Since its beginning, social media has received criticism concerning its effects on mental health. While early outcries were fueled mainly by hunches, today’s research on social media and depression demonstrates more concrete links between the popular online platforms and mental health.

How much time do you spend on social media?

Chances are, it’s more than you think.

Citizens in most European countries spend around 2 hours per day on social media platforms – with younger populations nearing 3 hours. A simple check of “Screen Time” in most smartphones’ settings will reveal that we unassumingly devote significant portions of our days to Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms alike.

These long bouts of scrolling are not due to weak willpower nor poor time management. Social media applications are designed to have an acutely addictive effect. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) reveals that many aspects of social media applications – from the “refresh” feature to the notifications – are intentionally crafted to lure us back to our feeds time and time again.

Overuse of virtually anything has its downsides. However, as Twitter and Snapchat stealthily occupy more and more of our schedules, we are often left susceptible to some particularly troubling consequences – some of which are quite direct and others which are more difficult to identify.

Social media and Depression up close...

What is it about social media use itself that influences our mental health and, in some cases, even exacerbates depressive symptoms? What makes frequenting virtual social networks any more detrimental than regularly seeing our real social networks?

Our self-image...

“I don’t look as good as that… My life isn’t as exciting…”

Social media pulls us out of reality and into social spheres far larger and more curated than those in which we participate normally – placing our self esteems in precarious positions.

Apps such as Instagram or Facebook are competition grounds for who can present themselves as the most attractive or successful. This type of environment can challenge our self-esteems, relentlessly reminding us of our shortcomings and imperfections and inducing insecurities which may lead to or worsen depressive symptoms, according to researcher Harris Hyun-soo Kim. These manicured presentations also urge us to respond with our own falsified self-portrayals, a practice which too can be dangerous for our mental health.

The self-verification theory tells us that we want to be perceived by others as we perceive ourselves. Social media can threaten this identity consistency by forcing us either to break away from our authentic selves or to succumb to the lowered self-esteem that social media can induce. Both of these options can provoke negative thoughts towards ourselves, anxiety concerning our identities, and feelings of loneliness.

For example, if I see photos on my Instagram that make me feel unattractive or unpopular, I might wish to post fabricated or enhanced images to portray myself as more attractive or more popular. These posts, however, would be inauthentic and would clash with how I truly perceive myself. According to the self-verification theory, this dissonance would have consequences for my mental health. Alternatively, in order to preserve a consistent perception of myself – even if it is: “unattractive or unpopular” – I might wish to post something similarly self-deprecating. While this course of action might allow me to keep my sense of self intact, it would, of course, only further lower my self-esteem. This “pick your poison” scenario is the type of inner turmoil which social media can spur.

Self esteem and social media

Unsavory content...

Even if the content we encounter on social media platforms is not necessarily relevant to our self-image, the mere breadth of sights and sounds available on social media means we inevitably interact with disturbing information and images. Studies have shown that the news we watch can significantly impact our moods –increasing stress and sadness, and enhancing personal worries. For example, an Instagram feed that contains distressing news of a local crime can worsen anxieties around the state of our own personal safety.

The interaction between social media and depression, however, go beyond simply what we see in our feeds. There is research to suggest that how we use social media and how we feel towards social media may also have some impact on our mental health.

Unhealthy uses of social media...

Psychologists have identified and categorized 2 types of social media use – Problematic and Passive usages – which have strong links to depressive symptoms.

  1. Problematic social media use
    is defined as patterns of social media usage that resemble an addiction. “Am I a problematic user?” you might be asking. Probably not. Researchers find that only 2-10% of users visit social media platforms in a problematic way. Problematic use entails rampant use whereby nearly any down moment is spent on a social media platform.

    Problematic usage also includes users employing their Twitter or Instagram feeds as mood regulators. A mood regulator is a tool that, typically through distraction, helps an individual move away from negative thoughts and sullen moods. According to a 2018 meta-analysis, this dependence on social media has high correlations with psychological distress and depressive symptoms. Social media and its promise of never-ending entertainment presents itself as a perfect outlet by which to distract ourselves from unpleasant emotions.

