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Social media bringing you down? 4 ways to protect your mental health

March 10, 2022 - 26 min read

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The widespread use of social media

How social media affects the brain

8 ways social media affects mental health

11 signs social media is impacting your mental health

4 ways to manage the negative impacts of social media

How to support someone with unhealthy social media habits

I delete a social media app every few weeks. 

Usually, it’s after a night of endless scrolling. I look at the time and realized I’ve just spent hours perusing other people’s lives, most I don’t even know. I realize that I need a break, so I remove the app from my phone. 

But without fail, after a few weeks of a social media cleanse, I re-download the app. It’s a tumultuous, conflicted relationship where I can’t quite pinpoint how I feel about it. 

Sometimes, social media makes me feel more connected, more informed. But other times, I feel overloaded and overwhelmed. 

Social media and mental health have crept into the conversation around wellness. It’s not as black-and-white as you may think. Learn how social media impacts mental health. We’ll share important social media and mental health stats to keep in mind. 

But most importantly, learn how you can be in the driver’s seat of your mental fitness

The widespread use of social media

Social media has spread like wildfire in the last two decades. I still remember when I first got a Facebook in high school. It was all anyone could talk about, this new platform to communicate and connect with friends. 

How many people use social media? 

Today, billions of people use social media. In 2020, over 3.6 billion people were using social media worldwide. It’s estimated more than 4 million people will use social media by 2025. The Pew Research Center has been tracking social media use in the US since 2005. Here’s what they’ve found: 

  • 7 in 10 Americans use social media to connect, consume news content, share information, and more. 
  • Social media has become a part of our daily routines. 7 in 10 Facebook users visit the site at least once a day. Similarly, 6 in 10 Instagram and Snapchat users also visit these sites at least once a day. 
  • Different generations tend to gravitate towards different social media platforms. But Facebook and YouTube are the most widely used platforms, which speaks to the broad representation of the population at large. 

What makes people want to use social media? 

The psychology behind social media is a fascinating one. And we’re still learning as the social media platforms evolve, new generations emerge, and new users use tools in different ways. 

But we do have some insight into the psychology behind social media — specifically, why we share our lives online. 

First, social media is interactive. We give and receive feedback on social media. You can like, comment, and share. When we get positive feedback, we want to keep using it. 

We also know that social media can trigger neuro-responses, like dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine and oxytocin make us feel good — and it’s a reason why people want to use social media. We’ll learn more about how social media affects the brain in the next section.

But beyond the brain’s hunger for dopamine, we use social media because of connection. It helps people stay in touch with friends and family. I have some friends who I only keep in touch with because of social media. 

Statista ran a survey about why people use social media.

  • Five in 10 respondents say they use social media to stay in touch with friends and family.
  • Another main reason for social media use is reading news stories and entertainment.
  • The survey also reported 21% of people use social media to follow celebrities or influencers. 

How social media affects the brain

We know that social media impacts the brain. Several studies have been conducted to examine how the brain reacts to social media.

One of the biggest ways social media affects the brain is through dopamine. 

Let’s take Instagram. Say you posted a photo from your weekend getaway with friends. Suddenly, “likes” start to trickle in. And with every like, your brain fires off dopamine. Dopamine is known as a feel-good chemical. It’s a neurotransmitter that boosts mood, motivation, and even attention

Our brains love dopamine. After all, it makes us feel good. This release of dopamine is a big reason why people keep using social media. 

According to Harvard researchers, this dopamine release can serve as a social reward. Our brain has four major dopamine receptors. Each of these receptors is like a little trail that is associated with different cognitive and motor functions. 

 

Source: Rebecca Clements, Harvard University 

But here’s the kicker. Three of the dopamine pathways are what researchers call “reward pathways.” The release of dopamine in these pathways can shape our behaviors, thoughts, and actions. 

Let’s go back to our Instagram example. The “like” is the stimuli. The reaction is dopamine. And what follows is that “feel-good” social reward.

Every time our brain is stimulated, positive social stimuli release dopamine. It helps reinforce whatever behavior it was, like the Instagram “like.” 

As the “likes” continue, so does our association with these stimuli and the connections it makes. According to the Harvard article cited above, these social stimuli are both positive and negative. Each social media stimuli has the potential to bring negative and positive effects on our brains. 

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8 ways social media affects mental health

The impacts of social media on our mental health are complicated, to say the least. There are a number of factors that influence how we experience and react to social media. We’ll talk about some of the pros and cons — and what you can do about it. 

