March 25, 2024

Social Media and Mental Health: A Complex Relationship


Social media has become a huge part of our lives. We use it to connect with friends and family, share photos and updates, get news and entertainment, and much more.


For many of us, checking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other social media apps is one of the first things we do each day.

While social media can have benefits, it’s important to be aware of the impact it can have on our mental health and well-being.

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the complicated relationship between social media and mental health.

We’ll explore both the positive and negative aspects, examine what drives unhealthy social media habits, and provide actionable tips for using social media in a way that supports your mental health.

Social Media and Mental Health: A Complex Relationship

Social Media and Mental Health


The Role Social Media Plays in Mental Health

First, let’s talk about why social media even impacts mental health in the first place. As human beings, we have a fundamental need for social connection.

Throughout history, we’ve depended on our social circles for belonging, support, safety, and more. Strong social bonds are vital for both physical and mental health.

In today’s digital world, social media has become a primary way that many of us seek social connections and interact with others.

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram allow us to stay in touch with a wide network of friends, family, and acquaintances with just a few taps on our phones.

However, while social media can help facilitate social connections, experts emphasize that it is not a replacement for in-person human interaction.

Connecting with people face-to-face triggers hormones and neural activity that reduces stress, lifts mood, and supports overall mental health in a way that online interactions do not.

So in short, social media is a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health. It has the potential to both enhance and harm our psychological well-being.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the major pros and cons.

The Positive Aspects of Social Media

Despite the mental health risks, social media can have a positive side too.

Here are some of the main benefits:

  • Staying connected: Social media makes it easier than ever before to keep in touch with friends and loved ones all over the world. With just a few clicks, you can message a friend, share a photo with family, or hop on a video call. For people who live far from their social circles, are isolated due to illness or disability, or are part of marginalized communities, these connection points can be a vital lifeline.
  • Finding community: Social platforms make it possible to find others who share your interests, identities, and experiences. No matter how niche your hobby or how alone you might feel, there are online communities full of people just like you. These groups can provide a sense of belonging, solidarity, and support.
  • Accessing support: In times of hardship, social media can be a place to reach out for encouragement, advice, and emotional support. People going through challenges like illness, grief, or heartbreak often find comfort in sharing their stories and receiving compassion from others online.
  • Raising awareness: Social media is a powerful tool for education and advocacy. Activists and organizations use social platforms to spread the word about important causes, mobilize supporters, and effect positive change.
  • Expressing yourself: For many, social media serves as a place for self-expression, creativity, and documenting their lives. Creating content and sharing your voice can feel empowering and build self-esteem (although there are caveats to this, which we’ll get to later).

The Negative Aspects of Social Media

Now let’s look at the darker side of social media’s impact on mental health. Some of the main dangers include:

  • Comparison and low self-esteem: One of the biggest mental health risks of social media is the way it fuels comparison and feelings of inadequacy. We all know that people tend to post just the highlight reel of their lives online – the vacations, promotions, seeming perfect relationships, and families. It’s only human to compare yourself to others sometimes, but constantly seeing idealized images on social media can make you feel like you’re not measuring up in your own life. Over time, this can wear down self-esteem and even trigger depression or anxiety.
  • FOMO and addiction: The fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a very real phenomenon in the age of social media. Seeing other people’s updates about exciting plans or fun times can spark anxiety that you’re being left out of the action. This can drive compulsive checking behaviors, where you feel pressured to constantly stay on top of what’s happening on social media. Notifications popping up at all hours lure you into breaking focus and losing time to scrolling. These addictive patterns disrupt sleep, productivity, and present-moment awareness.
  • Isolation and loneliness: It’s an irony of social media that an excess of time spent “socializing” online can leave you feeling more isolated. Passively scrolling and lurking on social platforms is linked to increased loneliness and depression compared to active participation and interaction. And the more we prioritize social media over in-person connections, the more our real-life relationships and mental health can suffer.
  • Cyberbullying and abuse: Unfortunately, just like in real life, digital spaces can be host to bullying, harassment, discrimination, and predatory behavior. Trolling and doxing are all too common. For young people especially, being targeted by cyberbullying can have a devastating impact on mental health.
  • Distraction and lack of focus: We’ve all been there – you pick up your phone to check one notification, and suddenly an hour has passed as you’ve jumped between apps. Social media platforms are very good at hijacking our focus and keeping us scrolling with a never-ending stream of content. But all those interruptions come with a mental cost, wearing down our ability to concentrate.

