How Social Media Causes Depression

In today’s world, people are more likely to be on social media than not. In the UK alone roughly 45% of people are on at least one social media platform — most are using several on a daily basis. 

Despite how common social media is, there are few studies exploring what impact it has on factors like self-esteem, relationships, and mood. 

Unfortunately, from the few studies, we do have available, it doesn’t look very good. 

Frequent use of social media has been linked to clinical depression, anxiety, insomnia, poor self-esteem, and hyperactivity. 

This science isn’t concrete, and there are some people who oppose the idea. 

Does social media cause depression and anxiety, or do people who are already depressed and anxious tend to use social media more than others? 

Let’s explore the idea and discuss the impact our obsession with social media has on our mental health.

Social Media & Self-Esteem

There are a lot of complexities that make studying the impact of social media on self-esteem fairly difficult. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have any conclusive data on this. Most of the research on this effect comes in the form of correlational or theoretical studies. 

Nevertheless, here’s what we understand so far. 

Social media is highly curated. Many of the popular social media influencers today are publishing highly staged and edited content. Even when we know the content we’re consuming has been curated, we still have the natural impulse to compare ourselves and measure how we stack up in comparison. 

This concept is called “upward comparison” — the comparison we make to people we believe are better than us. This is opposed to “downward comparison”, which involves comparing ourselves to people we believe are less proficient than us in some way. 

With social media, we make upward comparisons dozens, if not hundreds of times each day. 

Oscar Ybarra, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Michigan has written profusely about the influence of social media on mental health. He believes that “what happens is that the more you use the platforms, the more social comparisons tend to induce, and that relates to these decrements in how people are feeling.” 

Basically, social media forces us to compare ourselves to others — which is often based on a false representation of reality. Even in knowing this, we make upward comparisons that affect our subjective well-being and self-esteem.

Social Media & Depression

In 2018, a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States recruited 143 undergraduates to explore whether or not social media makes us feel more depressed. Students were randomly assigned into two groups — the first group was instructed to limit social media to 30 minutes per day or less, the other could continue to use social media as they saw fit for the following 3-weeks.

Researchers were granted access to the participant’s phone usage data to record how much time was spent on each social media platform. 

The study found that the treatment group experienced significantly less loneliness and depression compared to the group using social media normally. Both groups experienced a decrease in anxiety scores — which the research group suggested was likely a benefit from consciously monitoring social media usage. 

One of the largest correlational studies to date explored the impact social media has on mental health and wellbeing in young people. The overarching study collected data from over 3800 teens over the course of 4 years to track drug and alcohol patterns in young people. However, some of the information researchers collected was the amount of time spent on social media. Researchers in this study noticed a clear association between the amount of time spent on social media and higher levels of depression.

Signs You May Be Using Social Media Too Much

Social media isn’t all bad. Most of the research we have on the topic suggests the biggest problems come from people who show addictive tendencies to social media. This goes a step further than assessing the specific amount of time we spend on a particular platform. The more important factor to consider is how we think about social media. 

Do you obsess over getting a post just right?  Do you spend more time on social media than you do with friends in real life? 

Toxic use of social media is where most of the problems seem to arise.

Here are 9 signs you may be addicted to social media: 

  1. You have a tendency to compare yourself unfavourably to others on social media
  2. You’re experiencing cyberbullying on a regular basis
  3. You spend  a lot of time scrolling aimlessly on social media even though you have other work or responsibilities to take care of
  4. You’re distracted at school or work thinking about what to post or share next
  5. You give yourself no time for quiet thought or self-reflection
  6. You spend more time on social media than with friends in the real world
  7. Symptoms of depression and anxiety continue to worsen
  8. You’re engaging in dangerous or risky behaviour for the sake of likes
  9. You’re obsessed with checking the likes and follows for your posts

Are There Any Benefits to Using Social Media?

Despite the negative impact social media has on our sense of self-image and self-worth, and its’ correlation with mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and insomnia — there are some benefits we can’t ignore as well.

The major benefits of social media include: 

  • Access to a larger community of like-minded individuals
  • Facilitates connection between family and friends
  • Offers a platform to seek help and support during difficult periods of your life
  • Provides an outlet for creativity and self-expression

Key Takeaways: Does Social Media Cause Depression?

Social media is a part of life these days — it serves as a basis for inspiration, news, entertainment, and connection with others. More than 77% of the world uses social media on a daily basis, and this percentage is steadily increasing every year. Social media isn’t going anywhere. 

Understanding the connection between social media and mental health is complicated. There are so many factors to consider, and the impact it has on our thoughts and mental states are non-binary. 

Most of the research available on the effects of social media on mental health pain a grim picture. Studies have shown frequent social media use can damage our self-esteem, lead to anxiety and depression, and can even harm our quality of sleep at night

While most of the language used in this article may seem to demonize the use of social media, it’s not all bad. Social media connects us together and provides a platform for the exchange of information. 

Rather than quitting social media altogether, it’s apparent we need to learn how to limit our exposure to social media platforms. Taking steps to avoid compulsive social media behaviour may be enough to eliminate the majority of problems that can arise when we’re not paying attention.