Social media is a part of everyday life for most people.
For example, 25% of the world uses Facebook, and 71% of young adults in the USA use Instagram.
However, psychologists are concerned that social media use might be damaging our relationships and taking a toll on our mental health.
The link between mental distress and social media
A study of over 5,000 participants conducted over a period of three years found a negative correlation between Facebook use and mental health.
Because the researchers tracked the participants for several years, they were able to explore the effect of Facebook over time.
Although the results aren’t conclusive proof that Facebook is harmful, they imply that social media use predicts poor mental health, rather than the other way around.
The more frequently participants updated their statuses and clicked “Like” on other users’ posts, the bigger the negative impact on their wellbeing.
Other research with adults aged 18-29 uncovered a small positive association between Instagram use and symptoms of depression, and another study of 1,787 adults found a significant link between social media use in general and elevated risk of depression.
Finally, the same study established that there is a strong, linear relationship between social media use and anxiety symptoms.
Even those who use social media in moderation are still vulnerable to symptoms of depression and anxiety, and those who use more than two platforms are especially likely to experience distress.
So why does social media make us feel bad?
There are several factors that may explain the link.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): When users see others posting about exciting events they cannot attend, this can trigger a sense of alienation.
Social media can make you feel as though others are leading more exciting and important lives, which can give you the impression of “missing out.”
Comparison: Along with FOMO, social media also prompts comparison.
This is also known as the “compare-and-despair” factor.
For example, if you see photos of your friends enjoying an exotic vacation and you have nothing to look forward to other than a tedious week at work, you are liable to feel low.
Over time, comparison can result in pathological jealousy, feelings of despair, and depression.
If you have social anxiety, social media can fuel thoughts of inadequacy and general insecurity.
This can make you more reluctant to reach out and engage with your family and friends.
Addiction: Social media is addictive.
Many people report that social media not only makes them feel anxious when they use it, but that they become uneasy and uncomfortable when they are forced to take even a brief break.
It’s easy to become dependent on the validation afforded by “Like” or “Share” buttons, and to miss the excitement of receiving new notifications.
If you develop a social media addiction, your dependency may become a source of worry in itself.
Lack of face to face contact: Psychologists have long recognized the importance of face to face relationships.
By managing our friendships and even romantic relationships via social media, their quality may suffer.
Should we spend less time on social media?
You don’t have to cut social media out of your life, but taking a break every now and then is a smart move.
Research shows that restricting your social media use to 30 minutes per day will greatly improve your well-being.
Psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania recruited 143 students and asked half of them to restrict their use of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat to 10 minutes per platform, per day, for a period of four weeks.
The others were told to continue using social media as usual.
By the end of the experiment, students who had cut back on their social media use scored significantly lower on measures of depression.
Despite the fact that they were, in theory, spending less time connecting with friends online, the experimental group reported feeling less lonely than those in the control condition.
The researchers believe that they felt better about themselves and their lives because they were no longer engaging in online comparison.
In summary, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that social media can worsen symptoms of anxiety or depression.
On the other hand, sensible use is unlikely to cause you much harm.
As with any other hobby or pastime, balance is key.
If you feel you’ve been spending too much time online recently, why not try cutting back for a few days?
Taking a step back from social media may help you see it in a new, healthier light.