Mental Health and Social Media

Social media and mental health—two aspects of our everyday life with a great deal of mutual influence on one another. Our access to the world around us, to ourselves, and to our interpretation of life as a whole are all greatly shaped by social media, as is the status of our mental health. How does social media affect our well-being, and what are some of the results? Read on to find out.

Mental Health and Social Media

Social Media: A Supernova of Communication

The introduction of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, has changed the very nature of communication. This is true on a number of levels:

  • The way we communicate with each other. Most obviously, social media has completely changed the way we interact with each other. Reading and commenting on one another’s posts, self-expression across various types of media, reacting to photos and video content uploaded by individuals and brands, and taking part in group and community discussions have all been made much more accessible, thanks to social media.
  • The way we communicate with information, history, and the world at large. The information superhighway that is the internet essentially offers its users exposure to any and all types of information. Knowledge collected from the beginning of history, reactions to new discoveries, interpretations presented over websites, all of these and more are delivered to smartphones, tablets, and computers as fast as one’s online connection can provide. Social media has a pivotal role in the way we digest this information, as the back-and-forth exchange of ideas on different media platforms shapes how we approach information and decide how it might fit into or destabilize our worldview.
  • The way we communicate with ourselves. Conversing with individuals from all across the globe, learning about any subject, and then sharing and rehashing why you have learned with others—eventually, all the communication and knowledge you pick up from social media affects how you view yourself, and how you stack up to the rest of the world. Are you as good as everyone else? As successful? As desired? Where do you fall when compared to those you converse with on social media? Developing a sense of your own perceived pros and cons through social media exchanges not only sculpts how you see yourself, others, and the world at large, but also how you feel about them. Taken together, these media platform-shaped thoughts, feelings, and beliefs can eventually influence one another, bearing a substantial impact on your mental health.

The Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

Social media certainly has its benefits, and in terms of ease of access to one another and a virtually endless amount of information, it has become a constant staple in our lives. Yet it also begs the question: what are its ramifications on our lives beyond the platforms it provides? This is where the effects of social media on our mental health come in.

Research has shown that social media can activate a neurotransmitter called dopamine, the “feel-good chemical” that is secreted by the brain during pleasurable activities such as eating, sex, and social interactions. While this may provide users with (often instant) gratification, this also means that social media is essentially built to induce a sort of addictive response in its users.

In addition to its innate addictiveness, research has discovered that social media aggravates mental health disorders, particularly when it comes to anxiety and depression, with time spent on social media among the predictive risk factors for both types of mental health issues.

Specifically, studies have found a 70% increase in reporting of depressive symptoms among social media users. Symptoms of depression were also found to be significantly higher among individuals who spent most of their time on social media, particularly when focusing on “image profile management” on media platforms. Gender also seems to affect how much we use social media, with women found to become more addicted to social media than men.

The type of social media activity one tends to engage with has also been linked to mental health issues. Passive activity (such as reading other people’s posts) has been found to be more strongly connected to symptoms of depression than actively posting messages of one’s own.

Anxiety or depression may be the two central issues concerning the world of mental health,  but research has also focused on the effects of social media on other, adverse mental health experiences.

Somewhat ironically, social media exposure has been shown to increase the severity of one’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Viewing the profiles of others, and even communicating with people through social media, can sometimes grow to replace in-person interactions, cultivating instead an inclination to remain home and by themselves, rather than face the outside world and its many potential threats, as well as triggering content.

Social media has also been shown to increase one’s sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem, in large part due to an increased need for external validation that relies on positive reactions from commenters and followers to measure one’s own self-worth. Social media also encourages greater self-absorption and can thereby make it harder for more devoted users to gain a more balanced and stable life perspective. Fear of missing out (or FOMO), has also been tied to social media-related validation, as exposure to other people’s curated image of their lives, via personal profiles, can cause those following them to believe they are missing out on the most significant or exciting aspects of life.

Finally, social media has been shown to hinder impulse control, while possibly increasing the chance of suicidal thoughts and activity. Criticism by oneself and others, feeling “less than” due to unfavorable comparisons, and the sometimes-overwhelming outpour of concerning or triggering information can all contribute to social media-derived suicidality. Even more poignant, and despite regulatory crackdown measures, certain social media forums may offer “how-to” suggestions for suicide completion, making the actual attempt at suicide that much more accessible.

A Possible Balancing Effect

For all of their above-mentioned potential threats, social media also offers a form of support that is integral to its infrastructure: its own sense of community. So many more meetings between individuals, who have gone through similar experiences and can understand where you are coming from, have been made possible by the existence of social media. Validating one’s opinions and even existence, engaging in respectful discourse and broadening one’s horizons are all part of the supportive potential of social media communication, and can serve their users in an effort to build up their well-being. Such aspects, in addition to moderation, balance, and the ability to consider different and challenging new perspectives, can help social media be a source of positive reciprocity, now and moving forward.