Hey, what are you doing right now? Toggling between Instagram, Facebook and this article? It’s all too easy to ignore the negative effects of social media—but according to the University of Chicago, social media is more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. How often do you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through your Facebook timeline without even realizing it? Your subconscious mind is left to sort out the digital highlight reel of everyone you’ve ever known. While that constant connection can be a good thing (it does make it easier to keep in touch with old friends and distant family), it can also be taxing and, well, toxic.
According to a survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all lead to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness in teenagers.
And if you think adults are immune to the addictive and negative effects of social media, think again. A new study recently showed just how depressing social media can be for adults. The University of Pennsylvania asked 143 undergraduate students to either continue their regular use of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, or to limit each one to just 10 minutes per day (for a total of 30 minutes). As expected, the participants who limited their social media use felt significantly better, reporting reduced depression and loneliness after the three-week period.
“Here’s the bottom line,” study author Melissa G. Hunt said in a statement. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
Why social media can be bad
“Social media can create a fantasy view of life, complete with unrealistic expectations,” said Eliza Belle, licensed psychologist. “Social media has a tendency to show us only the good, the beautiful and the well-put-together part of others' lives. When in reality, everyone experiences ups and downs, bad days and moments of disruption. But because we only see the good online, it becomes the comparison group for ourselves in real life, causing many envy, guilt and self doubt.”
What’s more, social media is distracting, which creates less appreciation and contentment with the present. “Whether you are working, caring for your children or out on a date with a loved one, social media causes you to take time away from experiencing what you are doing in that moment,” said Stephanie Freiburg, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “People like to think we are good at multitasking, but we are actually unable to tend to more than one thing at a time effectively. When your attention is taken away from in-person interactions, it can diminish the quality of connection with others.”
Psychological effects of social media
Many of the psychological effects are obvious, but heavy social media use nonetheless has the potential to change the way we think and even how we understand our collective humanity.
Social media can increase anxiety symptoms. According to Freiburg, when there are notifications alerting you to someone else “liking,” “sharing” or “commenting” about what you have done or someone you know is doing, it creates a sense of urgency. People often get pulled into social media for validation, and it can cause people to place their own self worth in the hands of others. This can cause people to create a negative internal dialogue and cause excess worrying.
**Social media creates a false sense of connection. **People can “friend,” “follow” and “connect” with people all over the world, but the quality of connection can be deceiving. People routinely only put the best version of themselves online, so how much do you really know about that person? Social media tends to be scripted, planned and created content. Genuine connections, on the other hand, are more authentic and candid—where we can engage with people without filters.
Social media can feed feelings of inadequacy. There’s an undeniable uptick in the natural tendency we all have to compare ourselves to others when we are socially engaged. It’s baked into our social awareness for survival reasons. In other words, to be able to collaborate with others and stay alive as human beings, we’ve had to learn to work together in groups. To do that, we have to know what constitutes success within the group and aspire to it. This becomes a problem when the social world is invasive toward our private spaces and our thoughts. When others are posting about their fabulous life and accomplishments, it is natural to compare ourselves to it. If we fall short, this very artificial measure of our worth can impact our sense of self.
Physical effects of social media
Though perhaps less obvious than the psychological effects, the integration of social media use into our daily lives can have real physical effects as well—and none of them are good.
Social media can restructure the brain. According to Psychology Today, too much screen time can actually damage the brain. The study shows that excessive use by people with internet or gaming addictions is linked with shrinkage/brain atrophy in the gray matter areas, where processing, prioritizing and impulse control takes place.
Social media can alter the metabolism and cause weight gain. Sure, it may seem obvious: If you’re sedentary while using social media, you’re going to gain weight—so just get up and work out, right? Well, a team of researchers at Northwestern University recently found that the bright lights from devices such as smartphones and tablets can actually affect our cortisol levels. These affect our insulin production, which in turn makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy body weight.
