The Link Between Social Media and Mental Health

The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health

The Link Between Social Media and Mental Health

The social media platform Instagram made headlines last year for suppressing s in an effort to curb the comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content. But do these efforts combat mental health issues, or are they simply applying a band-aid to a wound?

It’s a small step in the right direction, says Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, a psychologist at McLean Hospital who works with youth who experience anxiety disorders, about Instagram’s recent restriction. “Even if you remove the s, there continue to be opportunities for comparisons and feedback. People still can compare themselves to others, and people still can post comments.”

Dr. Lisa Coyne talks to us about the link between social media and mental health

Social media has a reinforcing nature. Using it activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities such as sex, food, and social interaction. The platforms are designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments.

According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults and 81% of teens in the U.S. use social media. This puts a large amount of the population at an increased risk of feeling anxious, depressed, or ill over their social media use.

But what makes users come back for more even when it can literally make them feel sick?

“When the outcome is unpredictable, the behavior is more ly to repeat,” Sperling says. “Think of a slot machine: if game players knew they never were going to get money by playing the game, then they never would play.

The idea of a potential future reward keeps the machines in use. The same goes for social media sites. One does not know how many s a picture will get, who will ‘’ the picture, and when the picture will receive s.

The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome can keep users engaged with the sites.”

To boost self-esteem and feel a sense of belonging in their social circles, people post content with the hope of receiving positive feedback. Couple that content with the structure of potential future reward, and you get a recipe for constantly checking platforms.

When reviewing others’ social activity, people tend to make comparisons such as, “Did I get as many s as someone else?,” or “Why didn’t this person my post, but this other person did?” They’re searching for validation on the internet that serves as a replacement for meaningful connection they might otherwise make in real life.

FOMO—fear of missing out—also plays a role. If everyone else is using social media sites, and if someone doesn’t join in, there’s concern that they’ll miss jokes, connections, or invitations. Missing experiences can create anxiety and depression. When people look online and see they’re excluded from an activity, it can affect thoughts and feelings, and can affect them physically.

A 2018 British study tied social media use to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance. Social media use can affect users’ physical health even more directly. Researchers know the connection between the mind and the gut can turn anxiety and depression into nausea, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors.

Are you spending too much time on your devices? Learn how to spot the signs of screen fatigue and digital burnout.

The earlier teens start using social media, the greater impact the platforms have on mental health. This is especially true for females. While teen males tend to express aggression physically, females do so relationally by excluding others and sharing hurtful comments. Social media increases the opportunity for such harmful interactions.

Sperling offers the example of a seventh grader whose best friend chooses a new best friend and posts pictures of the pair at the movies or on a weekend trip. “Twenty years ago, the girl may have been excluded from her best friend’s activities, but she may not have known about it unless she was told explicitly,” Sperling says.

In addition to providing young people with a window through which they can view missed experiences, social media puts a distorted lens on appearances and reality. , Instagram, and Snapchat increase the lihood of seeing unrealistic, filtered photos at a time when teen bodies are changing.

In the past, teens read magazines that contained altered photos of models. Now, these images are one thumb-scroll away at any given time. Apps that provide the user with airbrushing, teeth whitening, and more filters are easy to find and easier to use. It’s not only celebrities who look perfect—it’s everyone.

When there’s a filter applied to the digital world, it can be hard for teens to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which comes at a difficult time for them physically and emotionally.

“Middle school already is challenging for students with all of their developmental changes.

As they go through puberty, they’re tasked with establishing their identity at a time when the frontal lobes in their brains are not fully developed, and there is a lack of impulse control.

All of this happens while their relationships with peers become more important,” Sperling says. “It’s a very vulnerable population to have access to something where there is no stopgap before they post or press the send button. I think that’s something of which to be mindful.”

Adults are vulnerable, too. In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests from patients who want to look their filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos.

A New York Times article that ran in June 2018 features a newlywed couple who nearly separated after their honeymoon.

The reason: the wife spent more time on the trip planning and posting selfies than she spent with her husband.

Sign up now for our webinar series supporting mental health and wellness.

Sperling acknowledges social platforms have positive aspects, such as their ability to allow people to stay in touch with family and friends around the world.

She realizes the potential pitfalls of completely banning teens from sites that have become a part of life for their generation—not just as a way for them to stay on top of recent parties and conversations but often as an expected source of announcements and news.

Still, she says, the platforms have opened a “Pandora’s box” as they continue to evolve more quickly than we can research their impact.

