These days, I am cognizant of nearly every detail of the lives of my family members who live across the globe- what my cousins wore today, where my aunts ate, and what music my grandfather is listening to. We are connected through Instagram, Google+, Linkedin, Twitter, and (of course) Facebook. Social media is a powerful mode of communication, but it has other benefits, too. It is used as a clinical intervention for people who are suffering from behavioral or mental health issues that make them feel isolated by serving as a safe, anonymous space for people to discuss their emotions and feel supported in moderated chat groups.1 Likewise, social media can create change by uniting people from all over the world in a common cause. For instance, with the recent news that children were being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, a GoFundMe campaign was shared throughout the nation to help the families and raised nearly $20 million.2 It was a remarkable occurrence that reminded us of our interconnectedness and our humanity.
But, as the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing.
Multiple studies have shown an association between poor mental health and social media.3 It can start as innocently as trying to reconnect with family or just keeping up with current times. Then, like the brain of a smoker telling them it’s time for their nicotine, our brains can remind us that it is time to check what others are doing right now. What others’ posts show us is that they are enjoying every moment of their lives traveling and surrounding themselves with friends. It makes us “realize” that our lives aren’t as perfect as others, leading to feelings of sadness, anger, and envy. Researchers coined this reaction “Facebook envy.”4 This is the strong psychological effect that social media can have.
There is a growing body of literature showing a correlation between social media use and depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, and/or suicidal tendencies. While the exact mechanisms remain unclear and scientists are hesitant to say that social media directly causes poor mental health, there have been multiple studies looking to understand these pathways.3 Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that the number of social media platforms that a person utilizes was correlated with increased depression and anxiety.5 Other studies have found that social media addiction can disrupt sleep, especially among young adults, which can then increase the risk of depression and lead to poor health outcomes.6 Furthermore, additional studies have found that social media use is paradoxically correlated with feelings of isolation because the users may begin to perceive that everyone around them is communicating with each other, leading them to feel more left out.7
Moreover, social media can lead to low self-esteem by making users feel that their bodies and faces are not as perfect as those of celebrities. Celebrities have a significant influence on social media users by targeting the youth for advertisements for products such as makeup, accessories, clothing, and even certain kinds of vitamins and supplements.8 The message is that looking like them is important. This can have substantial effects on young girls by triggering eating disorders and a negative self-perception when looking in the mirror.9 Additionally, these feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and isolation can be exacerbated when adolescents become victims of cyberbullying (where social media is used to make negative comments about others).10
Thus, while social media can be a beneficial tool for connecting, advocating, and raising awareness, it can also steer a whole generation toward a cloud of depression and lead to poor health behaviors and outcomes. While moderation may be the key, we cannot ignore the addictive factor and ease of use that may be keeping us from putting those devices away.
Priya Vedula is a health policy analyst at the Institute for Health Policy and Leadership. Her work involves examining health policies and regulations with a focus on oral health, mental/behavioral health, and hunger. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University.