What’s Driving Your Social Media Use?

If you suspect social media is harming your mental health, one of the first steps is to take an honest look at your habits and what’s behind them.

For example:

  • Boredom and distraction: Do you turn to social media to kill time whenever you have a spare moment? Distraction-driven use can add up to a lot of mindless scrolling.
  • Emotional coping: Many of us use social media to soothe unpleasant emotional states like anxiety, loneliness, or low self-esteem. But while it might provide a temporary distraction, in the long run, this kind of use can make difficult emotions worse.
  • Compulsion and FOMO: Do you feel anxious if you don’t check social media regularly? Is the thought of missing out on new posts or interactions hard to resist? Compulsive use is a very common driver.
  • Social comparison: Are you drawn to social media to check up on what other people are doing and how you measure up? Comparison can be a major fuel for unhealthy social media habits.

Other Causes of Unhealthy Social Media Use

Along with the internal factors above, unhealthy social media habits can also be driven by external forces like:

  • Algorithms and persuasive design: Social media platforms employ armies of engineers to design features that keep people scrolling and coming back for more. Autoplay videos, infinite scroll, push notifications – they all exploit psychological impulses to hijack our attention.
  • Oversharing and digital performativity: There’s often subtle or not-so-subtle pressure on social media to pack your life into a shiny, likable brand. Constantly trying to “perform” an idealized version of yourself is exhausting for mental health.
  • Misinformation and doomscrolling: Social media is rife with false and sensationalized info that drives fear, outrage, and us-vs-them thinking. Doomscrolling through scary news stories and flamewars is very stressful for mental well-being.

The Vicious Cycle of Unhealthy Social Media Use:

The different factors above can come together into a perfect storm of worsening mental health and even more social media use. Here’s how the cycle often plays out:

  1. You feel bored, lonely, or depressed.
  2. You log onto social media to distract yourself or feel some connection.
  3. You start scrolling and see other people’s idealized posts.
  4. The comparison makes you feel even worse about yourself and your life.
  5. Algorithms notice you engaging with this type of content and show you more of it.
  6. You keep scrolling to try to numb the low feelings, but end up feeling even worse.
  7. Repeat from step 1.

Signs that Social Media is Impacting Your Mental Health

So how can you tell if your social media habits are becoming unhealthy? Look out for red flags like:

  • Decreased self-esteem: You feel bad about yourself, your appearance, or your life after using social media. It brings up a lot of negative self-comparison.
  • Worsened anxiety or depression: You notice your mood and mental health symptoms tend to be worse after spending time on social media. It leaves you feeling more anxious, irritable, or depressed.
  • Disrupted focus and productivity: You have a hard time staying focused at school or work because you’re constantly distracted by checking social media. Your productivity and performance are suffering.
  • Less time for self-reflection: Social media fills up so much of your time and headspace that you don’t have much chance for undistracted self-reflection. It’s hard to tune into your thoughts and feelings.
  • Damaged relationships: You spend more time interacting with people on social media than seeing friends and family in person. Your most meaningful relationships are getting neglected.
  • Disturbed sleep: late night scrolling is interfering with your sleep. You often stay up later than you mean to because you’re sucked into social media. Or you wake up at night and immediately start checking feeds instead of going back to sleep.

If any of those sound familiar, your social media use might be tipping from healthy to unhealthy territory. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though – having complicated feelings about social media is extremely common and understandable.

The important thing is being aware of the impact and taking steps to care for your well-being.

Modifying Social Media Use to Improve Mental Health

Now for the good news: small changes in how you use social media can go a long way in supporting better mental health. Here are some of the top tips from experts:

Step 1: Reduce time online

Cutting back time spent on social media is one of the most impactful changes you can make. That doesn’t mean you need to go cold turkey – setting modest, sustainable goals is the key.

