Is social media bad for your health?
Mental-health experts dig into the dangers of Instagrammable moments and endless scrolling.
While social media has the power to bring people together – building social networks and connecting people around the world – research continues to shed light on negative mental-health effects, especially on children and young adults.
Psychologists are becoming increasingly concerned about the way social-media feeds present a “highlight reel” of Instagrammable moments and filtered photos that invite comparisons and make scrollers feel worse about themselves.
“Social media and technology use can rob us of the things that make for true well-being – time with loved ones and building meaningful relationships, pursuing good health and being present for the ordinary but beautiful life moments that happen every day,” said Alexis Karris Bachik, Ph.D., professor of Psychological Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a licensed clinical psychologist.
RED connected with Bachik and MSU Denver Psychology Professor Randi Smith, Ph.D., also a licensed psychologist, to talk about the dangers of social media.
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How does social media negatively affect mental health?
Smith: Human brains are natural comparison machines, and social media can exaggerate the social comparisons we make, leaving us feeling “less than.” Because people tend to post images and events that are curated to show them in the best light or on their best days, scrolling through social media can leave an individual thinking that everyone else is more glamorous, has better vacations, is more satisfied in their relationships, etc., etc.
The constant bombardment by unrealistic images is especially damaging for young people, whose identities and self-images are still under construction. We know that body-image concerns are elevated in teens who use lots of social media. Depression and anxiety also seem to be linked to social-media use in adolescents.
Bachik: Social media can absolutely have negative effects on mental health. There is growing research that associates social-media use with sleep disturbances, emotional dysregulation, diminished academic performance and depression. These are just some of the negative outcomes.
Almost every student owns a smartphone, and screen time usually averages over seven hours a day, so it’s easy to see how problems can arise. In general, when we look at research on social media and mental health, the data is mixed. Social media can be both good and bad for our mental health. It really depends on how we use it.
If a person is scrolling social media (not adding content/posting), they tend to feel greater degrees of envy and jealousy. Of course, we don’t see the true or full picture of someone’s life on social media. People often use filters, boosting and enhancing their appearance. Filtered versions of ourselves increase our dissatisfaction with our natural appearance and destroy our confidence. This can be true for all ages. In fact, there is research linking social-media filter use with increased trends for plastic surgery. People go into plastic surgeons’ offices asking for the filtered version of themselves. This is happening for adults, not just teenagers.
Recent studies show that depression, lower self-esteem, appearance anxiety and body dissatisfaction are all associated with Instagram use in younger girls. Do you see this affecting college-age and young adults as well? Or are the mental-health impacts different for college students and adults?
Smith: At MSU Denver, “college-age” is a big target since we have students of all ages at our university. Children tend to be enamored of smartphones and eager to explore the myriad apps and programs, especially because they’ve likely been told, appropriately, that they must wait until a certain age to get an Instagram, Facebook or TikTok account.
By the time people are in college, they’ve experienced the lure, the pull, the endless scroll, the lost hours. They’ve probably also observed the kinds of insensitivities, microaggressions, bullying and other negative communications that create awareness of damaging aspects of social media. Still, the students in my course were pretty discouraged to read the research on how social media increases mental-health problems.
Bachik: Research shows that the mental-health impacts are no different for college students and young adults from what they are for younger girls. College-age and young adults are deeply affected by social-media use and experience depression, lower self-esteem, lower confidence, appearance anxiety, body dissatisfaction, loneliness and FOMO – fear of missing out – as a result of social-media use.
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How do you address social media and mental health in your classes?
Smith: Based on my experience teaching a course on the benefits and harms of our devices, students at the university level are starting to develop a critical awareness of the dangers wrapped up in social media.
Bachik: We talk about social media and mental health directly in Positive Psychology class. We review current research on social media and well-being/depression, and we review tips on how to use social media responsibly. One of the biggest research findings that we recently discussed was an experimental design that randomly assigned college participants to two conditions: 1) no social-media restrictions, or 2) social media limited to 30 minutes on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat combined over a three-week period. The results were lower depression and loneliness for the group with restricted social-media access, and both groups had less anxiety and less FOMO. Just knowing that social-media use was being monitored seemed to curtail use. What was important about this study was that it established causation, not just correlation.