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Social Media & Your Mental Health

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on April 5, 2024

It is no secret that social media plays a major role in our society, and that trend is only expanding as technology weaves itself deeper into the fabric of our daily lives. From constant Facebook status updates, to politically charged Tweets, Tiktok dance trends and glamorous snapshots of an artistic cappuccino on Instagram, social media has been wildly influential in dictating social trends. Despite popular belief, it isn’t only seen in the inner circles of the millennial and Gen Z youth either, but across almost every age range, cultural group and economic bracket, with the only requirement being a smartphone or internet access.

Today, the seemingly harmless means of staying connected with distant friends, learning the newest recipe of a fad diet, bringing modern ideals and culture to third world countries, or even just a medium through which to wish Grandma a happy birthday-social media seems to be the preferred modus operandi of communication and expression used by us all. But, is social media in all its facets really that innocuous? Many people beg to differ.

Shrouded under the guise of good intentions, many fail to see the true potency of social media’s permeating effects on our lives. As mental health awareness increases (and we start to more fully understand just how fragile that mushy, three pound lump of grey matter inside our skulls really is,) things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok and other social networking sites are becoming targets as major benefactors to new cases of anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, and the ominous Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO.) This article will examine these very things, in an attempt to arm you with the facts for the next time you decide to scroll through your preferred media platforms.

Is Social Media Linked to Depression?

A major roadblock that researchers are running into when studying the effect social media has on the human brain is that its use, at least in its modern form, has only been prevalent for the last ten years or so. This is an issue due to the overall lack of experimentation that has been done and small amount of data that has been collected. Despite this, scientist can agree on one thing: Social media is changing the way we think about ourselves and about everything else.

One opinion that has been surfacing lately is that frequent use of social media is linked to depression, and an overall apathetic outlook on life. Some research has been done to shed light on this idea. According to Dr. Igor Pantic, a PhD with the Institute of Medical Physiology at the University of Belgrade, research suggests that effects of social media depend not so much on the quantity of social media, but more on how it is used. Here is what he has to say:

“It seems that when social networks and the Internet in general are used to strengthen and maintain social ties, particularly within family members and close friends, the resulting social support has beneficial effects on mental health. On the other hand, extensive use of social networking sites outside these circles might weaken existing close family and friend interactions and increase feelings of loneliness and depression.”

Essentially, Pantic and his colleagues are saying that the brain will respond to social media depending on the patterns in which the person using it decides to apply it. Just like Pavlov’s experiment on conditioning dogs, it seems we as the user can condition our brains to either combat or attract depression-like symptoms, dependent upon whether we use social media to integrate or to isolate, respectively. If social media is being used as an alternative for lifestyle activities that promote mental health and fight depression, such as social outings, exercise and proper nutrition to name a few, then it is very likely that it would be linked to an increase in depressive behavior.

Constant Comparison Leads to Low Self-Esteem

Another topic that comes up frequently when discussing social networking is that it promotes low self-esteem due to the constant comparisons we make between others and ourselves. Pantic and his colleagues again come in with some important research that has been done into this thought:

“Objective self-awareness theory suggests that any stimulus causing the self to become the object (instead the subject) of the consciousness will lead to a diminished impression of the self…A typical Facebook user will every day have multiple visits to his/her own profile page during which he will view his already posted photographs, biographical data, relationship status, and so on. All of these events, especially in light of similar data obtained from other users’ profiles, may lead to either a short-term or a long-term reduction in self-esteem.”

This idea holds a lot of weight when talking about struggles with mental illness. A common characteristic of chronic mental illness is self-obsession and self-centeredness, which is essentially what Pantic is commenting on. By continuously drawing our focus and attention back onto ourselves, we inevitably compare our worst selves that we see everyday to other’s best selves we see on social media. Day-in day-out repetition of this type of thinking will most certainly lead to lower levels of self esteem, and it has been proven that teenagers who’ve reported frequenting social media sites are statistically more likely to have body-image issues and eating disorders.

FOMO and Vacation Envy

An important thing to note when talking about social media, especially those that rely heavily upon pictures such as Instagram and Facebook, is that users are only presenting the public with their most glorious moments. The majority of people who post pictures of themselves online won’t be posting unflattering candid photos after a long workday in the office, but are more likely to present a snap of themselves dressed to impress at a wedding or social function. This leads us (the viewer) to believe that those people must be doing fun, new and exciting things at all times. We then conclude that if we aren’t doing something new and exciting at all times like they are, we must be uninteresting or boring.

This idea is categorized as FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out, and can be highly detrimental to emotional stability. Associated with this idea of FOMO is something called Vacation Envy. It is essentially the same idea- that we see our friends posting their exotic Hawaiian vacation photos, something we would so dearly like to do ourselves, but can never seem to make happen, and every time we scroll through their beautiful pictures we plague ourselves with the oh so familiar thoughts of “I’m not good enough.” (Or at least, that is how the story goes in our heads.)

Social Media and Addiction

A somewhat controversial idea that exists concerning social media is whether it is addictive or not. This topic has been covered in a previous blog article but I feel it would be wrong to avoid addressing it here. Just as drugs or alcohol triggers the reward system of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, so does social media, and more specifically the types of reactions people get from others depending on what they post.

It has been proven that both gaining excessive “likes” on posts, as well as excessively “liking” other’s posts sends positive messages to the reward center in the brain. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy knowing that other people think you look good in that new outfit? It just makes sense. Our bodies give us a chemical reaction to tell us when things feel good as a matter of survival. Social media has just found an innovative way to hijack that process through technology.

Let’s take a look at a list of symptoms and side effects of addictive behavior related to social media use, described by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and you can make your own decisions about how similar they are to the symptoms and side effects of drug addiction:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Using social media more often than planned
  • Neglecting work or school
  • Attempting to stop/reduce social media use more than once
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not able to access social media
  • Severe anxiety when access to social media is not available

Substitute ‘drugs/alcohol’ for the words ‘social media’ in the above list and the similarities are obvious.

Social Media: Friend or Foe?

The intention of this blog article is not to vilify social media and demand it be banned from the Internet at once. In fact, the goal is quite the opposite. In many ways, social media has proven itself as a highly effective, useful and often productive means by which we as a species communicate with one another. It is also an amazing tool for studying human behavior and getting snapshots into how we as humans operate.

In some cases it can even be beneficial to law enforcement for tracking down criminals or stopping crimes before they ever occur. But, the saying rings true that ‘too much of a good thing can be a bad thing’ and the same applies for social networking. Everything in moderation is always a good rule of thumb when dealing with any stimulus we come in contact with, and yes, even that morning routine of checking your friends’ recent posts can have unwanted detrimental side effects.

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