Social Media & Mental Health

Reviewed by Dr. Kirsten Davin, OTD, OTR/L, ATP, SMS

Social Media: Good or Bad?

Social media is a neutral tool that people use to connect socially with others across the globe. Much like television, radio, and other technological advancements, social media has also become a major part of marketing efforts for the vast majority of businesses. 

When used appropriately, social media can produce positive interactions between people. Like other technology, it poses little to no threat to mental or emotional health with typical use. However, the consequences can be devastating when in the wrong hands. 

Social media can be used to exploit people, target children, and bully others. Furthermore, people can utilize social media as a vehicle to spread misinformation about politics, culture issues, health conditions, and other current topics. As a result, it is imperative that people use it responsibly. 

What Is Social Media?

Even though people access social media via an internet connection, it is separate from the internet at large. Different types of social media provide unique experiences for users. It’s a rapidly changing landscape that continues to morph and change as new technologies emerge. 

Social Media: A Brief History

Social media started in the late 1990s as a variety of chat rooms where people with like interests could have conversations. Six Degrees1, created in 1997, is often identified as the first social media website. However, it wasn’t until 2003 that MySpace created the blueprint for the type of social media we use today. 

When MySpace launched, it was revolutionary. It was a place for teens and young adults to express themselves. It included profiles where people could upload a photo of themselves across a background of their choice. They could embed music, change customizable features, and update their page as often as they wished. 

Facebook came along in 2004 as a social media platform for college students. It was later opened up for users anywhere who wanted to dabble with social media. After that, it wasn’t long before other social media platforms began to pop up, including Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok, Discord, and many more. 

Positive Effects of Social Media

1. Connecting with Others

Most people use social media as a means for maintaining relationships and staying connected. Whether reconnecting with former classmates, reaching out to extended family members, or staying in touch with friends that one doesn’t see often, social media allows people to connect with each other on a daily basis. This can help foster a sense of connectedness that would be otherwise difficult to achieve without frequent visits. 

Social media became especially important for social connectedness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many turned to social media platforms as a way to connect with loved ones during lockdown and quarantine. Social media also gave people a way to support those whom the virus hit hardest, such as people who lost loved ones, jobs, or homes due the pandemic. With the push of a button, people could send financial aid, volunteer to deliver meals, or offer words of encouragement to friends and family in crisis.

2. Offering Increased Educational Opportunities

With social media, connecting with industry experts and seeking out new information has never been easier. It’s common for doctors, lawyers, educators, scientists, authors, journalists, technicians, specialists, and companies employing these experts to have active social media accounts. 

Experts can use social media to answer questions, provide advice, and offer consultations as needed. They are often guests on institutional social media accounts for reputable organizations and prestigious universities. Other times, they have their own social media accounts that they use to share their expertise. 

Social media can be a valuable tool in the distribution of information. Experts often provide information to their followers that they would not have had access to otherwise. It’s also helpful that social media distills this information into smaller soundbites that are more easily understood. 

3. Understanding Other Perspectives

People with opposing viewpoints may also use social media as a platform to discuss, debate and learn about others’ points of view. Whether the difference in opinion is political, religious, or cultural, social media provides a place for people to share their perspective and to read about others’. 

4. Amplifying Social Change Efforts

Efforts to affect social change have also gained momentum on social media. When horrific crimes or racist acts happen, they often go viral on social media. This brings a level of visibility to the issues that wouldn’t have received as much attention otherwise. 

In particular, many mental health issues have been destigmatized thanks to awareness efforts via social media. It’s becoming more common for people to talk about mental health online or share their personal experience of seeing a therapist. Gen Z and Millennials, two generations with high levels of social media use, are more likely to feel comfortable seeing a therapist than past generations.

Negative Effects of Social Media

While there are many benefits to social media, there are also negative effects, including:

  • Perpetuating the idea that “perfection” is real and attainable
  • Encouraging comparison directly (number of likes, comments, etc.) and indirectly (showing someone else’s “perfect” life)
  • Potentially exacerbating depression and dissociation by including features that make it easy for users to numb difficult or unwanted emotions (e.g., endless scrolling)
  • Overwhelming users with negative news, which may increase anxiety
  • Inundating people with unrealistic beauty standards and filters
  • Empowering bullying and outrage
  • Exposing people to manipulation or grooming

People often put their very best foot forward on social media. They showcase the best parts of their lives while omitting their challenges or failures. As a result, people are able to masquerade as more beautiful, physically fit, or successful than they actually are, often with the help of filters and other image-altering software or apps. 

When people consume this media, they may develop feelings of unworthiness because they aren’t skinny enough, rich enough, or successful enough to compete with the idealized representations of other people’s lives on social media. These feelings may manifest in increased anxiety or depression, eating disorders, or other destructive behaviors in the pursuit of perfectionism. 

Even worse, people also use social media to bully others—sometimes with deadly consequences. Cyber bullies may be people known to the victim, or they may be strangers who engage in this behavior for entertainment. Either way, bullies often exploit one’s looks, lifestyle, or other information gleaned from social media postings. Such direct attacks can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and even thoughts of suicide

The Dangers of Social Media

Although social media is a neutral tool, it’s important to identify how it can encourage unhealthy behaviors, such as:

  • Numbing: Features of social media, such as infinite scrolling, can keep you hooked for long periods of time. This can occur even if the content you’re consuming increases feelings of anxiety or depression, which can lead to doomscrolling.
  • Addiction: Likes, favorites, and other metrics trigger a reward reaction in the brain, similar to other addictive substances and behaviors.
  • Emotional manipulation: Many social media platforms actively prioritize engagement over accuracy, safety, and helpfulness. Intense emotional reactions are often the strongest predictor of engagement, regardless of if those feelings are positive or negative.
  • Reinforcement: Algorithms can narrow your perspective to only those who reinforce your beliefs, regardless of if they are helpful or harmful.

Social media dangers can have a variety of consequences. Doomscrolling is often a mindless activity that passes the time. But not only can people lose hours of their day to this behavior, the endless, compulsive consumption of negative information and breaking news is harmful to mental health.

Since user engagement is a metric by which social media platforms measure their success, they use their algorithms to identify the things you engage with most. Then, they fill up your explore page, newsfeed, or other pages with content that you are more likely to interact with. By utilizing this process, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter reinforce your beliefs, even if they are false or flawed. 

Social Media Effects on Teens

Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of social media. They are more easily influenced than adults, so it’s imperative for parents to monitor what their child is accessing on social media. Helpful tips for parents include:

  • Knowing which platforms your child frequents
  • Respecting your child’s privacy in age-appropriate ways so they can exercise a stronger sense of self
  • Starting a dialogue with your child about internet safety (physical, emotional, and mental)
  • Monitoring screen time if excessive use is a concern
  • Ensuring underaged children are only exposed to age-appropriate content
  • Teaching your child media literacy
  • Modeling healthy social media moderation in your own life 

Parents should aim to protect their children from the negative effects of social media while preserving their privacy and autonomy. Simply restricting access to social media is usually not the answer because of the numerous positive outcomes it offers. 

Parents can start by modeling healthy behaviors, such as pausing phone use during conversations, dinner, or family time and limiting the information shared on social media profiles. These responsible choices will help your child moderate their own behavior on social media.

If your teen is experiencing mental or emotional health challenges that you suspect are the result of social media or cyber bullying, it may be time to engage them with a therapist. Browse our comprehensive directory of therapists across the country.