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In What Ways Does Social Media Affect Your Mental Health

In What Ways Does Social Media Affect Your Mental Health

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

Does Social Media Affect Your Mental Health?

Man at computer with icons showing likes, hearts, comments, etc. to show how social media can affect mental health.

Whether we care to admit it, social media has become a part of most of our lives.

According to the Pew Research Center, a large percentage of U.S. adults use online platforms or messaging apps: 73% of U.S. adults surveyed say they have used YouTube; 69% say they have used Facebook; and 37% say they have used Instagram. Between 20% and 30% also have used Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, or WhatsApp. Further, 11% have used Reddit.

With the growth of online culture, many studies have been performed to determine how social media platforms affect the emotional well-being of users.

Facebook’s Research Director David Ginsberg and Research Scientist Moira Burke present findings from their review of several academic studies about whether spending time on social media is good or bad for us. What they learned is that it is complicated: passive usage of social media, which is when you read but don’t interact with others, can leave people feeling worse than they did before going online; on the other hand, active usage, which is when you interact through sharing with others online, can bring about feelings of joy.

“Though the causes aren’t clear, researchers hypothesize that reading about others online might lead to negative social comparison — and perhaps even more so than offline, since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering,” Ginsberg and Burke write. “On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being. This ability to connect with relatives, classmates, and colleagues is what drew many of us to Facebook in the first place, and it’s no surprise that staying in touch with these friends and loved ones brings us joy and strengthens our sense of community.”

Button with GeneSight logo and text learn more about the GeneSight testThese conclusions are also found in a scientific review published in JMIR Mental Health: “The evidence suggests that SNS [social networking site] use correlates with mental illness and well-being; however, whether this effect is beneficial or detrimental depends at least partly on the quality of social factors in the SNS environment.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is: If social media is both beneficial and detrimental to our mental health, how do we learn to use it in a way that limits the negative and amplifies the positive?

Why Does Social Media Make Me Feel Bad?

The answer to that question is a complicated one – and it’s even harder for adolescents.Jaqueline Sperling, PhD, is a psychologist who works with youth who experience anxiety disorders and is one of the nation’s leaders in psychiatric care and research. In a post on the website of McLean Hospital, she said that teens, who are already a vulnerable group, are exposed to harmful interactions such as exclusion and hurtful comments in the social media environment.

“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 said, after describing a situation where a seventh-grade girl’s best friend posts pictures socializing with a new best friend.

Diverse group of people holding negative icons over their face to show how social media can affect mental health.

The McLean Hospital post states that beyond missed experiences, social media apps have filters that make it easy to distort images, by improving the subject’s physical features.

“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,” the McLean Hospital post author writes. “Adults are vulnerable too. In recent years, plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in requests from patients who want to look like their filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos.”

Despite the negative impacts of social media that Sperling talks about, most of the teens surveyed by Pew Research say that social media allows them to feel more connected to their friends.

“Teens generally believe social media helps deepen friendships and are more likely to equate their social media use with positive emotions,” according to the Pew Research article. “81% of teens say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, with 37% saying it makes them feel ‘a lot’ more connected.”

The beliefs around social media and mental health are also complex for adults. In a survey on the stress impact of technology use on adults, the Pew Research Center found that “social media users are not any more likely to feel stress than others, but there is a subgroup of social media users who are more aware of stressful events in their friends’ lives and this subgroup of social media users does feel more stress.”

Why is Social Media So Addictive?

Bank of slot machines showing the addictiveness of social media may be comparable to a slot machine.

“Using [social media] 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,” according to the McLean article.

Dr. Sperling compares the behavior of social media users to slot-machine players.

“When the outcome is unpredictable, the behavior is more likely to repeat,” said Dr. Sperling. “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 likes a picture will get, who will ‘like’ the picture, and when the picture will receive likes. The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome can keep users engaged with the sites.”

It is human nature for us to want to feel a part of something outside ourselves and that possibility is what keeps us coming back to check whether others have ‘liked’ our content. Positive feedback and the resulting dopamine hit can push us to continue the cycle of posting, checking, getting positive feedback and posting again.

Is Social Media Impacting Your Mental Health?