“I think we need to take a step back and look at the role technology is playing in our society as a whole, in terms of people needing instant gratification, staying home and not interacting in the community by going to local stores or to the movie theater,” she says. “Even dating apps can decrease motivation for single adults to approach others in the community if they think they just can connect with them on an app first.”

In addition to limiting s, as Instagram has done, Sperling suggests social platforms consider decreasing mass sharing altogether. They might function more as messaging services by highlighting one-on-one communications. Regardless of how ly social media giants are to change their ways, though, individuals can take control of their own behavior.

Distract Yourself From the Distraction

People aren’t usually motivated to change their social media use by simply hearing it’s bad for them. It’s better for individuals to see what their limits are. It’s probably unrealistic for most social media users to quit completely. However, they can monitor their behavior to see how their use impacts them, and how to act as a result.

Michelle knows this all too well. When she was initially treated for anxiety, her therapist asked her if she was active on social media, and she said yes. “It turns out that a lot of my anxiety and impostor syndrome is made worse when I’m online.

” A person experiences impostor syndrome when feeling chronic self-doubt and a sense of being exposed as ‘a fraud’ in terms of success and intellect.

“Whether it’s another pretty vacation or someone’s bouquet of flowers, my mind went from ‘Why not me?’ to ‘I don’t deserve those things, and I don’t know why,’ and it made me feel awful.”

She and her therapist decided to set ground rules. “If I was to continue using social media, I had to learn what would trigger my anxiety and how using different platforms made me feel,” says Michelle. The result was her deleting Snapchat for good, and after 5 years, she still doesn’t miss it. She’s still active on several other platforms, though.

Sperling encourages people to conduct their own behavior experiments by rating their emotions on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the most intensely one could experience an emotion, before and after using social media sites at the same time each day for a week. If one notices that one feels less happy after using them, then one might consider changing how one uses social media sites, such as using them for less time and doing other activities that one enjoys instead.

Social media usage can have both benefits and detriments, so it’s important to be aware of how it affects you

A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study suggests that such self-monitoring can change one’s perception of social media.

The study’s researchers looked at 143 undergraduates randomly assigned to two groups.

The first set was asked to limit , Instagram, and Snapchat to ten minutes per platform per day, while the second was asked to continue to use their social media as usual for three weeks.

The limited group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression during those three weeks over the group that continued using social media.

Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out compared to where they were at the study’s beginning.

“I’d love to say that my use is totally healthy, but I find that I’m still comparing myself to others,” Michelle says. “Now I can recognize what’s going to help or hurt my mental well-being. My therapist and I agreed that I’d set limits on my app usage to two hours a day across all platforms. Now I know when it’s time to log off and take care of myself.”

Set a Good Example

Parents can develop a plan of how much time family members will spend on devices. Strategies these teach kids healthy media use and good sleep hygiene.

When teens start using social media, parents can ask them to turn in their phones at night with the understanding that parents can review posts and messages. This helps parents be in the know, as sometimes young people will share struggles online while parents have no idea.

Monitoring also encourages teens to remember that everything they share online is a permanent fingerprint. If they don’t want their parents to see it, then it shouldn’t be posted.

Sperling suggests that some families modify the ways they use social media. Try a “no selfie” policy or a rule that kids can post pictures of tangible objects but no photos of themselves. This way, children can share their experiences without emphasizing a focus on their appearance.

A common argument is when children say they are missing out because of restrictions placed on their phone use—that they aren’t allowed on a platform or can’t be online after a certain time.

“Parents’ frequency of electronics use can set the tone for what is permissible to their children. If you want your children to put their phones down at dinner, that will be more ly to happen if you do the same.”– Dr. Jacqueline Sperling

Sperling tells parents to remind kids that a good friend would find a way to spend time with them. She suggests other ways for kids to talk to one another to keep those feelings of FOMO away and be socially present.

“If adolescents know that they cannot use their phone after a certain time or are not allowed to access a site that their friends use, then they can ask their friends to let them know of any plans made when they see each other at school or call the house phone or one of the parent’s phones so that they can remain included.”

Of course, Sperling says, the way parents are using social media is the model for their kids. A University of Texas review of research on parents’ use of mobile devices while interacting with their children found that mobile use contributed to distracted parenting, an increase of bids for attention when the parents were distracted, and conflicts with other caregivers.

“Parents’ frequency of electronics use can set the tone for what is permissible to their children,” Sperling says. “If you want your children to put their phones down at dinner, that will be more ly to happen if you do the same.”

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The Link Between Social Media and Mental Health

Social media is a familiar part of modern life. Some examples of popular social media include , Instagram, Snapchat, , Spotify, Tumblr, WhatsApp, , , Skype, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Myspace, Nextdoor, Vine and Meetup, to name a few.

