Written by Annie Lennon — Fact checked by Ferdinand Lali, Ph.D.
So far, most research investigating the effects of social media on mental health has focused on the potential negative aspects.
For instance, a 2019 study involving 6,595 teenagers from the United States concludes that those who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media may have a higher risk of mental health problems than those who do not.
But the degree to which social media actually harms mental health is debatable. A recent review, available as a preprint, found that most studies investigating the link between social media and mental health demonstrate “weak” or “inconsistent” associations.
Another review found that while there may be a small negative association between social media use and mental health, the link is complex and depends on exactly how researchers define mental health and social media use.
Meanwhile, other research suggests that social media may even benefit mental health, especially for people belonging to LGBTQIA+ communities and those living with mental health conditions.
These conflicting findings make it challenging to navigate the research investigating the effects of social media on mental health and how best to use social media. With this in mind, Medical News Today sought the input of seven psychology experts at the intersection of social media and mental health.
‘We simply don’t know about cause and effect’
“One promising area of research is the role of online peer networks, where it appears that connecting online with others who share similar mental health challenges can offer important benefits for feeling less alone, learning coping skills, and being able to offer/receive emotional or informational support from others,” Dr. John Naslund, Ph.D., an instructor in global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, told MNT.
Dr. Niklas Johannes, a postdoctoral researcher in the Adolescent Well-Being in the Digital Age program at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, agreed that social media might be linked to some mental health benefits. However, he added that more research is necessary to confirm the direction in which this connection lies.
“There’s a lot of research out there that suggests social media are a useful tool to stay connected to others. In fact, those who use social media more also report feeling more social support. However, all of this comes with a huge caveat: We simply don’t know about cause and effect. It’s just as plausible that heavy social media users make more friends or that those with a lot of friends use more social media. It’s also plausible that both are true,” he explained.
Other research suggests that “how” a person uses social media rather than “how much” may have a stronger association with mental health outcomes.
“There is evidence that routine social media use in the general population is positively associated with mental health and social well-being, as long as one is not ’emotionally invested’ in the media, in which case the outcomes are negative,” Dan-Mircea Mirea, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Princeton University, and project coordinator at Mental Health for Romania, told MNT.
Dr. Gonneke Stevens, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, agreed that “emotional investment” in social media use may be more indicative of mental health outcomes than how much a person uses it.
“[O]ur research suggests that not so much the intense use of social media, but social media use problems — that is, addiction-like symptoms such as feeling bad when social media use is restricted, loss of control over and preoccupation with social media, and conflicts with others because of the social media use — are associated with mental health problems.”
– Dr. Gonneke Stevens
“Indeed, we found that social media use problems predicted increases in mental health problems 1 year later — this was true for both depressive symptoms and ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] symptoms,” she added.
Social media and mental health risk factors
“For children and teens, I think the most compelling evidence is the research regarding cyberbullying on social media,” said Dr. Kya Barounis, a senior mental health researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “Cyberbullying is associated with symptoms of depression and suicidality. It may be a particular problem for youth who identify as sexual or gender minorities.”
Dr. Barounis also noted that social media use could displace other behaviors, such as sleep and exercise, which are “important for maintaining good mental health.” Researchers study this process through what is known as “displacement theory.”
To give an example, she said:“If a youth is staying up late each night on social media and not getting enough sleep, the lack of sleep can lead to feelings of irritability or depressed mood the next day.”
She cautioned, however, that this does not mean that social media use causes mental health conditions, noting that the relationship between chronic sleep problems and clinical depression in youth is complicated.
Dr. Naslund agreed that social media can perpetuate “targeted hate from others” or cyberbullying, which can have a negative effect.
He added that although research related to social media and mental health is generally mixed, “exposure to hateful content online — such as viewing or being targeted by derogatory content targeting race, ethnicity, or gender — is associated with poorer mental health and feelings of distress.”
Beyond the risk of cyberbullying and exposure to hate content, others say that it is important to interpret with caution any studies related to more generalized social media use because they are often based on unreliable data.
“There are multiple observational studies that find that social media use is negatively associated with mental health,” said Mirea.
“However,” he added, “there are also studies looking at similar datasets, or sometimes the same dataset with different methods, that find no effect. One study found only small negative associations between mental health and using digital/electronic technologies, including social media — about as large as regularly eating potatoes!”
“It seems that the conclusions are very much affected by how researchers analyze their data, which makes it hard to draw a concrete conclusion about to what extent social media has negative effects on mental health. A plausible explanation for these unclear findings is that social media use affects some people more and others less.”
– Dan-Mircea Mirea
To give an example of how difficult it can be to interpret studies on the mental health effects of social media, Dr. Craig Sewall, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, told MNT:
“The strongest evidence indicating that social media can have negative effects on mental health — that I am aware of — comes from a randomized experiment that examined the impact of Facebook deactivation on well-being among a large sample of U.S. adults. This study found that, overall, the group that deactivated their Facebook account experienced increased levels of subjective well-being compared with the group that did not.”
“However, there are a couple of important limitations to this study. First, the ‘treatment effect’ — that is, the effect of deactivating Facebook — was very small. Second, the sample of participants was older, so it’s not clear how these results would apply to younger people,” Dr. Sewall noted.
“And, finally, it’s unclear whether the effects observed for deactivating Facebook would be consistent across other social media platforms, as there are many differences between Facebook and TikTok, for example.”
Best to look at the different aspects of social media separately
For some people, it is also difficult to establish whether social media has positive or negative effects on mental health because it is unclear to which platform or platforms the terms “social media” refer.