“Social media can have positive effects, such as a feeling of community and connection to others. It gives us a platform to help us express ourselves and feel heard. However, it has also been shown that social media use can be associated with feelings of loneliness, dissatisfaction, and envy. Sometimes, these feelings lead to depression and anxiety disorders, amongst others.”

Alexia Roncero, BetterUp Fellow Coach 

Negative effects of social media on mental health 

There’s an ongoing debate about the negative impact social media has on mental health. And researchers are still studying this aspect.

But we do have some data and information around the negative effects of social media on mental health. A 2020 study found that social media can aggravate mental health problems

  1. Social media has been linked to increased depression and anxiety, especially among adolescents. 
  2. Social media has a disproportionate impact on young girls’ mental health. This is particularly true when it comes to eating disorders. The CDC recently released data on mental health and teenage girls.

    Data cites an increase in emergency room visits from teenage girls dealing with eating and other disorders, including anxiety, depression, and stress. The organization says teenage girls may be developing tics after seeing the phenomenon spread on social media. 
  3. Social media can be addictive. Remember that dopamine boost we get? Well, humans love dopamine. It’s a complicated chemical.

    It’s released when we eat good food or have a good connection with another human. But it’s also released with the use of drugs, alcohol, and gambling. It’s important to be cognizant of how much time we’re spending on social media. 
  4. Social media can disrupt sleep. A 2018 study revealed sleep disruption tied to social media usage. When our sleep suffers, so do other components of our physical and mental well-being
  5. Cyberbullying. According to Pew Research Center, a majority of teens have experienced cyberbullying. And 90% of teens believe online harassment is a problem. 

Positive effects of social media on mental health

Social media is a complicated beast. It comes with its own set of pros and cons. And it can have positive effects on our well-being.

We looked to a recent Harvard study to find out the benefits of social media on mental health. 

social-media-and-mental-health-two-people-on-phone

  1. Strong social networks are associated with positive mental health. Social media allows people to connect, especially in a pandemic era where it became harder for humans to connect with one another. 
  2. Social media facilitates connections that overcome barriers. My friends and family live all over the country — and the world.

    I wouldn’t have been able to stay in touch with my brother in Spain if I didn’t have social media. Barriers to connection are eliminated (or reduced) with the use of social media. 
  3. Increased career opportunities. There are people who have built their entire careers on social media. But beyond having a social media platform be “your office,” social media has been incredible at helping people find jobs.

    In fact,
    79% of job applicants used social medialike LinkedIn, in their job search. Social networking is incredibly powerful for job seekers.  

11 symptoms that signal social media is negatively impacting your mental health

First, take a deep breath

It’s OK if you’re feeling a little anxious about social media and mental health. 

The first step in managing your social media usage is being aware and intentional with yourself.

This requires some Inner Work. Take three deep breaths, scan your body, and try to take note of how you’re feeling before, during, and after you engage on social media. 

Here are 11 symptoms that could signal social media is negatively impacting your mental health

  1. You’re comparing yourself to others on social media
  2. You feel a sense of low self-esteem 
  3. You’re having trouble sleeping, especially if you spend time on social media before bed 
  4. In your free time, spend more time on social media than any other activity 
  5. You feel worse about yourself after you spend time on social media 
  6. You feel increased symptoms of depression 
  7. You feel increased anxiety or increased social anxiety  
  8. You start feeling extreme FOMO (fear of missing out) 
  9. You’re a victim of cyberbullying 
  10. You’re not able to focus on your work, school, or tasks at hand 
  11. You engage in risky behavior for the sake of social media (like checking your feed while driving) 

social-media-and-mental-health-girl-on-phone-taking-photo

If you experience any of these symptoms, pay attention to them. Try to not suppress them, as much as your brain might want to. It’s important to trust your gut and know when you’re feeling low about yourself. Recognizing these feelings and symptoms is often the first step to learning how to take care of your mental health

Next, we’ll talk about ways to manage the symptoms and keep the negative effects of social media at bay. 

4 ways to manage the negative effects of social media

If you’re struggling with your social media use, you’re not alone.

I’ve felt that need to unplug and detach from social media before many times. Some people I know even do a digital detox practice. It’s not impossible to manage those negative symptoms of social media use. 

“If I had to give one piece of advice it would be to be aware of when you feel unpleasant emotions. Be mindful of your emotions while or after using social media, and try to investigate the source of this feeling. We have normalized social media to the extent of not listening to our body and mind’s response when we make use of it. The more aware we are to what could be harming us, the clearer we will be able to see that something needs to be done about it.”

