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Wellness

The Truth About How Social Media Affects Mental Health

10 Mins read

Social media affects mental health in a variety of harmful ways. This is why many people take breaks from social media, as popular social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook do offer a temporary ‘deactivate your account’ option. One of the most common reasons for temporarily deactivating or permanently deleting one’s social media accounts is for the purpose of improving mental health.

However, you can also try unfollowing accounts evoke negative emotions, and start following accounts with more positive content.

Depending on what you see on social media that day, the sheer act of looking at social media can significantly influence your mood. It’s much more common for social media to adversely impact our mood than it is for it to boost our mood, but both scenarios are of course possible. The question is, are you willing to risk it? Or, should you perhaps take a break from social media if you struggle with mood disorders?

Good mental health is crucial for your overall well being. Those with good mental health tend to have stabler, better moods, are less irritable, and better able to cope with stress healthily while being capable of solving problems. If your mental health is good, you’ll likely form healthier relationships with others, you’re less likely to develop disordered sleeping or eating habits, and you’ll be more self-motivated and productive. Keeping your mental health in check by limiting activities that harm your mental health (such as excess social media use) can also help prevent you from developing serious mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. 

If you’re already struggling with a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, you need to be aware that social media use (even in small doses) can exacerbate your mental illness. Below are just some of the many examples of how social media affects mental health and well-being, many of which we’ll be expanding on in more detail in this article:

  • Exacerbated depression and anxiety for those with pre-existing conditions
  • Contributing to the development of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Body image issues
  • Exacerbated symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder because social media can trigger thoughts about appearance
  • Self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy
  • Eating disorders
  • Impacted ability to get over an ex
  • Unhealthy comparisons
  • Unrealistic ideals
  • Obsessive behaviors 
  • Addictive behaviors 
  • Disrupts sleep hygiene 
  • Conditions people to seek external validation

A recent 2020 research study entitled Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review (Karim et al., 2020) found that ongoing use of social media platforms may be related to negative signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, while social media can also create extra pressure to morph ourselves into what others want us to be, as a way to gain popularity or acceptance. The same study also found that users of YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat reported more body image concerns and disordered eating behaviors than non-users. Social media can also influence many other decisions we make in our daily life. For example, a study found that roughly 40% of Millennials pick holiday destinations based on how Instagrammable the pics will be

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Social Media Affects Mental Health Even if You Don’t Have a Pre-Existing Mental Health Condition

A 2019 research study on social media and mental health among teenagers confirmed that adolescents who spend more than 3 hours per day using social media may be at heightened risk for developing mental health problems. However, social media affects mental health for adults as well.

Many otherwise healthy people who don’t have any pre-existing mental health disorders can actually risk developing mental health disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression from social media use.

Otherwise healthy individuals may also find that social media use begins to negatively impact their mental health by impacting their self-esteem and body image, or results in obsessive behaviors (such as obsessively checking an ex’s profile or becoming obsessed with an unhealthy diet.) 

The Truth About How Social Media Affects Mental Health in Harmful Ways

Social media affects mental health in so many ways, so to cover everything would require an article much longer than this one. However, it’s important to gain some awareness on how your social media use might be impacting your mental health in negative ways. We’re therefore going to discuss some of these possible repercussions of social media use in this article, so that you can give yourself an honest assessment about whether or not you should be deactivating or deleting your social media accounts. It’s possible that for the sake of your mental health, you need to either remove your ability to use social media by deleting the apps, or you need to change your habits on social media.

Below we’ll get into more detail about some of ways your social media use could be adversely impacting your mental health and well-being:

Social Media Conditions You to Seek External Validation

When you post something on social media, you’re often checking for ‘likes’ and comments, and therefore seeking external validation, approval and acceptance from your peers. 

Social media affects mental health by conditioning you to seek external validation, when the much healthier habit is to learn how to self-validate. 

