working on setting goals for spending more time doing them
Joining a self-help group for peer support and access to a variety of resources to help you curb your unhealthy online behaviors
Engaging in family therapy to help address dysfunction in the household and repair damaged relationships related to the addiction
A Brighter Side of Social Media
Social media isn’t all bad, of course. It would seem from the often-conflicting research that whether social media causes mental health problems depends in part on how you use it—what your motivations are, what you aim to get out of it, and how you interact with others—and in part on your own current state of mental health.
A study by the University of Amsterdam found that adolescents who interact positively on social media sites have higher self-esteem and form more positive relationships.8
Another study published in the journal PLOS One analyzed over 100 million anonymized status updates from 2009 to 2012 and, using powerful software, found that one negative post prompts an additional 1.29 negative posts from users’ friends, but a happy status update encourages an additional 1.75 happy updates from users’ friends.9
Lead author James Fowler states that “we have enough power in this data to show that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative.”
In addition to promoting better self-esteem and spreading positive expressions, social media can serve as a platform for promoting good physical and mental health and disseminating important information to the masses. In 2014, the National Institutes of Health awarded $11 million to various researchers exploring the potential of social media to publicize scientific information about substance abuse and addiction and develop preventive programming tailored to social media sites.10
The end goal is to improve public health outcomes related to the use of tobacco, alcohol and other psychoactive substances and to use platforms like Facebook and Twitter as powerful tools to convey information and enhance substance abuse prevention, screening and treatment.
Tips for Healthy Social Media Use
Whether or not social media affects your mood and causes problems in your life depends in part on how you use it. These tips can help you maintain a healthy presence online and keep things in perspective for a more enjoyable, productive experience.
Curb envy. Remember that positive self-presentation is one of the inherent motivations for using social media, so try not to compare your life with the lives of your friends. People are much more likely to share their vacation photos or news about a new car or house than details about their divorce or financial problems. Everyone has lows, but not everyone likes to share them on social media.
Set limits. Set a reasonable daily limit for engaging with social media, and stick with it. Decide ahead of time what you will do when you log off. Consider all of the things you feel you have no time for, such as reading a book, exercising or meeting a friend for coffee. Set a timer, and when it goes off, turn your attention to the chosen activity.
Close tabs. Keep social media tabs closed while you’re working or conducting other important business so that you’re not distracted or tempted to check-in, which may lead to a great deal of wasted time and the negative emotions that result.
Remove phone apps. If overuse of social media is a concern for you, remove the social media apps from your phone so that you’re not spending every idle moment checking in. Have things handy that you can do instead while you’re commuting to work, on your lunch break or otherwise unengaged, such as reading a book, knitting or writing in a journal.
Reduce access. Keep your phone in your drawer at work, and leave it in one place while you’re at home so it’s not constantly in your hand, tempting you to visit your sites.
Unfollow. If someone in your circle of friends posts things that you find distasteful, negative, offensive or that otherwise negatively affects your mood, unfollow them or block their posts from your feed. Likewise, if you find yourself obsessing over someone else’s life and feeling envious, block or unfollow them to remove the temptation to compare your life to theirs.
Keep things positive. Don’t give in to the temptation to post negative things, which only spreads negativity and can lead you to dwell more on the negative. Try to keep your posts positive, and remain positive in your interactions with others in your online community.
Ignore trolls. Don’t engage with trolls or people who post extremely negative things in an attempt to engage someone in an online fight. If someone posts inflammatory comments on your profile, don’t respond. Instead, delete the comment and unfollow the user.
Unplug. On occasion, spend a weekend totally unplugged. Avoid logging on to your social media site for 24 to 48 hours. If the prospect of unplugging makes you nervous or stresses you out, let your social network know you’ll be away for a couple of days. It may be difficult at first, but chances are, unplugging for a while will leave you with a higher sense of calm and well-being.
Talk to someone. If you feel your social media use is a problem but you’re not sure how to go about changing it, consider therapy. A licensed therapist can help you work through the issues that leave you craving social media. Therapy can also help you work out specific strategies for improving the quality of your online engagement.
Social Media Use by Age Group Over Time. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/data-trend/social-media/social-media-use-by-age-group/
Pantic, I. (2014, October 1). Online Social Networking and Mental Health. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), 652-657. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183915/
Hurst, N. (2015, February 3). If Facebook Causes Envy, Depression Could Follow. Retrieved from http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2015/0203-if-facebook-use-causes-envy-depression-could-follow/
Bine, A. S. (2013, October 28). Social Media is Redefining ‘Depression.’ Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/social-media-is-redefining-depression/280818/
Social Media Use Associated With Depression Among U.S. Young Adults. (2016, March 22). Retrieved from http://www.upmc.com/media/NewsReleases/2016/Pages/lin-primack-sm-depression.aspx
Luxton, D. D., June, J. D., & Fairall, J. M. (2012, May). Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective. American Journal of Public Health, 201(2) S195-S200. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3477910/
Cash, H., Cosette, D. R., Steel, A. H., & Winkler, A. (2012, November). Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8(4), 202-298. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480687/
Liebert, M. A. (2006, November). Friend Networking Sites and Their Relationship to Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social Self-Esteem. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9(5). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Patti_Valkenburg/publication/6761621_Friend_networking_sites_and_their_relationship_to_adolescents’_well-being_and_social_self-esteem/links/5422d8660cf26120b7a63756.pdf
Coviello, L., Sohn, Y., Kramer, A. D., Marlow, C., Franceschetti, M., Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (March, 2014). Detecting Emotional Contagion in Massive Social Networks. PLOS One, 9(3). Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0090315
Using Social Media to Better Understand, Prevent, and Treat Substance Abuse. (2014, October 16). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2014/10/using-social-media-to-better-understand-prevent-treat-substance-use