Social media leads to sleep problems. Everyone knows that too much screen time makes it harder to fall asleep, but it can become especially problematic when choosing to swap nighttime reading with social media usage. The blue light emitted by our screens halts the production of melatonin, which makes it harder to fall asleep and also results in a less restful sleep. Using social media at night also encourages the brain to stay active and can increase evening anxiety.
Social media can alter posture. Being constantly hunched over your laptop or smartphone can cause problems in your lumbar spine, lower back, shoulders and neck if you don’t take the time to correct things. Be conscious of your posture, and try to stretch often if you do find yourself leaning into your devices.
Negative effects of social media on teenagers
Due to their unique physiology and psychology, heavy social media use presents additional challenges to teenagers (on top of the ways it can affect adults).
Social media fosters a desire to be popular. According to Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer at Bark, kids may get sucked into the pressure to create more and better content, and this can cause anxiety—especially if they’re not seeing the “likes” they were hoping to receive. Some platforms, like TikTok, compound this potential issue by creating a “For You” page curated with the most popular content. This even makes it possible for kids to become genuinely famous.
Social media may promote self-harm. According to Jordan, kids often use these platforms to express highly personal or sensitive thoughts. Kids who admit to depression can be met with dismissive and sarcastic reactions. Some are even publicly encouraged to commit suicide.
Social media only shows highly curated lives. Your children may see the most beautiful filtered, curated and sometimes completely fake versions of people, and it can make them feel like they’re not fit enough, good enough, smart enough or cool enough. These services may be fun and uplifting, but they can also be dark and detrimental to kids' mental health.
Social media encourages connecting with strangers. Though there are privacy filters, strangers can often find workarounds to reach out to children and expose them to sexual or violent content. Some platforms encourage performance, and many of their users are excited to showcase their talents. That can make it easy for predators to use flattery and compliments as a way into kids' lives, making them feel special while putting them at ease. The excitement of getting a new follower can make them overlook the inappropriateness of the situation—which can be dangerous.
How to reduce the harms of social media
The only real way to avoid the harms of social media is to stop using altogether—up to and including deleting all of your relevant accounts. But given how closely intertwined it is in most of our lives, that’s not a realistic option for most people. There are, however, some steps you can take to cut back on your social media use. For starters, try running a people search on yourself—it may help reveal online and social media profiles you’d forgotten about. From there:
Move social media apps off your phone. Moving your social media usage from your phone to your desktop or laptop can seriously cut down on your usage. There’s nothing urgent about social media, and creating an extra step to access it will limit any mindless scrolling habits you may have adopted.
Set a timer when checking social media. Setting a timer to limit your social media usage to just 20 to 30 minutes a day will force you to focus on your close friends and family. This, in turn, will ensure you’re just getting the highlight reel of those you care about, rather than zeroing in on the curated feeds of your friends of friends and feeling bad about your own feed.
Keep your phone on silent. It bears repeating: Nothing on social media is urgent. If your best friend got engaged, she’s going to text or call you first. If your parents have a health emergency, they’re not going to broadcast it to Facebook before telling you first. There’s no reason to receive social media notifications—they’ll just tempt you to scroll.
Have dedicated detox periods. Studies have shown that even a five-day break from Facebook can lead to lower stress, less loneliness and a decrease in depression. Scheduling regular social media detoxes will also give you free time to focus on new projects or simply connect with friends and family in real life.
Curate your accounts mindfully. If you find yourself hate-following people from high school or old colleagues you never got along with, do yourself a favor and just unfollow them. Your social media usage should be a positive experience, and if your feed is full of people and ideas that make you feel bad, then get rid of them.
You can always have too much of a good thing
While overusing social media is a very real issue in today’s society, a surprising new study suggests that using social media might actually decrease depression and be beneficial for some adults. Researchers from Michigan State University have recently found that using social media in a fast-paced world actually fosters relationships and connections, whereas many adults would simply skip on socializing otherwise.
In short, as long as we’re keeping our social media usage in check and ensuring we’re not completely replacing social interactions with a screen, social media isn’t necessarily evil. But if you find yourself scrolling through Instagram or Facebook at all hours, it may be time to reassess whether you’re benefiting from social media—or if it’s negatively impacting your day.