    It is realistic to think that most of us do not belong to that 2-10%. However, we might be more familiar with the second type of troublesome social media usage…
  2. Passive Social Media Usage (PSMU)
    is more or less what it sounds like. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands classify PSMU as the mindless scrolling through news feeds or browsing photographs of friends. It does not take an incredible stretch of the mind to recognize this type of behavior in our daily lives. Psychologists have posited that this seemingly benign browsing can:
    • Worsen extant depressive symptoms
    • Reduce a sense of belonging
    • Undermine mental health
    • Induce feelings of inferiority

That is to say, even when we engage with social media platforms simply to pass the time, we are risking our psychological wellbeing.

Our attitudes matter too...

Another piece of the puzzle is our attitudes towards social media and technology use at large. Some studies have demonstrated that our attitudes towards social media can have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect –meaning that when we use social media under the belief that social media is a waste of time or bad for our health, we are more likely to incur social media’s deleterious effects. This finding seems to demand the difficult task of understanding the dangers of social media without entirely internalizing them – a precarious balance which further complicates our relationship with social media.

The Less Obvious Links Between Social Media and Depression...

It is also important we take stock of how social media interacts with our daily routines more generally. Many of social media’s most notable effects on mental health are more indirect than we may think.

Social media use in daily routine

For us to truly understand the extent to which social media and depression are related, we must consider the four major ways social media seeps into other aspects of our lives.

  1. Social media and sleep. Perhaps most important to our mental health is how social media use cuts into our sleep schedules. Sleep quality and mental health are closely related. A study by psychiatrist Kadir Demirci explored the relationship between screen time, sleep deprivation, and depression and anxiety and showed that when social media apps hook us to our screens in the minutes before bed, we are more susceptible to depressive symptoms.

    As you learned in one of our previous articles, healthy sleeping routines are vital for fighting depression, and social media use can disturb sleeping patterns in two ways. First, merely interacting with screens and blue light hinders sleep. Blue light blocks melatonin, an essential hormone for sleeping. Second, the anxiety-inducing content which we encounter often does not put us in the right headspace for an effective night’s sleep – leaving our minds wandering when they should be powering down.

  2. Social media and physical activity. When you check your Instagram, what is your body doing? It is assuredly not running, most likely not jogging, and probably not even walking – unfortunately for both our posture and psychological wellbeing.

    It is well documented that physical exercise can alleviate depressive symptoms. However, the hours of immobility which accompany social media use pull us away from such healthy activities. Accordingly, researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have demonstrated that screen-based media sedentary behavior (SBM) can leave us at a higher risk of depression.

  3. Social media and productivity. Beyond physical activity, what else do we sacrifice for a few hours on social media? Notably, our attention.

    Social media is a powerful distractor and can hinder our efforts to focus on important tasks – our professional work, academic work, or personal projects. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, an expert on the psychology of happiness, has found that a lack of focus in our daily routines can bring about levels of unhappiness and anxiety – “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” he says. What’s more, a common symptom of depression is inattentiveness. If you already struggle with this symptom, nagging Instagram notifications only stand to worsen the inattentiveness which you may already be experiencing.

  4. Social media and social interactions. The time we spend on social media also replaces quality time with friends and family. Scrolling through various feeds often comes in lieu of valuable face-to-face interactions – a half-hour on Facebook instead of arranging a small lunch with friends, 45 minutes binging YouTube videos instead of a chat with our respective partners. The consequences of these virtual substitutions are more than a missed meal or grumpy boyfriend. Studies reveal that face-to-face socialization with friends and family, particularly as we age, is an effective and important combattant of depression. When social media platforms lure us to our screens and away from friendly faces, they put us at a higher risk of depressive symptoms.
Phone use at night

Social media and depression is a complex and ever-expanding issue. The content of social media and the design of the platforms themselves pose one set of challenges. The ways in which social media affects our lifestyle and behavior beyond the screen pose another.

