Social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat claim to enhance the quality of our lives and relationships, but a growing body of research suggests that for some, these platforms are having the opposite effect. Research conducted over the past decade has found that heavy social media users are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem, especially in young people.1,2,3
There is also emerging research that social media can be addictive, suggesting that social media activates the same reward pathways in the brain as addictive drugs.1,3 Many of the harmful effects of social media are mediated by other factors, including a person’s age, sex, prior mental health conditions and also the way they use social media.1,2,5,6
10 Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health
While there is a growing amount of research indicating that for some people (especially young people and those with mental health issues), social media can be harmful, this is not universally true.1,2,5,6 In fact, there are even some studies that suggest that social media can have positive impacts on a person’s mental health.4,7
Still, many individuals describe that frequent use of social media has an overall negative impact on their mental and emotional state. Among those who do, there are several common themes.
Here are ten common negative effects of social media:
1. Increased Social Anxiety
According to some research, people who use social media are more likely to describe feelings of anxiety, and especially social anxiety. People who are naturally socially anxious, struggle with social skills, or have insecurities or low self-esteem may be more likely to be negatively impacted by social media use.
The exact relationship between anxiety and social media use is unclear, and it is possible that socially anxious people are more likely to rely on social media for social interactions rather than seeing people in person.1,2,5
Still, it is clear that for some people, social media can be a significant trigger for symptoms of anxiety because of:
- The tendency for people to make negative self-comparisons to others online
- Seeing posts or pictures or feeds of others who seem happier or more successful
- Feeling left out, slighted or rejected by social media posts from friends
- Excessive worry or concern about posts or pictures they’ve shared
- Anxiety about ‘dislikes’ or negative responses to posts or pictures
- Less real-world “practice” socializing leading to poorer social skills
2. Increased Depression
Some research also indicates that heavy social media users are at higher risk for depression, and this is especially true for children, teens and young adults. Teen girls are also more likely to be impacted than boys, possibly because research shows teens girls tend to be more active and heavy users than teen boys.5,6,7
Still, some adults also describe feeling more depressed when they spend too much time on social media, possibly because of the tendency to make negative comparisons to others. Some other possible ways that social media use could lead to (or worsen) symptoms of depression include:2,7
- Triggering more negative thoughts about one’s self, life, or future
- Causing people to feel like they are missing out or being excluded
- More sedentary lifestyles and less social and physically active activities
3. Increased Risk of Self-Harm & Suicide
One of the most concerning mental health effects that has been linked to heavy social media use is the increased risk for self-harm and suicide. Research has shown that children, teens, and even young adults who use social media often are at higher risk for cutting, other forms of self-harm, and also suicide.9
Some of the research on this topic suggests that social media can increase self-harm and suicidal behaviors in young people by:9
- Increased exposure to information or posts about self-harm and suicide
- Feelings of shame, anxiety, or low self-esteem triggered by social media content
- Reinforcement for self-harming or suicidal behaviors from peers or SM users
4. Loneliness & FOMO
It’s somewhat ironic that social media was designed to help people meet and stay connected with people because research suggests that the heaviest social media users are also the loneliest. While this connection has been proven in multiple studies, it is not completely clear why this is the case, and it is also not always the case.5,7
What does seem to be clear is that people who rely exclusively on social media for their social interactions are more likely to report feeling lonely, excluded or afraid of missing out (aka FOMO). This suggests that social media interactions are not as fulfilling and meaningful as in-person interactions, and should not be used as a substitute for seeing people face-to-face.2,5,7
5. Self Esteem & Body Image Issues
Lowered self-esteem and poor body-image is linked to higher levels of social media use, particularly among pre-teen and teen girls. Exposure to artificial and altered pictures that create an unobtainable standard of beauty, contributing to the “thinspo” culture that pressures girls and women to obtain an unhealthily thin body size.
Apart from body image issues, there is also research to suggest that social media leads people to make other kinds of self-comparisons that result in lowered self-esteem. These include:5
- Comparisons about the number of likes or followers on social media
- Comparisons about the number of friends or social activities
- Comparisons about material goods or wealth
- Comparisons about career advancement or successes
- Comparisons about relationship status
6. Relationship Problems
Social media platforms provide a forum for people to connect with friends, family members, and acquaintances, but research shows the interactions people have on social media aren’t always as genuine, meaningful, and fulfilling as offline interactions. While there are some exceptions, many of the interactions that occur on social media are more superficial, and not all users who comment or ‘like’ a post are actually real-world friends.
