Research says that regularly using social media has a negative effect on your mental health. Read on to find out why.*
People love social media. And people love talking about social media. It seems like we can’t go a week without some new article (like this one!) or news piece about the role social media plays in our lives.
It’s been 15 years since the founding of Facebook (and almost 16 years since the founding of Myspace, if you’re keeping track of those things). And since that time, psychologists have been able to come to some definitive conclusions about the role Social Networking Sites (SNS’s) play in our lives, and the effect they have on our mental lives.
Over 2 billion people worldwide are regularly using social networking sites. And research in 2015 found that over 65% of adults (18+ years old) in the United States regularly use at least one SNS on a daily basis, with that number jumping to over 90% for adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Young adults love social media! Across the board, these numbers have been going up steadily over the last decade.
It seems obvious that SNS’s offer a useful and efficient way for people to stay in touch, share ideas across the globe, and experience a sense of closeness while being miles apart.
But despite these positive attributes, how does extensive SNS usage affect one’s mental health, and self esteem?
A 2013 study that specifically looked at Facebook, found that higher rates of logging on to Facebook had negative effects on a user’s satisfaction with life. (However, they did not find that users who felt poorly about themselves used Facebook more than people who felt good about themselves.) Interestingly, the researchers found that the individuals who reported a drop in life satisfaction, were able to experience a rebound in satisfaction if they engaged in some “face-to-face” activities (e.g. Skype, in-person interactions).
A more recent study, done last year, which looked at multiple SNS’s, also found a correlation between decreased life satisfaction and using social media. Meaning: the people who reported the highest rates of social media usage also reported the lowest rates of life satisfaction.
The question then becomes: why is this the case? Isn’t it healthy to have some form of interaction, even if that interaction takes place online? Some people probably feel that reading about the activities in their friend’s lives, or seeing pictures of their family members, makes them feel emotionally and psychologically closer to those people. And for the most part, this is probably true.
But the problem with social media seems to stem from how people use these sites. For the most part, people use social media as a way to display their “best selves,” which can create a false sense that other people don’t experience the normal challenges inherent in life. If you see this message enough, then you might create unhealthy, unrealistic expectations for your life.
For example, a study done earlier this year looked at the relationship between adolescents’ reported life satisfaction, and how commonly they used Facebook as a means of “negative comparison.” The researcher’s defined “negative comparison” as “experiencing negative feelings from social comparison,” and found that this factor played a major role in whether or not Facebook users felt a dip in their life satisfaction following their use of the social media site. The research suggests that, when we use SNS’s as a way to compare ourselves with others, we feel a decrease in life satisfaction—even if the comparisons in which we engage sometimes have us coming out on top.
The take away is that we all need daily social interaction. But this interaction can take a turn for the worse when we use it as a way of measuring ourselves—our accomplishments, sense of self, daily activities, emotional state—with those around us.
By simply engaging in a pattern of comparison with those around us, we set ourselves up for feeling less satisfied with our lives. Unfortunately, the research did not explore why social comparison has such a negative effect on us. But it seems likely that a major factor in this dynamic is self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is related to feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s difficult for individuals in our present-day society to find healthy ways of building their self-esteem. And it’s possible that social media plays the role of being an easily accessed sourced for self-esteem. The problem is that SNS’s are really bad at helping you feel better about yourself. In fact, like we are seeing in this article, they actually make you feel worse about who you are and what you have to offer as a unique individual.
So even though the research hasn’t suggested solutions to this problem of social media and mental health, it seems likely that one solution is for people to stop looking to SNS’s to help them feel better about themselves. In fact, if you are noticing that you could use a boost to your self-esteem, going online will actually make that feeling worse!
Instead of using SNS’s for building self-esteem, you can try using other methods, many of which have research to support their utility. Such methods are: exercise, regularly meeting with and talking to friends and family, meditation, engaging in hobbies, spending time outside, using positive affirmations, etc. (Oh, and of course, therapy!)
Since SNS’s not only aren’t helpful, but actually harm people’s self-esteem, it seems that their rise in popularity is a case of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Try these healthier places instead.
*This article is a continuation of an early article on this topic.