  • Use a tracking app to get a realistic picture of how much time you spend on social media each day. Then make a plan for how much you want to cut back.
  • Turn off all social media notifications on your phone. Without the constant pings, you’ll naturally check less often.
  • Set specific windows when you don’t use social media, like during meals, at bedtime, when you first wake up, or when you’re hanging out with friends and family.
  • Keep your phone out of your bedroom at night and don’t look at it for at least a half hour before bed.
  • If needed, use an app or the Screen Time feature on your iPhone to set hard limits on when you can access social media apps.

Step 2: Change your focus

A lot of unhealthy social media use is mindless and driven by distraction or avoidance. Try to be more intentional with how you use social platforms:

  • Before you open up a social app, take a second to check in with yourself about why you’re doing it. Are you bored, anxious, lonely? Is there a healthier way to address that need?
  • Pay attention to how different ways of using social media make you feel. Passively scrolling through idealized posts probably feels very different than interacting with close friends or an uplifting support group. Try to focus your use on the activities that boost your mood and mental health.
  • Make an effort to follow accounts that make you feel good: inspirational people, cute animals, beautiful art, funny memes. Unfollow or mute accounts that stress you out or spark unhealthy comparisons. Curating a more positive feed can really improve your experience.

Step 3: Spend more time with offline friends

Building in-person connections is one of the best antidotes to the potential harms of social media. Make it a priority to nurture relationships and community offline:

  • Set up standing dates to spend quality in-person time with friends and family. Put away phones so you can be present with each other.
  • Explore hobbies and interests that involve other people, like a sports team, book club, art class, or volunteer group. Structured activities are a great way to meet new potential friends.
  • Practice small interactions that build a sense of belonging in your day-to-day life, like chatting with your barista or neighbor. Every little moment of connection counts.

Step 4: Express gratitude

Expressing gratitude is a powerful way to counteract social comparison and idealization. Try keeping a gratitude journal (offline!) and noting a few things you appreciate about your life each day. Or share your gratitude with people in your life directly – send a text letting someone know why you’re grateful for them.

You can also bring more gratitude into how you use social media. For example, before you post something, check your intentions: are you seeking validation and likes, or do you genuinely want to spread positivity and express appreciation? Focusing on gratitude helps break the cycle of social comparison.

Helping a Child or Teen with Unhealthy Social Media Use:

If you’re a parent or caregiver worried about a young person’s social media use, here are some ways to help:

  • Have open, honest conversations about social media early and often. Ask your child about their experiences, both positive and negative. Listen without judgment so they feel comfortable coming to you if issues arise.
  • Set clear expectations around social media use as a family. This could include no-phone zones/times, limits on how long kids can spend on social platforms each day, or rules about what types of content are allowed to follow/interact with.
  • Monitor your child’s social media use and watch for signs it might be impacting their mental health, like changes in mood, sleep problems, social withdrawal, or declining grades. There are parental control apps that allow you to track screen time and set content limits.
  • Model healthy social media habits yourself. Stick to any family rules you set around screens and demonstrate the importance of face-to-face connection and self-care.
  • Encourage offline interests and activities. The more time your kid spends engaging with friends, hobbies, and the world beyond the screen, the less their sense of self-worth will depend on social media validation.


Our relationship with social media is always going to be a bit of a balancing act. These platforms are a major part of how we connect and communicate, and they’re not going away anytime soon. We can’t realistically swear off social media entirely.

What we can do is be more intentional about how we use it. We can become more mindful of the subtle negative impacts and set boundaries to protect our mental health.

We can make more space for offline connection, self-reflection, and activities that bring us meaning.

Remember, there is no shame in struggling with your relationship to social media. So many of us are in the same boat, figuring out how to reap the benefits of this technology without letting it take over our lives and mental health.

Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you make changes. With time, you can transform social media from a compulsion that drains you to a tool that genuinely supports your social and emotional wellness.

Last updated or reviewed on March 25, 2024


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