In addition, social media can cause other relationship problems, including:
- Jealousy in relationships or friendships about other friends or interactions
- Misinterpreted comments or posts that lead to conflict or misunderstandings
- More drama related to certain posts or comments made on SM
- Polarization related to differing views on a controversial topic
- Damage to professional or personal reputation because of certain posts or opinions shared on SM
7. Mood, Behavior, & Thinking Problems
Children and teens who spend excessive amounts of time on social media are more likely to struggle with mood, thinking, and behavior problems. Research has found that kids and teens who report the most social media use are more likely to be anxious, depressed, lonely, and also more likely to struggle with concentration and social skills.5
Learning problems are also more common in kids and teens who report the heaviest social media use. Some studies have found that kids and teens who use social media for more than 3 hours per day are more likely to display aggressive and antisocial behaviors.10
8. Misinformation, Catfishing, & Cyberbullying
Spending more time on social media also increases the likelihood of being exposed to fake news or misinformation, which is commonly shared on these sites. Also, a staggering 72% of teens report that they’ve been the victim of cyberbullying, which is especially concerning because this kind of online bullying is closely linked to self-harm and suicide in kids and teens.10,11
9. Social Media Addiction
While social media addiction is not a formally recognized diagnosis, it shares many of the same features as other behavioral addictions. Studies have found that social media users often display the same physical and psychological symptoms as people addicted to drugs or alcohol. Also, getting likes and comments on a Facebook or Instagram post triggers the release of dopamine, the same chemical believed to cause addiction to illicit drugs like cocaine.3
The algorithms that customize content on your social media feed are designed to get and keep your attention, making it much more difficult to pull away. While everyone is vulnerable to addiction, kids and teens seem to be especially susceptible, with some research finding that 50% of teens admit to being ‘addicted’ to their phones. Since social media is one of the most common uses of phones for teens, it seems likely that social media addiction is a part of this problem.9
10. Polarization & Cancel Culture
There are a growing number of topics, current events, and policies that are controversial and polarizing in nature, and this is most clear on social media sites.4 A growing number of people have encountered this in recent months after sharing a post, commenting on a post, or sharing an opinion on one of these hot-button topics. It may have been a surprise when a somewhat innocent comment turned into a major point of contention with another user.
In some cases, posts made on social media have had far greater consequences, including:
- Losing friends because of differing views on a specific issue or topic
- Having family members stop talking because of differing views or opinions
- Being censored because of a post made on social media
- Being deplatformed or demonetized because of certain kinds of content shared
- Damage done to a professional reputation, including loss of income or unemployment
10 Benefits of Social Media
It’s important to note that not everyone will be negatively impacted by social media. In fact, there are some people who even report that social media has a mostly positive impact on their mental health, as well as other important areas of their lives.
The positives of social media include:4,10
- Staying connected and maintaining close relationships with old friends, relatives, especially those who live far away
- Sharing ideas, information, and experiences across global audiences
- Compiling electronic memories of important moments and milestones
- Professional networking, employment opportunities, and business growth
- Enriching or expanding your knowledge on a certain topic or skill or getting diverse opinions or input on a topic of interest
- Raising funds, awareness, or support for important causes or charities you care about
- Coordinating live and virtual events and learning about fun activities in your community, as well as organizing events with people in your network
- Receiving practical and emotional support from a community with similar problems or issues
- Providing additional income streams for influencers, entertainers, and others who produce content to make money through subscriptions or sponsorships
- Staying up-to-date about what’s going on with friends, family, your local community, and the larger world through social media updates and feeds
What Can Cause Unhealthy Social Media Use?
There are certain patterns that emerge in the research that might provide insight about why some people are so negatively impacted by social media, while others aren’t, or even report positive impacts. According to research, the following individual factors make a person more likely to experience negative mental health impacts related to their use of social media:2,5,10
Children, teens, and young adults are more likely to report negative psychological impacts related to social media use, with the risks going down as people age.
Girls and women are more likely to report negative mental health effects related to excessive social media use, which may also be linked to more exposure to content that affects body image.