Alexia Roncero, BetterUp Fellow Coach 

Here are four ways you can help manage your social media use. 

1. Put a time limit restriction on your phone 

Smartphones are really smart these days. We carry around this little, tiny computer in our pockets that we use for social media. 

One study found that adolescents who spend more time on social media are at more risk for mental health problems. Be careful with your time — it’s more valuable than you may think. 

Smartphones have time limiting restrictions and settings that you can set. For example, I recently set a restriction on Instagram for 20 minutes. Once I’ve spent that 20 minutes on the app, I get a notification that lets me know that time is up. 

Of course, this takes a little discipline and self-control. I’m definitely guilty of snoozing the restriction for 15 more minutes.

But it’s a great way to stay aware of how much time you’re spending. Most smartphones will also give you a digest of how much time you’ve spent on social networking apps. 

2. Filter who you follow and engage with 

Here's a hot take. You don’t have to follow or engage with people who don’t make you feel good. 

I had a friend post about this once on Instagram. She recently did a “follower cleanse” for her mental health. She went through everyone she followed and unfollowed accounts that didn’t serve her. 

This could look differently depending on who you follow. For example, if you follow Instagram models and know you have body image distortions, do you need to still follow them? Can you remove that person from high school who is always complaining about something? 

Try filtering who you engage with and be mindful of why. It can help to improve your experience — and your self-esteem — when you do use social media apps. 

3. Try swapping out social media time with different activities 

In other words, build healthy habits around how you’re spending your free time. 

For example, I used to spend a lot of time on social media right before bed. Before I knew it, I’d look at the time and realize I’d sucked an hour of my life scrolling. 

I decided to start charging my phone across the bedroom so I didn’t have access to it. And instead of scrolling, I picked up a book. 

Think of ways you can build positive habits if you find yourself spending too much time on social media. 

4. Seek support 

If you’re experiencing increased negative mental health symptoms, don’t wait to get help. Seek out a mental health professional to help address your symptoms. 

If you’re living with depression or anxiety already, you might notice social media can exascerbate your symptoms. Let your health care professional know your symptoms are worsening. 

If you’re finding social media is impeding your ability to work, focus, or be productive, let your coach know. With BetterUp, your coach will help provide individualized support to help you get back on track towards reaching your goals. 

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How to support someone with unhealthy social media habits

Are you a parent or caregiver with a teen that’s struggling? Or maybe your partner or spouse has fallen into a social media slump? 

My little brother lives with a severe mental illness. He struggles with his relationship with social media and can sometimes fall into a rabbit hole.

Usually, he can recognize when he’s spending too much time on social media. But he doesn’t always recognize how it impacts his behavior or thinking. And that’s where he’s needs the additional support. 

Here are three ways you can support someone with unhealthy social media habits. 

  1. Offer accountability. If you notice a loved one spending too much time on social media, try saying: “Let’s both commit to spending 45 minutes on social media a day.” Having an accountability buddy can go a long way — and this commitment could help benefit you, too.  
  2. Raise mental health concerns. Behavior changes can be hard to observe unless you’re looking inward. You can gently raise any concerns around mental health to your loved one.

    For example, you could say: “It seems like you’ve been more stressed and anxious recently. How can I help support you?”


    It could open up the door for conversation and ultimately, support. Make sure the person you’re supporting knows you’re coming from a place of care.
  3. Find new activities together. Try suggesting activities that’ll help take up more free time that could be spent on social media. Let’s say you’re the parent of a teenager. Is there a sport or an instrument they might be interested in? Could you sign up for a camp or a club?

    We know many young people tend to gravitate towards social media because there’s extra time laying around. Social connections can certainly be made online. But they’re also made through in-person interactions.

As we navigate the new normal, try to find new activities that can help suck up some of that free time. 

Create a healthy relationship with social media 

There’s a good chance that we’re all social media users. We’re all looking for real-life social support, and social media can meet our connection needs. 

But it’s a blurry line to toe. While there are many positive aspects, people’s mental health has suffered from social media. Recent research has shown this is especially true for young people and young adults. 

But social media also facilitates connection — and has its positive well-being benefits, too. It can keep us connected to family members across the world. It can help us find new career opportunities. 

No matter where you are in your relationship with social media, your life satisfaction is important. With BetterUp, you can learn to manage those feelings of inadequacy with some support from a coach

Everyone should be able to reach their full potential. With support, you can start making changes that will change your life

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Published March 10, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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