Dr. Jacob T. Fisher, assistant professor at the Institute of Communications Research and the College of Media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told MNT:
“I just don’t really know that we have compelling evidence for ‘social media,’ in a general sense, having adverse effects on mental health. ‘Social media,’ as a descriptor, covers a vast range of platforms and services, each of which is very different from one another, enabling and incentivizing very different sorts of behaviors. To add to this, both social media platforms and how people use social media have changed drastically over the years.”
“In this sense,” he said, “trying to define the ‘effect [of] social media on well-being’ is a lot like trying to determine the ‘effect of food on health’ — the question is so broad so as to be essentially unanswerable.”
“In my opinion,” Dr. Fisher added, “a better approach would be to break apart the different features and design decisions that comprise social media platforms — how information is presented, how the algorithm amplifies or suppresses content, the behavioral engineering involved in how a platform solicits (or even demands) our attention — and start to investigate the influence of those things on well-being.”
“A central issue here is that social media platforms refuse to share data that can begin to answer these questions with researchers like my colleagues and me,” he explained.
Caution when interpreting research
“There are two completely different stories being told about the effects of social media on well-being,” said Dr. Sewall. “In the popular media — where the vast majority of people get their information on this subject — the story is often some version of ‘social media is bad, especially for younger people.’”
Yet, he cautioned, “[t]he evidence cited in these popular media pieces is often cherry-picked, oversimplified, and overinterpreted — giving the impression to readers that social media causes harm to well-being.”
“On the other hand, in the scientific literature — which has a much smaller, niche readership — the story is much more complicated. The fundamental complexity of the issue combined with a litany of methodological issues and contradictory findings make it difficult, if not impossible, to conclude anything with confidence,” Dr. Sewall added.
“If anything, our best evidence to date suggests that social media does not have a meaningful impact on well-being. However, this story — that it’s very complicated, and there’s a lot we don’t know — does not generate many clicks,” he explained.
Dr. Barounis added that much research on the topic is based on people having symptoms of mental health issues, as opposed to receiving a formal diagnosis. “It’s really important to distinguish between symptoms of mental health problems versus a diagnosis of a mental health problem,” he explained. “One can have a few symptoms without having a full diagnosis. So far, a lot of researchers have examined the relationship between social media use and symptoms of depression or anxiety (as measured on a survey) in typically developing youth.”
“It is a mistake to interpret a positive relationship in these studies’ results as evidence that social media use causes youth to meet all of the criteria for a diagnosis of clinical anxiety or depression. Also, there is a measurement issue. Self-reports of time spent on social media may not be very accurate,” she explained.
To help navigate through exaggerated claims and confusing literature, Mirea recommended four points to bear in mind when looking into the link between social media and mental health:
- Follow trustworthy sources (academic journals or trusted outlets): You shouldn’t have to play the detective every time you see a scientific claim. Fortunately, if your sources are reputable, most of the work is being done for you.
- Avoid clickbait-sounding headlines: Good reporting would never trade accuracy for the prospect of attracting your attention. Also, be cautious if an article uses words that a scientist (especially one in the social or clinical sciences) would never use — such as that something is “a fact” or that they “proved” something.
- Be wary of ideological content [and] your own biases: Ask yourself: “Do I want this to be true, or the opposite?” If so, then be extra careful when assessing the information.
- Ask an expert friend, if you have one: If you’re in doubt about the scientific aspects of a claim and you’re not sure how to assess it, think of someone you know that might be able to help (such as someone that majored in that field in college — e.g., biosciences for COVID-19 studies or psychology for mental health studies).
Social media use for better mental health
Dr. Barounis recommended that parents or caregivers of children and adolescents “talk with their children about cyberbullying and take steps to address it if it is occurring.”
She further explained: “Parents can also monitor their child’s use to see if it is displacing healthier behaviors, like sleep and exercise. Simple steps, like limiting use before bedtime and charging mobile devices outside the bedroom, can help prevent social media use from disrupting sleep.”
“In terms of the pandemic, parents should remind youth that a lot of their friends and followers on social media may be feeling slightly anxious or depressed during these uncertain times. Youth can support these friends and followers by refraining from posting content that could be misinterpreted in a negative way (i.e., a joking comment in reaction to someone’s post that might come across as mean-spirited) or content that could increase anxiety.”
– Dr. Kya Barounis
Due to a lack of consensus on whether and how social media relates to mental health, some experts say that it is difficult to make specific recommendations.
“Unfortunately, the scientific evidence isn’t strong enough to make specific recommendations,” said Dr. Johannes. “I’d advise, just like with any other activity, to observe what’s good for the user. If I feel like I’m comparing myself with others and it isn’t good for me, then take more breaks and maybe focus on different functions of social media. If I feel lonely and know that going on social media makes me feel connected, go for it. It’s rather obvious advice, I’m afraid.”
For others, using social media with an intention clearly in mind is key to avoiding getting swept up in any of its potentially harmful effects — from wasting time to damaging mental well-being.
“I’d suggest that the best way for people to use social media is to use it intentionally,” said Dr. Fisher. “Like lots of big businesses, social media platforms frequently incentivize mindlessness on the part of their users because it makes it easier for them to make money (both from showing you advertisements and collecting more data about you).”
“Curate who you follow, how much time you spend on the platform(s), etc., and do your best to cultivate a healthy relationship with the platforms you use,” he added.
“Something that is becoming clear from recent studies is that the effects of social media, or certain aspects of social media use, can differ significantly from person to person,” said Dr. Sewall. “So, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”
“However, in general, I’d say the best way to use social media is to make sure you are getting out of it what you are intending. That is, if you are intending to use social media as a way to stay connected with others, or as a form of entertainment, or whatever, try to be mindful about whether the way you are using social media in that instance is helping you meet that intention,” he concluded.