The Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

Two College females looking at their phones at a table.

Social media is a technology with a lot of wonderful benefits. It allows people to share and connect, get news and information, and even meet new people. But there can be a downside too, especially for college-aged young adults who have grown up in a world of screens.  

Social media use has been linked to depression, anxiety and loneliness. Recent studies referenced by The Child Mind Institute and The National Center for Health Research suggest people who frequently use social media feel more depressed and less happy with life than those who spend more time on non-screen-related activities.  

Learn how social media can negatively impact your mental health, and how you—or someone you know—can use it in a healthier way.  

Almost Addictive 

Social media apps and websites have the same kind of effect on the brain as playing a slot machine. Since you don’t know the content you’ll see until you open the app, the spontaneous results actually cause a feeling of “reward” by releasing dopamine—the same chemical linked to other pleasurable activities such as sex and food. 

Focusing on Interactions 

More trouble can arise when you place too much emphasis on the interactions you receive (or don’t) on content you share. For instance, if you post a picture hoping to receive likes or comments and don’t get the feedback you desire, you may feel disappointed or invalidated.  

You may also experience disappointment when comparing your posts to those of other people. All this can cause low self-esteem, distraction from other tasks, and even feelings of anxiety or depression. 

Filters are Fun…But Also Fake 

Filters exemplify how social media can be both positive and negative. Sure, silly filters can be great for a laugh, but the ability to easily whiten teeth, airbrush body parts, and hide imperfections can create false illusions.  

Even if you know posts are filtered and carefully selected, constantly seeing other picture-perfect highlight reels can make it feel impossible to live up to other people’s lives. Try to see filters for what they are—a fun tool to make yourself look different online, but not something that’s necessary to recreate. 

Feelings of Missing Out 

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is another reason scrolling through social media is so enticing. When your friends and classmates are using social media, you may worry about missing a message, inside joke, or other information that connects you to your peers.  

However, constant checking and scrolling can have a detrimental effect on schoolwork and studying. The distraction can lead to procrastination, less retention of information, and higher levels of stress. You may also experience feelings of exclusion, loneliness or anxiety when you see posts of others enjoying a good time. 

Having a whole digital world at your fingertips can put a damper on getting out and having real social connections and in-person interactions. Take opportunities to see friends in-person rather than chatting behind a screen whenever possible. 

How to Curb Unhealthy Social Media Behaviors 

A University of Pennsylvania study suggests that using social media less than your typical amount can decrease loneliness and depression. While it’s probably unlikely you or someone you know will quit social media entirely (after all, there are certainly some positives), it’s important to be self-aware and recognize these warning sign:  

  • Feeling increased anxiety, depression and/or loneliness 
  • Spending more time on social media than with friends and family 
  • Comparing yourself with others or frequently feeling jealous 
  • Being trolled or cyberbullied online 
  • Engaging in risky behaviors or outrageous photos to gain likes and comments 
  • Noticing that your school work and relationships are suffering 
  • De-prioritizing self-care (such as exercise, sleep and mindfulness) 

If you are experiencing any of these warning signs, try to decrease your social media time. This might mean setting screen time limits, time restrictions for certain apps on your phone, or allocating designated hours for checking your accounts. Some even find that the occasional break or “detox” from social media can help them focus on their mental health and relationships.  

Other things that can help you put social media to the side?  

  • Plan a small gathering 
  • Take time to get out and exercise 
  • Find a place to volunteer 
  • Spend some face-to-face time with a good friend 

If you or someone you know is having trouble distancing from unhealthy social media habits—or continue to have feelings of anxiety or depression—schedule time to talk with your health-care provider or campus health center professional. They can screen for depression and anxiety, and recommend a treatment or course of action that’s right for you.

author name

Christine M. Stabler, MD, MBA

Christine Stabler, MD, MBA, FAAFP is Medical Director of Women’s Health for Lancaster General Health, a family medicine physician with LG Health Physicians Women's Internal Medicine, and Vice President of Academic Affairs. She is a graduate of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. She completed her residency at Lancaster General Hospital and a fellowship at Temple University Hospital.

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The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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