Do you start your day by checking your social media accounts? And end your day the same way?
Maybe you pop back in throughout the day for quick check-ins — but before you realize it, you’ve scrolled through recent posts for nearly an hour.
This isn’t all that uncommon. After all, social media use is pretty widespread.
In the United States alone, 72 percent of people reported using some type of social media in 2021, according to Pew Research Center.
Whether you recently started using social media or have had an active presence for years, you’ve likely come across plenty of mentions about its potential negative impact on mental health.
But contrary to what many people may suggest, social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Social media often gets a bad reputation for being a contributor to negative outcomes,” says Britt Frank, a licensed psychotherapist and author of the book “The Science of Stuck.”
Yet, like anything, Frank goes on to say, the coin has two sides. In other words, social media could be both harmful and helpful.
The key to using social media well involves finding ways to lessen the downsides and amplify the upsides. Here’s how.
You might already know social media can potentially hamper mental health. But you might have less awareness of exactly how.
Social media could negatively affect mental well-being by:
Making you feel bad about yourself
Social media offers plenty of opportunities to compare yourself to others. Scrolling might leave you envious of your social circle’s lives, including their:
- fancy vacations
- clean, cozy homes
- tight-knit, smiling, well-dressed families
- seemingly flawless bodies
She notes that her clients often feel less-than after using social media, explaining that social media often creates a feeling of ‘never being enough’ or reinforces the idea that perfection is possible.
Seeing filtered slices from someone’s life can lead you to assume they’re living in complete bliss, even as you know you aren’t.
And when it comes to physical appearance, frequent exposure to filtered and Photoshopped images can also lead to self-consciousness and dislike for your own looks. In fact, there’s even a term for this experience — Snapchat dysmorphia.
Messing with your sleep
Research from 2019 suggests people who use social media, particularly at night, tend to:
- go to bed later
- sleep less
- sleep worse
One explanation that may drive excessive use, even despite any potential consequences, is fear of missing out (FOMO). You might have a hard time logging off if you worry that doing so means you’ll miss something important.
But this mindset can easily disrupt sleep. Using social media at night may
Contributing to anxiety and depression
A 2017 study used data from same survey to explore the impact of using multiple social media platforms. The results of this study suggest people using between 7 to 11 social media platforms are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than people using between 0 and 2 platforms.
The study authors point out, though, that the link could go both ways. Some people, for instance, may use social media to cope with existing feelings of anxiety or depression.
What’s more, a 2018 study of 143 college students found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes each day could help improve well-being.
In this study, participants who used Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram for only 10 minutes each day for 3 weeks experienced reduced depression and loneliness, in comparison to participants who used social media as they usually would.
Crowding out fulfilling activities
“Excessive social media use takes time away from doing other things that may benefit your mental health,” points out Goodman.
If you use social media apps too often, she says, you might be spending less time doing things like:
- connecting with others in person
- spending time in nature
- taking care of yourself in other meaningful ways
All that said, social media can have plenty of upsides, too.
Social media could help promote improved well-being by:
Increasing access to resources
Whether you’re searching for support groups, informative articles, or valuable tools and tips, social media can provide access to multiple resources — though, of course, you’ll always want to consider the source for potential inaccuracy or bias.
Social media can also break down some of the barriers people face when trying to access resources.
“Sitting behind a screen largely eliminates social risk,” says Frank.
If you find it challenging to get out and about for whatever reason, social media could make it easier to do things like:
- join a support group
- find recommendations for healthcare professionals
- participate in virtual events
- get information about events in your area
- learn more about free or low cost resources, events, and opportunities for recreation
Highlighting causes of interest
“Social media can also help raise awareness for different causes,” says Goodman.
It can also help you:
- learn more about volunteer opportunities
- support organizations that have a positive impact on the world
- make meaningful connections with people who have similar values and prioritize the same issues
Connecting you with like-minded people
Before social media, your options for socializing were geographically limited, for the most part. You might have had some challenges finding people to connect with, especially if you lived in a small town.
Today, social media allows you to quickly and easily ‘travel’ beyond your city, state, and even your continent to expand your inner circle.
Communities exist for practically everything you can think of: homeschooling, virtual book clubs, Minecraft, and crafting, just to name a very small handful.
No matter how obscure your hobbies are, you can likely find a community of people who also loves what you love.
