10 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health


Since the face of psychology is constantly changing, it is impossible to end the “History of Psychology” series with a definitive, “…and that’s how psychology came to be.” Separate branches of the discipline have formed, medicine has become staggeringly important in treatment and prevention of mental illnesses, theories have formed and crumbled, and scholars have dedicated their careers to advancing the field. The science has been adapted by the masses, and has even become prevalent in pop culture – music (Blink 182’s “Stockholm Syndrome” comes to mind), television, and films have all explored mental illnesses and treatments.

The series has only briefly outlined the science’s origins and growth, and it continues to inspire many to study the workings of the human mind. Luckily, those who came before us provided us with the tools and terminology to hit the ground running and discover incredible things they couldn’t have even imagined.

More recently, the incorporation of technology into psychology has made it possible to supplement therapeutic techniques with computer-based counseling, test brain activity, and accurately record and analyze complex data – and that’s not even the beginnings of its potential influence on the field. Although technology will undoubtedly open up doors for the next generation of researchers, a Google search of “psychology technology” actually leads to a number of pages dedicated to explaining the effects of technology on our own minds.

The topic is broad enough to expand into dozens of articles, so this top 10 list tackles only some of the most staggering results of studies and surveys pertaining to social media. Chances are, if you’re reading this you participate in social media in some way or another, so next time you go to check your Facebook, retweet an interesting link, or choose an Instagram filter for a selfie, think about the ways your brain is processing the seemingly endless stream of information it is taking in.

1. Social media is addictive.

Studies show that 63% of Americans log on to Facebook daily, and 40% log on multiple times each day. People use the site for myriad reasons; however, it usually serves, on some level, the same basic purposes: distraction and boredom relief. “Likes” and comments are positive reinforcement for posting information, making it difficult for a person to stop. Researchers have found this so common that they created a scale to measure this addiction: The Berge Facebook Addiction Scale.

2. Social media makes us compare our lives with others’.

Posts on social media many times present an idealized version of what’s happening, what something looks like, or how things are going. This can lead users to constantly compare themselves to others and think less of their own lives. If things are going particularly well for people in your newsfeed and you’re having a rough day, of course this will likely negatively affect your mood. In fact, in 2012 a team of researchers in the UK surveyed users, 53% of whom said social media had changed their behavior; 51% said it was negative behavior because of decline in confidence they felt due to unfair comparisons to others.

3. Social media makes us restless.

Out of the same sample as the above example, two-thirds admitted to having difficultly relaxing when unable to use their social media accounts.

4. Social media gives rise to cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is an enormous concern, especially for adolescents. An organization that aims for internet safety, called Enough is Enough, conducted a survey that found 95% of teenagers who use social media have witnessed cyberbullying, and 33% have been victims themselves.

CDC data

5. Social media glamorizes drug and alcohol use.

A study that explored the relationship between teenagers, social media, and drug use found that 70% of teenagers ages 12 to 17 use social media, and that those who interact with it on a daily basis are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana. In addition, 40% admitted they had been exposed to pictures of people under the influence via social media, suggesting correlation between the two factors. Although a correlation is all it is, it makes sense that social media would amp up the amount of peer pressure to which teenagers are exposed.

6. Social media can make us unhappy.

A study from the University of Michigan collected data about Facebook users and how it correlated with their moods. Simply put, they found that the more avid users were overall more unhappy than those who used the site less. Over more time, avid users also reported lower satisfaction in their lives overall.

7. Social media can lead to fear of missing out, aka FOMO.

Fear of missing out is a phenomenon that occurs when you feel pressure to be doing what everyone else is doing, attend every event, and share every life experience. It can evoke anxiety and cause social media users to question why everyone is “having fun without them.” Surveys have even found that people feel insecure after using Pinterest because they feel that they aren’t crafty or creative enough. Facebook and Twitter can make people feel like they aren’t successful or smart enough.

8. Social media often leads to multitasking.

How many tabs do you have open right now? How are you even concentrating on one thing? The thing is, you’re probably not – especially if one of those tabs is a social media site. Research has shown that our brains don’t have the capacity to fully focus our attention on two things at once, and instead multitasking causes our brain to quickly switch from one task to another. This hinders information processing and productivity. Closing out your Twitter feed can seriously help you get some work done.

Social media isn’t all about selfie-taking narcissists, cyberbullies, and killing productivity. When used in moderation with the right intentions, it really can achieve what it was first set out to do: connect people. Which brings us to…

9. Social media enhances our connectivity.

A paper linking social media usage to the Freudian ideas of the id, ego, and super-ego cites many examples of positive psychological effects of social media. Perhaps one of the most important points is that social media doesn’t necessarily take us out of the real world. It can instead be used to revive and preserve relationships with other people. Even more exciting about this technological world is that there is an incredible number of like-minded people who can connect in just one click. Research presented in the journal The British Psychological Society found that students who experience low self-esteem can take advantage of social media and its capability to bond them with others in order to pull themselves up from slumps in their mood.

10. Social media can help with socialization.

Research presented at the 119th annual American Psychological Association found that introverted adolescents can actually gain social skills by using social media. In part, this is because shy individuals may feel safer behind a computer screen (or smartphone, or tablet, or… well, you get the idea…it’s everywhere). Dr. Larry D. Rosen, who presented the information, also stated that teens were becoming very good at virtually expressing empathy towards others.

History of Psychology series. Previous post: The Stanford Prison Experiment


Academia.eduPsychological impact of social networking sites: A psychological theory
iVillage. 10 (good and bad) ways social media affects your mental health
Medial News Today. Social media: How does it really affect our mental health and well-being?
Science Daily. Social networking’s good and bad impact on kids

Photo credit: Multitasking by Sorosh Tavakoli [CC-BY-2.0]

Written by Caitlin Probst