Pre-Existing Mental Illness
Those with pre-existing mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or eating disorders may be more prone to being negatively impacted by social media
Heavy or Frequent Use
Heavy or frequent users (especially younger users) do appear to be more vulnerable to the negative mental health impacts of social media use, suggesting that there is a dose-dependent relationship between social media and mental health effects
Those who are socially isolated may be more likely to over-rely on social media for socialization, which does not serve as an adequate substitute for real-life interactions
People who struggle with personal insecurities or low self-esteem may be more vulnerable to negative comments, comparisons, or cyberbullying they encounter on social media, and may also be more negatively impacted by these experiences
People who use social media as a way of escaping or coping with difficult emotions or seeking validation for personal insecurities may be more likely to experience negative emotions when these needs go unmet online
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Social Media Use
If you are concerned about the impact social media is having on your mental health, it might not be necessary to completely disconnect. Instead, there may be smaller changes you can make to your online habits that help to guard against the negative effects, while amplifying the positive impacts. By using social media more intentionally, you can often help to ensure that social media is a healthy habit that enhances your quality of life, instead of detracting from it.
Here are some simple ways to promote healthy social media habits:10
- Have strong offline/in-person relationships
- Limit the time you spend on social media
- Keep track of your social media use with screen time monitoring
- Use social media to strengthen important relationships
- Be active on social media and post often
- Take periodic breaks from social media to disconnect
- Use social media to store and share experiences and memories
- Ensure your privacy settings are strong to limit public sharing
- Use social media to find groups, activities, and events
- Use your feed to contribute to or support a cause you care about
Here are some unhealthy social media habits to limit or avoid:10
- Passive use (i.e. not posting or commenting)
- Oversharing about personal or emotional topics
- Posting controversial or politically charged content
- Getting into ‘comment wars’ with people you disagree with
- Cyberbullying or posting mean tweets or comments
- Trying to call someone out or publicly ‘cancel’ them
- “Vaguebooking” with vague but concerning posts (i.e. suicidal posts)
- Excessive or compulsive use of social media
- Compulsive checking to see who has liked/commented on your posts
- Posting when drunk or under the influence of drugs
- Notifications that distract or interrupt you throughout the day
Do You Have a Social Media Problem?
Some people may not realize that their social media usage is causing harm to their mental health, or they may just be distracted when using social media and not tuned into their emotions. Paying attention to how you feel before, during and after using social media can help you become more aware of how it is impacting you, and whether you need to place boundaries around your usage.
Here are some signs that you might have a problem with social media:
- Having strong urges throughout the day to check social media or being unable to resist checking when a social media notification is sent
- Feeling anxious or upset when you cannot access social media
- Negatively comparing yourself or your life to what you see on social media
- Noticing that you use social media more when you are sad, lonely, anxious or upset
- Frequently feeling left out or like you are “missing out” when viewing social media posts
- Social media interrupting your work, time with others, or other important activities
- Losing track of time and accidentally being on social media for hours at a time
- Setting limits around your use of social media that you cannot abide by
- Comparing yourself to others in ways that make you feel worse about yourself
- Feeling the need to post things on social media just for the likes or comments of other people (i.e. because you want or need external validation)
- Finding that your mood changes based on how others respond/don’t respond to your posts on social media
- Prioritizing the ‘virtual reality’ of social media over your real-life activities and interactions
- Not being able to concentrate or get things done because of strong urges to check social media
5 Ways to Set Social Media Boundaries
Social media can be difficult to unhook from, and it’s easy to spend more time than you intended on these sites. Setting healthy boundaries around how much, how often, and how you use social media is important.
Here are five ways to set healthy boundaries with social media:
1. Monitor Use & Watch for Red Flags
Anyone who uses social media should be aware of how often they are using social media apps/sites and how much time they are spending on them by using the screen time reports on their devices. It is also important to recognize when social media is having a negative impact on you or some area of your life (like any of the warning signs listed above). Monitor your screen time on your smart phone, which can also give you a daily or weekly break-down on time you spend on social media.
2. Set Limits Around Your Social Media Use
Have limits already in mind about how much time you want to spend on social media. Also, avoid turning to social media (or anything online) as a method of coping or distracting you from difficult emotions, as this increases the risk of forming an unhealthy dependence. If your goal is to significantly reduce your use, consider starting slowly by cutting down your daily use by about 30 minutes each week until getting to a limit you feel comfortable with. If you need additional accountability, consider using an app that blocks or limits your use.
3. Enhance Offline Relationships
When social media is used to replace more meaningful offline relationships and activities, people are more likely to experience negative psychological effects. Make an effort to use your free time to engage in activities and strengthen relationships that you find rewarding and fulfilling, instead of defaulting to mindless activities on your phone. By enhancing your offline relationships, you can also reduce the need to go on social media for your social and emotional needs.