Not getting those “likes” or positive reinforcement from social media can affect how we think and feel. Similarly, if you see a picture from a friend getting hundreds of likes, when your posts only get a few likes, you can feel down.

Psychology Today reports that “studies found the tendency to compare oneself to others on social media – whether you see yourself in a more positive or a more negative light – is a significant risk factor for depression and anxiety. In addition, people with depression were more likely to rate themselves as being inferior to others on social media compared to those without depression.”

It goes beyond “likes,” too. If you see others getting together without you and posting about it online, you may feel left out or snubbed.

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“Social media extends what humans tend to do in everyday life anyway, such as connect with friends, look for inspiration, and seek support,” Janis Whitlock, a Cornell University research scientist who studies mental health and social media, explained to Psychology Today.

As the Facebook researchers Ginsberg and Burke noted in their article, how social media affects you depends upon the way you use it.

“For example, on social media, you can passively scroll through posts, much like watching TV, or actively interact with friends – messaging and commenting on each other’s posts,” the Facebook researchers write. “Just like in person, interacting with people you care about can be beneficial, while simply watching others from the sidelines may make you feel worse.”

How Can You Limit or Prevent Technology-Induced Depression?

Your friends, or maybe even you, have tried to quit social media “cold turkey” for any number of reasons. Perhaps social media was making them feel bad or they felt that they were spending too much time on the platforms.

One such example is Lauren Levinson, a writer who describes her journey to cut back on her social media use on the blog, Byrdie. She offers readers ten suggestions from experts about how to “detox” from social media without completely leaving the virtual world:

  1. Hand holding a smartphone with an alarm ringing showing how to set time limits on social media.“Track your habits.” Use a journal to track your normal social media habits for one week. Then, quit social media for one week and keep a journal to record how you felt when quitting. In the Byride blog post, Laurie Gerber, an expert life coach of the Handel Group, suggests to “do an experiment with nothing just to see what it brings up, to feel the addiction, to see what the triggers are, to see what you replace it with.”
  2. “Create boundaries.” Based on your now-studied social media habits, create boundaries that respond to your usage issues. It could mean removing a platform from your phone or setting limits to when you log onto your accounts (either the day of the week or time of day).
  3. “Change the way you view social.” If you think of social media as a reward – and are disciplined about how often you use it – it is more likely you will enjoy the reward. “Use it as a reward that you earn by doing the other things that make you proud,” Gerber said.
  4. “Invest in a timer.” You can track how much time you are spending on social media by setting a timer. Be purposeful with your social media time – do the activities you want to do so that you look forward to your next session.
  5. Use other “apps to limit time.” There are apps that help you limit your social media time – like Flipd.
  6. “Have a designated detox day.” Don’t use a social media app one day a week. In fact, you may want to delete it from your device – when your detox day is done, you are forced to consider whether you really want to reload it.
  7. “Put your phone away.” Keep your phone in another room when spending time with family members or doing a hobby.
  8. “Be picky about who you follow.” If you are following people whose opinions or content make you mad, you can unfollow them. That way, you can enjoy what you consume during your limited time on social media.
  9. “Have a consequence.” Make sure there is a repercussion for those times that you don’t follow the rules you’ve set to limit your time on social media. “It should be something annoying but not punitive that will remind you to stick the new idea that you thought would be good for you,” Gerber said.
  10. “The power to power down is all yours.” Taking control of your social media behavior will help you live more real life and less virtual.

Participate Without Suffering: Changing How You Use Social Media 

You do not have to completely quit social media, particularly as social media may provide mental health benefits, if managed effectively.

The key is to take the time to stop, consider, and create personal boundaries around social media that allow you to participate, benefit instead of suffer, and discover how to appreciate better your time both on and off social media.

To learn more about the impact that social media and outside sources may have on our mental health, read these blog posts:

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Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.

The GeneSight test must be ordered by and used only in consultation with a healthcare provider who can prescribe medications. As with all genetic tests, the GeneSight test results have limitations and do not constitute medical advice. The test results are designed to be just one part of a larger, complete patient assessment, which would include proper diagnosis and consideration of your medical history, other medications you may be taking, your family history, and other factors.

If you are a healthcare provider and interested in learning more about the GeneSight test, please contact us at 855.891.9415. If you are a patient, please talk with your doctor to see if the GeneSight test may be helpful.