These platforms offer users the ability to create accounts or avatars (online characters of themselves) and participate in these active online communities.

While social media is not new, more people are starting to talk about the link between social media and depression.

While some social media platforms are extremely positive for members of the community, many social platforms are starting to be associated with rising mental health conditions including depression. 

Recent research on depression and social media suggests that adolescents and teenagers, who generally use social media more than the population at large, are particularly vulnerable to developing mental health conditions. 

The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health

What are the impacts of social media use on mental health? According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, adults most often use (73%) and (68%). Additionally, over 60% of adults visit (74%), Snapchat (63%) and Instagram (60%)  at least once per day. These statistics are staggering and suggest that the time spent on social media websites in the United States is tremendous. 

Unfortunately, spending so much time on social media (or even a little time, depending on the content) can have extremely negative effects on mental health.

Overusing social media has been associated with various mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and even sleep deprivation.

Research on the impacts of social media on the brain has led to some scientific insights on these mental health conditions. 


In recent years, more published studies have established a direct link between social media use and depression. Depression can be caused by many factors, including excessive use of social media. It is ly that depression can also lead to increased social media use as well. Some tell-tale signs that an individual may be experiencing social media depression  include: 

  • No longer seeking pleasure in activities an individual used to enjoy, and instead deferring to social media
  • Increased sleep disturbances including lethargy from staying up too late on social websites 
  • Feeling decreased self-esteem after going on social media
  • Having trouble concentrating or performing everyday tasks
  • Using social media to escape an individual’s reality


depression, several studies have linked anxiety to social media use. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), social media anxiety disorder is a recognized mental health condition.

This disorder is characterized by severe anxiety caused by not being able to check or have access to one’s social media accounts.

Some symptoms of social media anxiety disorder are very similar to addiction and include:

  • Increasing social media use has a negative impact on relationships with others
  • Dishonesty about how much time an individual spends on social media accounts
  • Withdrawing from loved ones in order to spend more time on social media
  • Not being able to stop using social media despite the strong desire to do so
  • Poor performance in work or school as a result of too much social media use
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms after an individual loses access or cannot check their social media accounts
  • Spending an excessive amount of time on social media accounts per day (6 or more hours)
  • Only feeling validated when your social media accounts have been updated

Perceived Isolation

Does social media create isolation? A 2016 study showed that adults who spend more than two hours per day on social media platforms were twice as ly to feel socially isolated than their counterparts who spent half an hour or less online per day. 

In a 2017 study on social media use, individuals also reported feeling more socially isolated despite being virtually connected. Individuals who visited social media sites nearly 60 times per week or more, were three times more ly to feel socially isolated than their counterparts who visited these websites less than nine times per week. 

However, current research has not determined causation. We don’t yet know if social media directly creates isolation, or if feeling isolated causes an individual to increasingly use social media. One thing is clear, that using social media in excess can make individuals feel lonely. 

Negative Self-Esteem

Social media and self-esteem is another hot topic in social media research. In a study conducted in 2018, there was a negative association between self-esteem and more time spent on for males, but not for females. The researchers also found that females with lower self-esteem tended to spend more time on comparing themselves to their peers. 

These results indicate the complexities and many variables associated with social media research and determining if social media has an effect on self-esteem. 

Sleep Deprivation

An association between social media use and sleep disturbances was found in a 2016 study of adults in the United States.

In young adults ages 19-32, there was a strong correlation between 60 minutes of social media use per day and medium to high levels of sleep disturbances. Again, this study did not address causation — e.g.

whether social media use affects sleep directly or whether sleep disturbances lead to greater amounts of time spent on social media outlets. 

Social Media and Depression Studies

Linking social media and depression has been an evolution. In a study conducted in 2013, college-aged students were asked about their use and depression. The majority of study participants were female (58%) and Caucasian American (91%). This study concluded that there was no direct link between social media use and moderate or severe (clinical depression). 

In a 2016 study, over 1,700 adults were surveyed about their social media use and depression. A majority of the study participants were Caucasian Americans (57.5%) and half were women (50.3%).

When accounting for all other variables, a correlation was found between the amount of time spent on social media and increased odds of developing depression.

Thus, from this study, it would appear that social media can cause depression in adults.

Finally, a more recent study conducted in 2018 looked at college-aged students from the University of Pennsylvania. In this study, a direct link was found for the first time between increased social media use and depression/loneliness.

The researchers used a different approach to come to these conclusions by using a control group versus a group of students that were forced to limit their time on social media to less than a half hour per day.

