Social Media and Mental Health

There’s no denying that social media has provided more ways for people to connect with family, friends, and even strangers. During COVID-19, social media helped people stay in touch and get emotional support during quarantine and social distancing. But while there are many positives, social media use isn’t always a good thing.

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Problems With Social Media and Mental Health

Excessive social media use is often linked to various mental and physical health issues. These include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Stress.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Eating and body-image disorders.
  • Feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
  • Tic disorder.

Who is at risk?

Children, teens, and young adults, defined as those 18 to 35 by most research studies, appear at higher risk for these problems. But social media overuse or misuse can impact anyone.

A February 2022 Healthy Minds Monthly poll by the American Psychiatric Association found 72% of Americans felt connected and happy when using social media. However, 26% reported feeling helpless, and 22% reported feeling jealous.

It’s not only how much time you spend on social media but how you use social media that can affect you. And if you already have mental health challenges, especially depression and anxiety, social media use may make them worse.

Social media addiction

Social media addiction isn’t an official mental health diagnosis, but misusing social media can mimic the same traits of addiction. Mental health researchers call this problematic social media use (PSMU) or problematic social networking site use (PSNSU).

The basis of PSMU/PSNSU is in these behaviors:

  • Spending a lot of time thinking and worrying about social media.
  • Having a strong desire or motivation to use or log onto social media.
  • Devoting so much time and effort to SMU that it interferes with daily living. That includes getting in the way of other social activities, work, school, relationships, and/or mental and physical health and well-being.

Tips for Healthy Social Media Use

For most adults, using social media is part of daily life. More than 70% of U.S. adults (and 84% of those 18 to 29) use some form of social media, according to the Pew Research Center.

To protect your mental and physical health, it’s important to use social media wisely. Because it’s in all aspects of work, school, and social life, avoiding social media altogether isn’t realistic for most people. But these tips can help you get control over your social media usage.

Reduce your screen time

It’s easy to spend hours on social media without realizing it. By limiting your screen time, you have more time for other things in your life, like getting together with family and friends. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study showed limiting social media time to 30 minutes a day can help reduce loneliness and depression.

Focus your feed

One way to reduce your screen time is to focus your social media feed. Don’t try to keep up with every app or online group out there. Limit the apps and groups you use, choosing those that give you a sense of community and match your values and interests.

Set a timer

Through your smartphone settings, you can set a timer for the apps you use, so they shut off after time runs out. Some social media sites allow you to set usage timers. You can also install apps like RescueTime, which track how much time you spend online and block sites that distract you.

Recognize how you feel

There’s no hard and fast rule for how much time spent on apps and online is too much. One person’s social media experience is not the same as someone else’s.

That’s why it’s important to recognize how using platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter make you feel. If you notice you’re getting angry or depressed or ignoring family and friends, rethink how and how often you use social media.

That UPenn study found that self-monitoring your social media usage, even without reducing the time you spend on it, can reduce anxiety. It can also reduce fear of missing out, or FOMO — the worry you’ll miss new posts from friends, family, or favorite celebrities.

Turn off notifications

The interactive aspect of social media releases dopamine into the brain. Known as the “pleasure chemical,” dopamine triggers an obsessive-compulsive reaction, similar to other addictions.

When you get texts or messages or post likes, it reminds you to check your social media accounts. Your brain anticipates the dopamine reward, creating a feedback loop that keeps you hooked on social media.

By turning off notifications, you remove those reminders that can trigger that feedback loop. Fewer reminders mean fewer temptations to check your social media accounts.

Be your own bouncer

The quality of your online experiences can play a role in your physical and mental health. A 2020 Sleep Health study found negative social media experiences, such as cyberbullying, can often cause sleep problems.

Think of your social media account as your own club where you get to decide who crosses the velvet rope. At clubs, bouncers keep unruly or angry people from ruining the fun. Be your own social media bouncer.

Don’t interact with people who routinely argue with you or use abusive language. If you notice your interaction with someone affects your mood and attitude, unfollow, block, or delete them from your social media feed.

Stay off before bedtime

For some, FOMO keeps them constantly checking their apps before bedtime. To break that urge, keep electronics out of the bedroom. Charge your phone in another room.

Not only can online negative experiences disrupt your sleep, but the blue light from electronics can as well. Blue light suppresses your body’s release of melatonin, the chemical that helps you feel drowsy. To keep blue light from messing with your sleep, the Sleep Foundation recommends staying off electronics two hours before bedtime.

Social Media Use in 2021. Pew Research Center. Link.

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Social Media. Feb. 25, 2019. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Link.

Apurvakumar Pandya1 and Pragya Lodha, Frontiers in Human Dynamics, Social Connectedness, Excessive Screen Time During COVID-19 and Mental Health: A Review of Current Evidence. Link.

Zuhair Hussain and Mark D. Griffiths, Frontiers in Psychiatry, Problematic Social Networking Site Use and Comorbid Psychiatric Disorders: A Systematic Review of Recent Large-Scale Studies. Dec. 14, 2018. Link.

Rasan Burhan and Jalal Moradzadeh. Journal of Neurology & Neurophysiology, Neurotransmitter Dopamine (DA) and its Role in the Development of Social Media Addiction. 2020. Link.

Ariel Shensa, César G Escobar-Viera, Jaime E Sidani, Nicholas D Bowman, Michael P Marshal, Brian A Primack. Social Science & Medicine. Problematic Social Media Use and Depressive Symptoms among U.S. Young Adults: A Nationally-Representative Study. June 2017. Link.

Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. July 2017. Link.

Tic Severity Linked With Social Media Use for Teens During Pandemic. American Academy of Neurology. Feb. 23, 2022. Link.

The Association between Social Media Use and Eating Concerns among U.S. Young Adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Sept. 2016. Link.

The impact of Facebook use on self-reported eating disorders during the COVID-19 lockdown. BMC Psychiatry. Dec. 7, 2021. Link.

Barbara Jiotsa, Benjamin Naccache, Mélanie Duval, Bruno Rocher, and Marie Grall-Bronnec, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Social Media Use and Body Image Disorders: Association between Frequency of Comparing One's Own Physical Appearance to That of People Being Followed on Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness. Link.

Daniel I. Rzewnicki, Ariel Shensa, Jessica C. Levenson, Brian A. Primack, and Jaime E. Sidani. Sleep Health. Associations between positive and negative social media experiences and sleep disturbance among young adults. Link.

Sleep and Social Media. Sleep Foundation. Link.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.