Helping you share and sharpen your skills
Self-expression play an important role in mental health, and social media provides an outlet for this expression since it creates the opportunity to:
- share your interests and pastimes with others
- sharpen your skills by learning from others with the same interests
- broaden your creative, cognitive horizons by learning about new hobbies and ways to try them
You might, for example, share talents like:
- art, from music to photography
- poetry and creative writing
You can also:
- improve your cooking and baking skills, plus learn more about the cuisines of different cultures
- find fun ways to move your body
- learn more about daily life from people living across the globe
Developing a healthy relationship with social media starts with recognizing it as a tool, says Goodman.
Like most things, social media can be used for good, or it can become problematic when used incorrectly or in excess, she says.
So, how can you use social media in a way that actually benefits your mental health instead of disrupting it? These tips offer a place to start.
Get curious about your behavior
Frank suggests exploring why you turn to social media. This can help you minimize unhelpful patterns of use and begin to identify behaviors that address your needs more effectively.
You might start by asking yourself what function social media serves in your life.
Maybe you need a distraction from a recent loss or stressful job situation. Or, maybe you scroll a lot simply because your phone is constantly within reach.
Skip social media in the morning and night
Using social media apps first thing in the morning could potentially set a negative tone for the rest of your day. And, as noted above, using these apps at night could disrupt your sleep.
That’s why it might help to leave your phone in another room when you go to bed and try a digital or old-school alarm clock. Alternatively, you could leave your phone in a drawer in your room. That way, it’s out of easy reach but you can still hear your alarm in the morning.
Instead, consider bookending your days with truly nourishing rituals that support your mental health.
Curate your content
Spend a few days paying attention to the kind of content that seems to negatively affect your mental health. Then get selective about the people and organizations you follow.
Frank suggests blocking or muting any content that doesn’t help you. You can also make a point of seeking out content that inspires and uplifts you.
Set yourself up for success
If you’ve come across stories of successful social media detoxes, you may feel tempted to go cold turkey.
Taking a complete break from all your social apps could certainly be helpful, but Frank encourages getting honest about your willingness to stay off social apps.
Setting your expectations higher than your willingness can lead to a cycle of shame, which can, in turn, fuel more of the behavior you want to reduce, says Frank.
So, ask yourself:
- What are good boundaries for me on a regular basis?
- Would I like to experiment with skipping social media for a day?
- Can I keep my phone elsewhere to minimize use?
Be gentle with yourself
If you find yourself getting sucked into social media these days more than ever before, you might feel a little guilty about your habits. But going down the social rabbit hole is completely understandable.
It makes sense to look to social media for distraction and soothing during pandemic times, Frank notes, “that we might end up using social media as a chew toy for our anxious and harried brains.”
Seek out other kinds of fun
You can often make social media seem less appealing by:
- scheduling fun outings with friends or fulfilling solo activities
- keeping an interesting book by your bed or in your bag or backpack
- taking an in-person class that interests you
- watching documentaries or YouTube videos on topics you yearn to understand
- checking out hilarious comedy specials
Try this: Take a few minutes to make a list of people, places, and activities you’d like to dedicate more time to, and start working through that list right away.
Your relationship with social media may not always be simple, or easy to understand.
If you find yourself getting caught up in the nuances, a therapist may be able to offer more guidance.
How do you know it’s time to reach out?
According to Frank and Goodman, you may want to consider getting help if you find yourself:
- spending more time focused on social media than caring for your needs
- experiencing conflict and other challenges in your relationships
- frequently comparing yourself to others and berating yourself for not measuring up
- unable to step away from social media despite unwanted consequences
A therapist can offer support with:
- identifying patterns of problematic social media use
- exploring underlying reasons for excessive use
- setting limits
- addressing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns
- strengthening your relationship with yourself
The effect social media has on your mental health often comes down to how you use it, and why.
Case in point: Social media can lead you to feel more isolated and alone. But it can also help you connect with people going through similar life challenges or exploring the same interests.
Ultimately, the key to building a better relationship with social media lies in exploring how your use affects you. Small steps and more thoughtful use can lead to an improved relationship with social media and yourself.
Keep in mind, too, that social media apps
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for more than a decade on a wide range of topics. She’s the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She’s especially passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedIn, or check out her writing at her website.