Written by Kimberly Drake – Fact checked by Anna Guildford, Ph.D.
On a global scale, social media can be a way for people to gather information, share ideas, and reach out to others facing similar challenges. It can also be an effective platform to relay information quickly during a national or worldwide crisis.
This global reach is what has made social media a critical communication platform during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As government health organizations used it to relay recent findings on prevention and treatment, social media became more than a place to post the latest vacation photos — it became a hub of pandemic-related information.
But has the use of social media during the pandemic negatively impacted mental health and well-being? Or has it had the opposite effect?
In this Special Feature, Medical News Today looks at what research says about social media use and the COVID-19 pandemic to reveal how it has affected mental health. We also spoke with two experts about this complex topic.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health conditions are on the rise. Data show that around 20% of children and adolescents worldwide live with a mental health condition.
Moreover, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15–29-year-olds.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that of the adults surveyed in the United States:
- 31% reported symptoms of anxiety or depression
- 13% reported having started or increased substance use
- 26% reported experiencing stress-related symptoms
- 11% reported having suicidal thoughts
Further research suggests that pandemic-related mental health challenges have impacted people differently, with some racial and ethnic groups disproportionately affected by pandemic stress.
In particular, Hispanic adults reported experiencing the highest level of psychosocial stress in relation to food shortages and insecure housing at the start of the pandemic.
Impact of public health crises on mental health
A research report published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that there is an association between pandemic threats and extensive anxiety and concern among the public.
However, in some people, anxiety can become overwhelming and cause harm.
Social media use has been on the rise since its debut in 1995. As it has grown, more people have started using it as a news source. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between August 31 and September 7, 2020, about 53% of adults in the U.S. get their news from social media.
Research indicates that social media can help effectively communicate health information to a global audience during a public health crisis. However, the information shared on these platforms can sometimes be inaccurate or misleading.
For example, one research review published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at social media posts before March 2019 and found that Twitter contained the most health misinformation — mostly about smoking products and drugs.
This health misinformation may lead to an increase in fear, anxiety, and poor health choices.
According to one study, attempts to reduce the spread of misinformation by fact-checking and flagging posts with inaccuracies may help reduce the influence of false information for some people.
Still, there is ongoing debate on whether social media content regulation may increase mistrust and promote more social media posts reflecting inaccurate information.
Social media, COVID-19, and mental health
Because the COVID-19 pandemic emerged recently, scientists are only beginning to understand the role of social media on users’ mental health.
For instance, using questionnaires, researchers in China interviewed 512 college students from March 24 to April 1, 2020, to determine whether social media harmed mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results indicate a link between higher use of social media and an increased risk of depression. Furthermore, the authors suggest that exposure to negative reports and posts may contribute to the risk of depression in some people.
Additionally, according to a study that appears in the journal Globalization and Health, there is increasing evidence that endless news feeds reporting SARS-CoV-2 infection rates and COVID-19 death rates could influence the mental health of some individuals.
“While we are all impacted in differing ways by social media consumption, the continual flow of negative and misinformation during the past 18 months have spread fear; the highlighting of social and political issues has reduced optimism; and edited photos and toxically positive content leave no space to feel secure or express negative emotions healthily. Alongside the increased desire for metrics such as likes and comments in these challenging times, it’s likely that social media has exacerbated mental health challenges.”
He also explained that social media keeps people connected to friends and family, especially during social distancing with limited physical interactions. Yet, this increased use may have amplified social anxiety and challenges with perfectionism and comparison for some people.
Prof. Steven C. Hayes, Foundation Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, who developed the Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, told MNT: “We know that there are toxic processes that produce particular challenges for people: exposure to physical and psychological pain; a comparison with others and judgment; entanglement with self-judgment.”
He further explained that “[t]hose predict pathological outcomes if you’re not able to step back to notice the process of feeling and thinking, to orient to what’s present and what is really important to you and line up your behavior behind that.”
“And social media,” he added, “because of its exposure to pain comparison and judgment, enormously challenges us all in ways that are orders of magnitude more severe than ever in the history of humanity. Those processes have been toxic from the beginning, but exposure to those processes as a daily diet is new. [However], there are features inside social media that have expanded human consciousness. And it gives us great opportunities.”
As Prof. Hayes mentioned, these opportunities may include a heightened awareness of mental health and reduced stigma surrounding mental health conditions.
Research published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests that psychosocial expressions have significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This means that more people are expressing their emotions, both positive and negative, and garnering support from others. As a result, the stigma surrounding mental health conditions may be decreasing.
Prof. Hayes noted that the COVID-19 pandemic exploded the idea that mental health conditions only affect certain individuals.
“Everybody realizes that mental strength and mental flexibility — that is, mental and behavioral health and social wellness — applies to all of us. It’s not a one-out-of-five issue; it’s a five-out-of-five issue, and that is the permanent result of this year and a half of [COVID-19].”
– Prof. Steven C. Hayes
With emerging research suggesting social media may impact the mental health of some users, some platforms have begun to initiate positive changes.
For example, on September 14, 2021, the social media platform TikTok announced new features for its users to help provide resources for suicide prevention.
But can they do more?
According to Chambers: “Social media platforms have a key role to play in how their products impact on the mental health and well-being of their users. There are many aspects where this can be achieved. However, the challenge is that [using] most of these will decrease addictiveness, engagement, and time spent. This often goes against the aims of the platform itself.”
He suggests that social media platforms could consider improvements to build in mental well-being protection, including:
- limiting news feed length
- changing the way notifications are triggered
- labeling altered images
- introducing stronger regulation and monitoring of content designed to harm
- implementing suggestions that users take a break
- signposting to evidence-based resources and support on posts that may be triggering
- ensuring clearer guidelines and more ability for users to easily control sensitive content
What are the next steps?
According to Chambers, “when it comes to [using] social media, both moderation of time and content consumed and intentionality play a significant part in garnering the benefits and reducing the downsides.”
He suggests that having a “digital sunset” before retiring for the night can help ensure anxiety will not impact sleep. In addition, having a social media-free day can positively affect mental well-being.
“The ultimate intention is for us to become the masters of social media, rather than social media become the masters of us.”
– Lee Chambers
Prof. Hayes noted that although mental health impacts everyone to some degree, that does not mean all people should be in therapy.
Instead, he suggested that “
e all need to learn how to be responsible for our mental and behavioral strength and flexibility. And to seek out the resources, just as we do with strengthening our physical health and flexibility.”
“That will empower us to face a changing world that, yes, will include regular exposure to pain, comparison, and judgment,” he added.
He noted that this exposure will also include the overwhelming reality of worldwide events as they are happening.
“We need to step up to that. And I see very hopeful signs that by using social media and technology and accessing the best that behavioral mental science can bring to us, we can speed up the natural process that happens of acquiring wisdom. That will allow you to be more open to your thoughts and feelings, more centered consciously in the present moment and connected to others, and more focused on your deepest human values. [It will also allow you] to create habits around those instead of creating habits around fear and judgment and comparison.”
– Prof. Steven C. Hayes