Your self-worth should come from within. You should be able to validate your worth, your achievements, your personal ‘wins’ and your fitness journey on your own, without seeking external validation on social media. If your self-worth becomes attached to external validation (such as the kind you get on social media) you could start to lose your ability to validate yourself.

Be careful not to fall into the external validation trap. You’ll spend less time getting to know yourself and discovering who you are, and you’ll spend more time trying to figure out what you can post to get validation from others. You’ll start to get a dopamine hit from social media validation, and an unhealthy cycle will ensue. 

If you notice that when many people like your post on Instagram or Facebook, you feel good, but if your post doesn’t get much attention, you feel disappointed or sad, this is a sure sign that you need a break from social media. Once you deactivate your social media accounts and spend more time validating yourself and cheering yourself on, you’ll notice your mental health improving.

The positive reinforcement and external validation from social media can be addictive and unhealthy. It’s crucial to be self-aware and notice when you seem to be relying on it to feel good about yourself. Deactivate your Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and other social media accounts for a while, and learn how to glow from within. You may need to embark on a self-discovery or self-love journey to learn how to self-validate. 

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Social Media Can Significantly Impact Your Self-Esteem

You’re probably already well aware that social media is mostly a highlight reel of the best and most glamorous parts of people’s lives. Except for the rare percentage of people who keep it real and raw on social media, most people are glamorizing and idealizing themselves through carefully crafted, strategically edited posts.

Despite being aware that almost nobody shows their worst days on social media, many of us still can’t help falling into the ‘comparison trap’ where we compare our lives and physical appearance to the lives and physical appearances we see on social media.

Social media affects mental health by often causing reduced self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy. 

One of the most common examples of the feelings of inadequacy caused by social media use is body image. Many people use apps to make their bodies appear thinner, leaner or more fit, making you struggle with your own body image when you see these edited photos. 

Certain Instagram accounts, on the other hand, can actually help improve your self-esteem and body image issues. So, strategically unfollow accounts that negatively impact your self-esteem, and start following more body positivity focused accounts such as the inspiring body positivity advocates Iris Svava and Sarah Tripp. When it comes to mental health, following the right types of accounts and unfollowing the wrong ones could be the answer. 

Iris Svava, for example, is a body positivity advocate who not only posts unedited photos of her body, but also posts very uplifting quotes on her social media. She posts quotes such as, “Positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good, it’s knowing your body IS good, regardless of how it looks.” Reading affirmations such as these can certainly impact your mental health in a positive way. This is the type of social media content that is good for your mental health.

It Can Make it More Difficult to Get Over an Ex

In general, social media use can sometimes prevent people from moving on, letting go, or healing. Many people have problems when it comes to their social media and their ex. For example, if you still follow your ex on social media, and they have a new partner, it’s not good for your mental health to be exposed to this if you’re trying to get over them. It’s best to remove your ex from social media if this is happening. Stop looking at your ex’s profile, and start going on dates instead – or shift your focus to self-development, growth, and healing.

Even if your ex doesn’t have a new partner they’re publicly displaying, it’s still not good for your mental health to be obsessively checking their social media profiles. It’s not only a waste of your energy, but it’s also delaying your healing. 

Breakups are tough enough on our mental health as it is, without social media reminders of our ex on the daily. Whether you’re constantly seeing their Instagram stories, or they’re constantly seeing yours, it’s not healthy. When you see an ex watching your Instagram story, for example, you might over-analyze this or misinterpret this behavior as them ‘missing’ you. Anything that’s causing you to overthink is not good for your mental health. Perhaps an ex having access to your social media (and you having access to theirs) is impacting your ability to move on, let go, or heal from the breakup.

Here’s another scenario that explains how social media affects mental health when it comes to heartbreak: If your ex who you still care about suddenly blocks you on social media after a breakup, how will that make you feel? If you already struggle with anxiety or depression, seeing that you’re blocked could trigger an anxiety episode, or exacerbate feelings of emptiness and depression. You could avoid this by having a conversation with your ex where you maturely and respectfully mutually agree to remove each other from social media. That way, nobody is getting even more hurt by unexpectedly being blocked, and both of you are mutually deciding that it’s best for your mental health to remove each other’s access.

