In 2021, it’s hard to think of anyone you know that doesn’t use social media in some way. Whether it’s your parents’ prolific posts on Facebook or your teenager’s constant use of TikTok and Snapchat, social media is a huge part of the day for many people.
In fact, approximately 77 percent of all Americans have a social media profile of some kind, and that number increases each year as more social media platforms emerge and more people join in. Social media isn’t just a “young people thing” either — social media users span across all age groups. It has been ingrained in nearly every aspect of our lives and in society as a whole, and as its use has become more widespread, many social scientists have noticed a troubling link between social media usage and depression. Here are the real facts and connections you need to know.
Does social media cause depression?
The link between the effects of social media and depressive symptoms has long been rumored, but until recently, it hadn’t been conclusively proven. A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that there is indeed a causal link between the use of social media and negative effects on mental health issues. The study looked at how 143 undergraduate college students at the University of Pennsylvania were impacted by social media. One group of students limited their use to 10 minutes of social media per day, while the other group used social media in their typical amount of time for three weeks. The study found that the study participants who restricted their use of social media showed significant reductions in their feelings of loneliness and depression over the course of the study than those students who used social media as usual.
However, another study closely examined the link between passive social media use (such as scrolling through your Instagram feed) and depression. This study indicated that passive social media use did not predict symptoms of depression, loneliness, or stress. In fact, the study concluded that people were more likely to engage in passive social media use when they were already tired and lonely.
Passive social media use then occurred at the same time as feelings of a loss of interest, concentration problems, fatigue, and loneliness. However, the study did conclude that people who spent more time engaging in passive social media use did experience higher mean levels of depressed mood, loneliness, hopelessness, and feelings of inferiority.
What’s the takeaway? Increased levels of social media use are linked to higher incidences of depression and feelings of loneliness. In addition, people who are already lonely or feeling fatigued are more likely to spend time passively using social media, thereby increasing their likelihood of experiencing feelings of depression.
Why does social media cause depression?
Given that social media is designed for social interaction and connecting with family and friends, it might seem strange to think that using social media could have the opposite intended effect and instead create feelings of loneliness and depression. While researchers are not sure exactly why social media causes depression, they do have a few theories.
First, social media is highly curated for the most part. That means that most people share only about their best moments on social media rather than all of the more mundane or even difficult aspects of their lives. Especially with Facebook use, you’re seeing selfies and posts of the best part of someone’s vacation rather than the time they spent fighting with their family about which activity to do next. You’re seeing photos taken from only the best angles and only with the best filters.
In short, when you’re using social media, you’re only seeing the parts of people’s lives that they want you to see, and that’s rarely reflective of the true reality of their day-to-day lives. All of that curated perfection can make you feel like your life doesn’t measure up, which can lead to feelings of depression and even social anxiety.
Additionally, social media can create a feeling of FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” When you’re viewing someone’s Facebook live stream of the party they’re attending, or are following your friend’s Instagram stories from their exotic vacation, you may feel like you’re missing out on something fun or like your life in general is coming up short. This is especially difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, when social media can exacerbate the feelings of disconnectedness and loneliness that naturally result from social isolation, hurting your mental health and emotional well-being rather than helping.
How much social media use is problematic?
With the ever-growing importance of social media in our society as a whole, complete disconnection from social media is unlikely for most people. This is especially true for young adults and teens who have had all of these different platforms as a major player during one of the most influential developmental stages of life.
However, you can help minimize the feelings of depression and loneliness that social media use can cause by spending less time on it. The UPenn study found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day substantially lowered feelings of loneliness and depression. However, really any reduction in social media use can be helpful. If you’re spending three hours a day on it right now, try reducing the time you spend on social media sites by half, and then continue to decrease your usage from there.
Of course, cutting down on social media use is easier said than done for many people. After all, how many of us have told ourselves we’d just look at one or two videos on TikTok and still found ourselves scrolling through videos hours later? The best way to cut down on your social media use is to set limits on the apps on your phone or tablet. This is harder to do on a computer, but since most people use social media on their mobile devices, it’s a fairly doable, simple solution in most cases. You can set your apps to disable after a certain amount of usage each day, or if you’re trying to cut down on overall screen time, you can set screen time limits on your phone as well.
How do I get help for depression?
If you find yourself struggling with feelings of depression or loneliness, getting help doesn’t have to be complicated. Finding access to a mental health provider can be challenging, but online mental healthcare services like YANA can connect you with a doctor for a virtual visit, then have medication delivered straight to your door for a low monthly price.
In addition to speaking to a doctor about any symptoms you may be experiencing, it also may be helpful to talk to a therapist about your feelings. Therapists can help you work through issues associated with depression, including feelings of worthlessness, guilt, sadness, and low self-esteem.
You are not alone, and there is always help available if you find yourself struggling.