Luckily, we are not helpless in the face of Facebook and the likes.

How to untangle social media and depression

There is a path by which we can avoid the previously mentioned dangers and use social media in healthy and enjoyable ways.

  1. Set time limits on social media apps. This solution is certainly easier said than done, but it works and works well. Psychologist Melissa Hunt ran an experiment which showed that merely cutting back on the duration social media use can reduce depression and loneliness. In this study, participants limited their social media use to 10 minutes per social media app, per day. This stark reduction led to encouraging improvements in participants’ mental health.

  2. Use social media proactively. Open Instagram with a purpose, and leave once that purpose is fulfilled. Go on to check up on your friends’ vacation, read the latest news, or see the scores of last night’s football match. When we use social media with a purpose, we are more likely to put the phone down once that purpose is fulfilled and we avoid engaging in PSMU.

  3. Balance your feed. What does your Facebook feed usually look like? Is it mostly news? Friends? Entertainment? Remember that what you see influences how you feel. Make sure your social media feeds are a healthy balance of content so that your downtime puts you in the right headspace. Perhaps, for example, consider following a more lighthearted account for every news outlet you follow.

  4. Turn off notifications for social media apps. Notifications are designed to keep you thinking about social media even when you’re off your phone. Turning off notifications allows you to regain control of your screen time – checking social media only when you want to, not when a notification entices you.

  5. Charge your phone away from your bed at night. Keeping your phone within an arm’s reach before bed is too dangerous of a temptation. Placing your phone somewhere other than your bedside ensures a healthier night’s sleep provided that your final moments of the day are spent off of social media.

  6. Keep your phone in another room for prime productivity. Similar to the last tip, physical distance from your phone is a surefire way to avoid distractions and eliminate the urge to check your Instagram while you’re trying to get work done. A more focused you is a happier you.

  7. Track your social media usage in settings. Nearly all modern smartphones document your screen time. By regularly providing yourself a visual of how much time you spend on social media platforms, you can better monitor your usage and gain a deeper understanding of your social media tendencies.
Balanced social media feed

There is a brighter side to social media and depression

So, social media only serves to damage our mental health, right?

Contrary to what most of this article may imply, not quite.

Despite the pile of concerns surrounding social media and mental health, there is cautious optimism about how social media can be honed into a helpful tool for psychiatric wellbeing.

Dr. Naslund and a team of Dartmouth University researchers have revealed that social media can be a convenient option for depressed individuals who seek social connection. In a similar study, Dr. Naslund also found that depressed individuals are perhaps even more willing to open up about their mental health concerns in virtual settings.

Of course, it is natural to be a bit skeptical in light of the aforementioned findings. However, given the right circumstances, the online communities of social media can serve as meaningful wellsprings of support for those struggling with mental health.

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Does social media, in fact, cause depression?

While the scientific community has yet to take a firm stance, we can be certain that using social media can induce moods and behaviors that threaten our mental health. We can also be certain that reduced time on social media only stands to ameliorate our mental health.

As research becomes more thorough, and social media platforms become more aware of the threats they pose, the complex relationship between these apps and our psychological wellbeing is poised to improve.

Overuse of virtually anything has its downsides. This simple reality makes any conversation of social media and depression very delicate. Even if the inherently problematic qualities of social media platforms are stripped away, its addictive nature alone is a cause for ample concern. That being said, we have learned to curb addiction and attain equilibrium with many tempting behaviors – from sugary foods to whatever other hobbies that provide dopamine hits. Perhaps, with time, we will grow accustomed to these still relatively nascent socialscapes and appropriately calibrate our usage.

Despite the many risks, social media and its capacity to curate otherwise-unfeasible online communities and entertainment has the capacity to bring joy, connection, and relaxation to our lives. In sum, whether we turn to our screens for Snapchat or support, so long as we stay informed of the dangers and remain patient with ourselves, we can enjoy the many happy and healthy benefits of social media.

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