The study found that the individuals who spent less time using social media were less lonely and depressed compared to their counterparts who spent more time on social media. 

Thus, depending on the study, the methods of questioning used by researchers and the characteristics of study participants (age, sex, ethnicity, etc.), there may be different results. This is not to say that one study is more or less true over another. As social media use continues to grow and evolve, even more definitive research will ly be conducted. 

Social Media and Teenage Mental Health

In a recent survey, the most common social media platforms used by teenagers include (85%), Instagram (72%) and Snapchat (69%), compared to their adult counterparts who mostly use and . 

Other striking statistics about teen social media use include that:

  • 95% of teenagers have access to a smartphone
  • 41% of teens report constantly being online or on a social media platform
  • About one-third of surveyed teens think that social media has a positive impact on their lives
  • 45% of surveyed teens think social media has neither a positive nor negative impact
  • Nearly one-quarter of surveyed teens think that social media has a negative impact on their lives

In most of the studies involving social media use and adolescent depression, similar patterns emerge as in studies involving adults. Just as adults can experience depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and loneliness from overuse of social media, adolescents can experience the same conditions as well

Risk of Cyberbullying

One frightening reality of teen social media use is the risk of cyberbullying on social media. Both adults and adolescents can be affected by cyberbullying. Adolescents that find that social media has a negative impact on their lives report the following reasons:

  • Cyberbullying and rumors (27% of surveyed teenagers)
  • Decreased person-to-person interactions and meaningful relationships (17%)
  • Provides a “fake” or unrealistic view of other people’s lives (15%)
  • Causes distracting and addictive behavioral patterns (14%)
  • Leads to peer pressure (12%) 
  • Leads to the development of mental health problems (4%)
  • Causes unnecessary drama (3%)

How to Minimize the Negative Effects of Social Media

Parents, adolescents, teenagers and other adults all have choices when it comes to how social media impacts their lives. Simple behavioral changes, creation of new habits and various other factors can help individuals decrease the negative effects of social media use.

While it may not be easy at first, studies have shown sound evidence that spending less time on social media improves relationships with others, lessens depression/loneliness and helps people become more in tune with themselves and their environment, rather than in a virtual world. 

Tips for Parents

For parents and others who care for children and adolescents, there are mental health tips and information to keep them safe, happy and healthy. Some tips on mental health include:

  • Share available research: Share research and information you find with your children so they can understand that using social media has both positive and negative effects
  • Create healthy boundaries around social media use: Fair, safe and reasonable social media boundaries should be well-established between parents and their children well before an account is created
  • Turn off notifications: Since most adolescents have access to smartphones and the internet, it can be advantageous to disable both social media and push notifications on everyone’s phones
  • Talk openly about mental health: Parents should focus on creating an open and honest environment in order to break the stigma of mental health. A child should never feel afraid to discuss their mistakes and their mental health with their parents
  • Be available to listen: Make yourself available for discussion as much as possible and establish yourself as an outlet or someone who listens without judgment or punishment

Feelings of depression or anxiety can lead to suicidal thinking. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Getting Help for Depression

Today, there are many resources available for getting help with depression, as well as many effective treatments options including:

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and depression from social media overuse, The Recovery Village can help. Contact a representative today to discuss treatment options for depression and co-occurring addiction.

  • Sources

    Anderson, Monica and Jiang, Jing Jing. “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018.” Pew Research Center, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Bergagna, Elisa and Tartaglia, Stefano. “Self-Esteem, Social Comparison, and Use.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, November 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Fader, Sarah. “Social Media Obsession and Anxiety.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, November 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Hobson, Katherine. “Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why.” National Public Radio, March 6, 2017. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Hunt, Melissa, Marx, Rachel, et al. “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Jelenchick, Lauren, Eickhoff, Jens and Moreno, Megan. ““ Depression?” Social Networking Site Use and Depression in Older Adolescents.” Journal of Adolescent Health, January 2013. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Levenson, Jessica, Shensa, Ariel et al. “The Association between Social Media Use and Sleep Disturbance among Young Adults.” Prev Med, April 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Lin, Liu Yi, Sidani, Jamie, et al. “ASSOCIATION BETWEEN SOCIAL MEDIA USE AND DEPRESSION AMONG U.S. YOUNG ADULTS.” Depression and Anxiety, January 19, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Mammoser, Gigen. “The FOMO Is Real: How Social Media Increases Depression and Loneliness.” Healthline, December 9, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Primack, Brian, Shensa, Ariel et al. “Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, July 2017. Accessed May 31, 2019. 

    Smith, Aaron and Anderson, Monica. “Social Media Use in 2018.” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019.


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