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Here's How Social Media Might Be Hurting Your Mental Health

Scrolling through social media is linked to increased rates of anxiety and depression.

Girl using her phone, the content she is browsing is projected over her face and the wall.
Getty Images/Georgijevic

I have seven social media apps installed on my phone. While I don't use all seven every day, I'm still on social media for a fair amount of time. And I know I'm not alone. As of April 2022, 4.65 billion people worldwide are on social media, with an average daily use totaling nearly 2.5 hours

There's a reason these apps have their hooks in us. Social media is designed to be addictive. Using them releases dopamine, and you feel good as you receive likes and post updates for others to react to. However, the relationship between social media and mental health can turn sour when your self-view and validation are tied to your online profiles.

How can social media be bad for your mental health?

Most people would agree that social media can negatively affect mental health. I want to dig into why and how social media can influence how you see the world and yourself. Outside of just the obvious negativity and bullying that can run rampant on the internet. 

The exploding popularity of daily social media use is still pretty new, so we don't have research exploring the long-term effects of social media. However, numerous studies have linked it to multiple mental health issues like anxiety, depression and lower self-esteem.  

Worsen anxiety and depression symptoms 

Constant social media use can make symptoms of anxiety and depression worse and increase feelings of isolation. Studies have found that excess social media use paired with a high emotional dependency to the platforms can result in worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression. A survey by the University of Pittsburgh found that people who report using seven to 11 platforms are three times more likely to experience depression or anxiety when compared to people who use no more than two platforms. 

But the issue cuts both ways. Researchers note that some people use social media to cope with feelings of anxiety or depression. It can become a vicious cycle of scrolling through social media when you are bored or feeling anxious without realizing those behaviors may be making things worse. 

Cause feelings of inadequacy 

Social media emphasizes interaction or the likes and comments you get on your pictures and videos. It feels good when you post something and get a ton of interaction. It validates why you posted in the first place. But what happens when your pictures or videos don't get the interactions you want? When your self-validation is tied to social media, you may feel down when you don't get what you expect to receive. 

Comparing yourself to others on social media can lower your self-esteem. With filters that smooth the skin or make the water of the beach-side selfie a deep and alluring blue, it can feel impossible to live up to what others are posting on social media. Additionally, unrealistic body image expectations can lead to what experts call "body surveillance" or monitoring your body to the point you become judgemental of it, especially among adolescents.

Close up of smartphones with social media emojis
Teera Konakan/Getty

Interrupt your sleep cycle

According to a 2018 study, 70% of people reported getting on social media in bed before falling asleep and 15% spent an hour or more a night on their phones. For most people, this is common; checking your feed before you fall asleep is part of your nighttime routine. 

What if I told you that it shouldn't be? The same study found that people who check social media in bed are more likely to suffer from insomnia. Using social media while in bed can delay your bedtime and cause you to sleep less, and what you do get isn't quality sleep. 

Another piece of the puzzle is the blue light your phone emits, which interferes with your circadian rhythm. However, another factor is that social media stimulates your body and mind. It's best to set your phone aside if you want to sleep better.

Warning signs your online habits are unhealthy

Dependence on social media can sneak up on you, and so can the negative effects. Keep these warning signs in mind to help determine if you need to examine how social media influences your mental health.

  • You leave no time for self-care.
  • You spend more time on social media than you do with friends or family.
  • Your symptoms of depression or anxiety spike. 
  • You often compare yourself to others and feel jealous of what they are posting.
  • You are distracted from school or work.
  • You have trouble falling asleep.
  • You feel like you need to check social media every few hours. 

Ways to protect your mental health from social media

Social media isn't a bad thing. And you can use it in a healthy way that complements your life. Use these tips to help create a healthy balance between social media use and mental health.

  • Decrease your time on social media: According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, limiting social media use to 30 minutes can improve your well-being. If you think social media negatively impacts your mental health, be intentional about how much you're logging on. Try setting screen time limits or set a schedule that outlines when you would check social media. You don't need to go cold turkey. Be realistic about what you want from social media and what it takes to get there. 
  • Don't start or end your day with social media: It turns out that timing matters. Instead of starting or ending your day on a potentially negative note, substitute it for activities you enjoy. A 2018 study found that those who check Facebook at night were more likely to feel unhappy or depressed. 
  • Use that time for something else: Social media has a use. But if you're logging on to scroll through your downtime, it can become problematic. Think about why you're logging on. That will help you change your focus from social media to other activities -- like exercising or taking up a new hobby. 
  • Spend time with friends and family: Despite social media platforms being a place of connection, it also can lead to feelings of loneliness when you're no longer getting what you expect from the community. Social media isn't a replacement for face-to-face contact and quality time. Making time to spend time with friends and family can help combat this.
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Too long; didn't read?

Social media isn't all bad. Even after writing this, I'm still going to use it. It can be a tool to connect meaningfully and keep up with others. It can be an outlet for self-expression and creativity. Social media can be a good thing

Be intentional about how and why you use your platforms. Think about why you are scrolling when you pick up your phone and poke that all-too-familiar Instagram camera. Are you putting off things you could be doing -- like going for a walk or fulfilling obligations? Being mindful of how much and for what reasons you use social media can help you stay healthy. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.