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Social Media Use Can Exacerbate Depression

There are many reasons why social media can cause depression or exacerbate symptoms of depression. In fact, an entire article could be written on this subject. Let’s review some of the primary reasons why social media breaks might be of the utmost importance to those struggling with depression:

One of the main reasons why social media use can exacerbate depression is because of the social comparisons that occur during social media use. People who struggle with depression often spend a lot of time in solitude, have trouble connecting with others, get anxiety about leaving the house, or feel too depressed to socialize. Depressed individuals often feel extremely lonely, empty, and isolated. It therefore does not  help their mental health when on social media, they view happy social gatherings they’re missing out on. You’re watching other people connecting and getting together, which only exacerbates feelings of loneliness and emptiness. Could limiting your social media use therefore help reduce symptoms of depression?

A recent 2018 study entitled No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression (Hunt et al., 2018) found that when people spent less time on social media, symptoms of depression and loneliness were reduced.

Comparing yourself to others and feeling inadequate are other common ways social media use can exacerbate depression. The healthiest thing you can do is self-reflect and be honest with yourself about whether your social media use (and specifically, your social media habits) are potentially making you feel more depressed.

Screen Time at Nighttime Impairs Sleep Hygiene

We recently covered an article on why good sleep hygiene is so important. One of the number one factors of good sleep hygiene is limited exposure to screens and blue light at nighttime, as this can keep you awake. Social media use requires screen time, so it’s best to journal by candlelight, take a bath, or read a book instead of using social media.

Another thing that impacts your sleep is anxious or obsessive thoughts when you’re trying to sleep. If something you see on social media spurs a flurry of anxious thoughts, this too will impact your ability to fall asleep.

Social media affects mental health if it affects your sleep. This is because poor sleep adversely impacts mental health.

In Closing

I’d like to leave you with some closing thoughts, if you’re struggling with your mental health and you think social media might be a contributing factor to your struggles. Below are some actions you can take to counteract some of social media’s harmful effects: 

  • Deactivate all of your social media accounts for at least 30 days, and take a much-needed break from social media. (You can notify your friends first, so they know you’re okay.)
  • Remind yourself that you’re not viewing anyone’s real, unfiltered life, as it’s mostly a highlight reel that leaves out the dark, ugly, unedited and unfiltered versions of their lives.
  • Unfollow, ‘mute stories and posts’, or block anyone who you feel it’s unhealthy to be following. This can include exes who you’re obsessing over, people who are posting overly-edited photos of themselves that impact your own self-esteem, people who post very negative or politically incorrect content, and just anyone who is posting content that makes you feel unworthy, sad, angry, or uncomfortable. (If you decide to block someone who you would like to stay friends with, be sure to let them know in advance that it’s nothing personal, or consider muting them instead of blocking them.)
  • Start following people who are healthy role models. Follow those who are more authentic, honest, unedited and uplifting.
  • Learn to self-validate. Seek counseling if you’re struggling with self-worth, or seem to need external validation from others in order to feel good, worthy, or happy. You may need to take a break from social media to work on self-love, and the ability to self-validate will follow.
  • Shift your focus inwards. Perhaps it’s time to take all of that energy spent on social media scrolling, and transfer it to yourself. Do more of what you love. Start going to therapy. Take more nature walks. Spend time with friends in real life. Catch up with people in person so that you see the real, unfiltered versions of them. Exercise more. Put the phone away and read a book. It’s time to shift focus to yourself.

Erica Gordon
150 posts

About author
Erica Gordon is the Managing Editor and Director of Content at Circle Magazine. Erica majored in Psychology at UBC and has since founded The Babe Report and followed her passion for writing and journalism, with a focus on health and travel writing.
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