4. Adjust Social Media Settings
Adjusting your settings on social media can also be a helpful way to reduce specific negative effects. If you find that you are constantly distracted by notifications from social media, consider turning these notifications off. If you find that following certain people or topics triggers you to feel sad or insecure, consider unfollowing. If you are concerned about who is able to see your posts, review your privacy settings and adjust them to limit the people who can see or comment on your posts.
5. Use Social Media More Intentionally
Figure out the positive uses of social media that enhance your life and relationships and be more intentional about using social media in these ways, rather than in other ways that have neutral or negative impacts. For example, if you use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family that live far away, make a point to message and interact with them when you log on.
If you look to Pinterest or Instagram for creative inspiration or DIY projects, engage in these activities more. If your feed is filled with posts that are not relevant to these uses, consider unfollowing certain people or pages to help ensure that you see the content you want to see.
5 Tips for Healthy Social Media Use for Your Child or Teen
If you are a parent, you should be tuned in to what your child or teen is doing on their devices, and it’s important to know how social media can affect teens. The younger your child is, the more parental supervision is needed to help protect them from harmful effects that social media and other online exposures can have on them.
Some of the steps parents should consider taking include:4,7,8,9,12
1. Consider Restricting Social Media Until a Child Is in High School
Research consistently has shown that younger kids and teens are far more susceptible to being negatively affected by social media and that this risk lessens as children get older. If possible, limit your children’s access to social media or be highly selective about which social media accounts you let them create (i.e. Pinterest but not Snapchat).
2. Utilize Parental Controls
If your child or teen has a smartphone, tablet, or other device, set up parental controls to monitor what they are doing and to restrict certain sites, apps, or activities.
3. Educate Your Child or Teen About Social Media
Provide education to your child or teen about the potential harmful effects of social media and excessive use of their devices. These warnings can help them understand the need for limits, but also prepare them to expect some resistance and backlash, especially if you are setting new limits on existing devices. Help your kids stay safe online by providing them with information about catfishing, sexting, and cyberbullying, and making sure they do not share personal or identifying information online.
4. Follow Your Child or Teen on Social Media
Parents should make an effort to stay up to date on the apps their child is using, how they work, and what their children are posting. If a child has Tiktok or Snapchat, following them and ensuring they provide access to their posts and activities on these apps is important to help supervise their use.
Some of these apps do not filter out age-inappropriate content, so make sure you have an understanding of the app’s content guidelines before allowing them to create an account. You could also create shared social media or email accounts to ensure you are monitoring their content or require they provide their login.
5. Designate Device-Free Times
Letting your child or teen have constant access to their devices can lead to overuse. Research suggests that limiting use to less than an hour for younger kids and a bit more time for teens may be prudent.
Possible device-free time may include dinner, before bed, and during times designated for specific activities like homework, class, sports, or family activities. Make sure you are also modeling this behavior by honoring device-free rules you put into place that apply to family activities.
Statistics on Social Media Use & Mental Health Effects
Social media use has become increasingly widespread, and the amount of time spent on social media has substantially increased over the past decade.
According to data from 2018-2020 on social media use:5,10,12,13
- 72% of Americans use social media
- 86% of people between 18-19 years of age use social media
- 97% of teens between 13-17 years old use social media
- 45% of teens report using social media ‘almost constantly’ and another 44% report using social media ‘several times per day’
- It’s estimated that 5-10% of American adults and 50% of teens are addicted to social media or their phones
- Only 10% of American adults report social media had an overall positive impact on them and their lives
- 17% of teens report that social media interactions result in less meaningful interactions than in-person interactions and 15% state it provides an unrealistic view of other people’s lives
- Teens that spend more than 5 hours per day on social media report 15% more depressive symptoms and are 31% more likely to report poor body image
- Bullying, rumor spreading, negative comparisons, and harming relationships were some of the most common reasons teens cited for feeling like social media has a negative impact
- 23% of social media users report that online content has changed their views or opinions on an important issue
- About 45% of Americans report increased social media use since the pandemic began
- There are over one million new social media users making an account each day
- Roughly 60% of people with social media accounts are daily users
- A third of adults report using social media during work hours
For Further Reading
- Organization for Social Media Safety’s website provides expert insight, information and resources to help people protect themselves and their loved ones from the potential harms of social media.
- PEW Research conducts large-scale national surveys that provide insights about a variety of human behaviors and trends in the US, including the use of social media.
- Digital Self-Harm: What It Is & Prevention Strategies