Social media has become an integral part of our daily lives, with billions of people around the world using platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to connect with friends, family, customers and even complete strangers. A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center1 found that 72% of adults in the United States use at least one social media platform. However, as we spend more time scrolling through our feeds, it’s important to consider the impact that social media can have on our mental health.
The “Highlight Reel” Effect
One of the biggest concerns with social media is the so-called “highlight reel” effect, where people only share the best parts of their lives, creating an unrealistic representation of reality. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, as we compare our own personal lives and business achievements to the seemingly perfect lives of others. Studies have shown that the more time people spend on social media, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A study by the Royal Society for Public Health2 in the United Kingdom found that social media use is associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and poor sleep. The study also found that platforms like Instagram and Snapchat were the most likely to be associated with these negative effects. These platforms are heavily focused on visual content, which can make it easier to compare ourselves to others and feel like we’re falling short.
Another study by the University of Pennsylvania3 found that people who spent more time on social media were more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Social media can make it harder to build genuine connections with others. When we’re constantly bombarded with images of our friends and family having fun without us, it can be easy to feel left out and disconnected.
Lack of Empathy
Another issue with social media is the way people treat others online. Because we can’t see the real people behind the screens, it’s easy to forget that the people we’re interacting with are real, with real feelings and emotions. This can lead to a lack of empathy and a tendency to be more critical and judgmental of others.
The National Institutes of Health4 found that people who spend more time on social media are more likely to engage in cyberbullying. People feel emboldened to say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. When we’re not face-to-face with someone, it’s easier to be cruel and hurtful.
Social media can make it harder to empathize with others. When we’re constantly bombarded with images of other people’s lives, it can be easy to start thinking of them as nothing more than avatars on a screen. This can make it harder to feel empathy for them when they’re going through tough times.
Disconnection between Online and Offline Relationships
Many people present themselves differently on social media than they do in person, leading to a disconnect between online and offline relationships. This can make it harder to build genuine connections with others, which can negatively impact our mental health.
A 2021 study Loneliness and Social Media Use by a group of academics across several countries5 found that people who spend more time on social media are more likely to experience social isolation. People are less likely to spend time in person with their friends and family when they’re constantly connected to them online.
Social media can also make it harder to build trust with others. When we’re constantly bombarded with images of other people’s lives, it can be easy to start thinking of them as nothing more than avatars on a screen. This can make it harder to trust them when they’re going through tough times.
Another issue is that people tend to present themselves differently on social media, often portraying a more idealized version of themselves. This can lead to a disconnect between the person we know online and the person we know in person, making it harder to build genuine connections and trust.
Moreover, social media can also make it harder to communicate effectively with others. Because most social media interactions are text-based, it can be easy to misinterpret tone and intent. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts that wouldn’t have occurred if we were communicating in person.
Social Media & Politics
Social media has become an increasingly powerful tool in shaping political views and opinions. It’s easier than ever for people to access information and connect with others who share their beliefs. However, this has also led to the spread of misinformation and the reinforcement of echo chambers, where people are only exposed to information that confirms their existing views.
One example of this is the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has gained a significant following on social media. QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that claims that a secret cabal of powerful and influential people, including politicians and celebrities, are working together to control the world and harm innocent citizens. Despite the fact that many of the claims made by QAnon have been debunked, the theory continues to spread on social media, with many people becoming increasingly entrenched in their beliefs.
The ability of social media to create echo chambers and reinforce existing beliefs is a major concern. When people are only exposed to information that confirms their existing views, they’re less likely to be open to alternative perspectives and more likely to become entrenched in their beliefs. This can make it harder for people to engage in constructive dialogue and find common ground on important issues.
Furthermore, social media is also a breeding ground for misinformation, which can be spread rapidly and widely. Misinformation can be used to manipulate public opinion and influence political decisions. For example, in 2016, a number of false stories were spread on social media during the US presidential election, which may have had an impact on the outcome.
While social media has made it easier for people to access information and connect with others who share their beliefs, it has also led to the spread of misinformation and the reinforcement of echo chambers. Individuals need to be aware of the potential biases and inaccuracies of the information they consume, and for social media platforms to take steps to combat the spread of misinformation.
Managing Social Media and Mental Health
It’s important to note that social media itself is not inherently bad for our mental health. However, the way we use it can have a significant impact on our well-being. To minimize the negative effects of social media on our mental health, it’s important to set boundaries and use them in a mindful way.
One way to do this is to limit the amount of time we spend on social media each day. An article by Charlotte Huff, written for the American Psychological Association6 recommends setting limits on the amount of time we spend on social media, as well as being mindful of the types of content we’re consuming.
Another way to manage social media and mental health is to be mindful of the way we interact with others online. It’s important to remember that the people we’re interacting with are real, with real feelings and emotions. This can help us be more empathetic and less critical of others.
Additionally, it’s important to be mindful of the way we present ourselves on social media. It’s okay to share the good parts of our lives, but it’s important to be honest and authentic about our experiences. This can help us build genuine connections with others and avoid the disconnection between online and offline relationships.
Social media has become an important part of our daily lives, but it’s important to consider the impact it can have on our mental health. The highlight reel effect, the lack of empathy, the disconnection between online and offline relationships, and the tendency to present ourselves differently on social media can all have a negative impact on our mental health. Setting boundaries, and being mindful of the way we use social media, and the way we interact with others online can help mitigate these negative effects. It’s important to find a balance between staying connected and informed, while also being mindful of the potential negative effects on our mental health.
- Pew Research Center. (2021). Social Media Usage: 2005-2021.
- Royal Society for Public Health. (2017). #StatusOfMind: The Impact of Social Media on Young People’s Health.
- University of Pennsylvania. (2018). Social Media Use Linked to Loneliness and Social Isolation.
- National Institutes of Health. (2018). Social Media Use and Cyberbullying.
- Bonsaksen, T., Ruffolo, M., Leung, J., Price, D., Thygesen, H., Schoultz, M., & Geirdal, A. Ø. (2021). Loneliness and Its Association With Social Media Use During the COVID-19 Outbreak. Social Media + Society, 7(3).
- American Psychological Association. (2022). Social media’s growing impact on our lives.