Before I was a State Representative, my full time job was to work for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. Among other things, I ran the Chamber’s social media, while also teaching small business owners how to make more money by using Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn. I used to do presentations on a pretty regular basis, and I’d always joke that, when I first started using Facebook in college, I never thought that I’d be teaching people how to use it to make more money!
Yeah, about that: I also never thought it would make people more depressed, but here we are.
First, a disclaimer: I’m still social media obsessed. Facebook & Twitter are my two vices, with a side of LinkedIn & Instagram. That being said, there is ample evidence to show that social media is bad for your mental health.
Here’s what the research shows.
First, social media forces others to make unrealistic comparisons of themselves with others. I always come back to my first days in college, being stuck in my dorm room, crying, and telling my Dad that I was the only one who felt this miserable. His response stuck with me: Of course that’s what I thought! I was literally the only one in my room! Countless others were in their room, bawling their eyes out, and all I saw were people enjoying themselves.
Likewise, people only upload happy, smiling pictures and their successes to Facebook and Instagram. News feeds can give you a distorted picture of reality and lead to the impression that everyone is much, much happier than you. That’s because people only show their successes – not their failures. But this comparison is terrible for your mental health.
Second, social media can make people depressed. Studies have shown that social networking makes people feel more depressed and have negative effects on self-esteem. According to this 2017 study, more time on social media is correlated with higher levels of anxiety. Perhaps most fascinating is this 2016 study:
Users who took a week-long break from the social media site were found to be more satisfied with life and rated their own well-being as higher.
Third, social networking doesn’t necessarily make anyone more social or feel more connected. According to a study which appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, higher social media use led to increased perceived social isolation:
Young adults with high SMU [social media utilization] seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU. Future research should focus on determining directionality and elucidating reasons for these associations.
Oh, and all of this says nothing about cyber bullying, a major problem for today’s youth.
Not for nothing, but the worst network for your mental health? According to this Time article, Instagram:
While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”
The evidence also makes it clear that this affect can be magnified in kids and teenagers, who are still developing their sense of selves and frequently have the greatest issues with self-confidence.
All of this being said, I don’t want to make it sound like social networking is all bad for your mental health. As the same Time article I cited above notes, there are many positives:
There were certainly some benefits associated with social networking. All of the sites received positive scores for self-identity, self-expression, community building and emotional support, for example. YouTube also got high marks for bringing awareness of other people’s health experiences, for providing access to trustworthy health information and for decreasing respondents’ levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
Social networking is a tool: It can be used for good or for bad. The problem, here, is becoming more apparent: Social media is stunting our social relationships, mental growth and ability to truly connect with each others. While more research needs to be done, and more time is needed, it truly appears that these communication tools are having the reverse effect that they sought: They are making us more isolated and separated. Considering their rapid and continued raise, this is a disturbing possibility.