The Link Between Social Media and Depression

Updated October 6, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Learn How To Manage Depression And Social Media Usage

Have you been feeling more depressed lately? As it turns out, your social media habits may be to blame. Not only is it harmful to our mental health, but it's also harmful to our physical health. All of the sitting around we do while we're on the computer and our phones can lead to serious health problems later on in life. Experts have called sitting "the new smoking."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns parents against their children using social media. Between the cruelty of online bullies and the inadequacy kids feel when comparing themselves to their peers, social media can do a number on their psyches.

However, social media isn't so great for adults either. "Social media depression" is a real thing that affects people of any age, young and old.

Facebook Depression

The AAP first used the phrase "Facebook depression" in a report that listed the potential of social media to exacerbate mental health problems. Facebook was not alone in this either. Platforms like Myspace, YouTube, blogs, and even gaming sites have been found to have a negative effect on people's lives.

As some researchers point out, it’s not so much that you can get depression from social media, because it is simply a tool, but social media can certainly make conditions that are already present all the more painful.

"Facebook depression" in particular is used to refer to the feelings Facebook users get when they see their friends leading what appears to be a more exciting life than they lead, based on their friends' status updates and photos. Teenagers may feel less popular when one of their peers gets more "likes" on a photo or status update than they do, or if that person's friend count is higher than theirs.

Social media users in their twenties may feel inadequate when their friends from high school post pictures of themselves with their gorgeous spouses, going on exquisite trips out of the country and trying exotic foods. For this reason, experts believe that social media use may have an even larger impact on young adults who already struggle with low self-esteem or mental illness.

The Dangers Of Social Media

Bullying

It used to be that parents were terrified when their children were meeting people they haven't previously met in real life on the internet. And that fear is still there.

But in the past decade or more, the line has blurred between the internet and real life, as we do more and more of our social interaction online. The Pew Research Center reports that 32% of Americans use the internet almost constantly, with 92% of Americans using the internet daily. And most of this is time spent on social media.

Rather than there being a distinction between the internet and real life, the rise of social media sites has caused the online and offline realms to seep into each other, with some concerning trends emerging as a result.

A good example of this can be seen in the phenomenon of online bullying. In the pre-social media age, there was at least a reprieve from bullying when you got home from school.

Not so in the digital age. All a bully has to do is find out your child's phone number, and he can make your child's life a living hell. Those who don't dare to bully someone in real life (perhaps because they're always bullied themselves), find the courage to do so themselves, when behind a screen. Cyberbullying ranges from everything to homicidal threats and disturbing photos to texting someone non-stop for hours on end just to irritate them.

Depression and Anxiety

Studies are also increasingly connecting social media use to a higher risk of depression and anxiety. Researchers at Penn State noted there was a 30 percent increase in visits to counseling clinics on college campuses for anxiety and sadness between the 2007 (the year smartphones became widely available) to 2015.

One study from the University of Pennsylvania found a direct link between time spent on social media and depressive symptoms. The study took two groups of undergraduate students: one group would be observed using social media as it always does (without restraint), while the other would be spend far less time - no more than 30 minutes a day between the various platforms.

Over three the course of three weeks, the researchers found that users in the second group experienced a significant drop in depressive symptoms as compared to users in the first group.

Another study, reported on by NBC News, found a clear link between levels of depression in Amerian adults and social media use. This study found that people were most likely to be negatively affected by the visually-oriented platforms - TikTok and Snapchat in particular.

Sexting

Another one of the negative effects of social media use concerns what is known as “sexting.” Sexting is when users send each other sexually explicit photos via text or instant message platforms.

Sexting has become more prevalent among teenagers. According to a review of data across 39 studies that was published in JAMA Pediatrics, the average age of users who frequently sexted was 15 years old.

Because sexting is often done on platforms like Snapchat, where photos are set to self-delete after a short period of time, this behavior is often hard for parents to detect.

Parents also have to be aware of and talk to their children about "sexting," which is when two people send each other sexually explicit text messages and possibly even explicit photographs. Parents should always inform their children of the dangers involved in social media and internet usage, and they should monitor what their children are doing online.

FOMO

One of the reasons young people find social media platforms so addictive is we as human beings have a deep interest in knowing what our contemporaries are doing. This is known as "FOMO," or the Fear of Missing Out.

This sense of FOMO is what causes us to feel like we must be connected to social media at all times, or else we could be disconnected from our social circles. And websites like Facebook, that are constantly changing their algorithms to determine what we see, and from whom, are not helping.

We're constantly playing catch-up because we fear we may miss a post one of our friends has made. And then if we miss that post, our friend will get mad at us, and it could start a big fight. Or we might make them mad because they posted about a party we didn't know about, so we didn't RSVP, and now they're mad at us for not going.

There are so many assumptions and subtleties made when using social media, which an otherwise carefree practice, can turn toxic fairly quickly. And when we're constantly playing catch-up in the digital world, we miss the beauties of the physical world that are passing us by every day - something we'll surely regret when we're older, and our days feel more limited.

Less Active

Learn How To Manage Depression And Social Media Usage

The more time people spend on their phones and computers, the less time they spend on being physically active.

These consequences include increased risk of depressive symptoms. In addition, by constantly engaging in this practice, those individuals are not partaking in other activities that are better for their minds. More time spent on scrolling status updates on your feed means less spent on reading a good book. It means fewer social interactions in the real world, where you can talk and laugh face-to-face, where miscommunications can be cleared up right then and there, and where you can your interests with like-minded people?

Notifications are like junk food. The rush of dopamine encourages teens to neglect true social interaction in favor of pixels on a screen.

They give us a rush of dopamine because someone "liked" our comment or status update, or because someone posted something on their page, but the jolt of happy energy we get is a hollow one.

But social media use cannot replace true, authentic social interaction. Much more fulfilling is spending the day with friends, rather than settling for conversing with them online.

Sleep Deprivation

This is a big one. We all know lack of sleep will negatively impact one’s sense of well-being. It has been shown that backlit screens keep us awake longer at night because they mimic actual daylight. It messes with our circadian rhythm and convinces our bodies that if it's still daytime, then we must be awake.

Research indicates sleep deprivation is one of the major causes of depressive symptoms, especially in teenagers. And evidence suggests that more time spent on social media leads to more bad sleep and more depressive symptoms. Further, research from Standford University shows that these social media sites deliberately use positive feedback loops to “hook” people into ensure people stay connected longer.

These feedback loops are especially powerful on teenagers.Research has shown that 60 percent of teenagers are scrolling through their phones at least an hour before bed. And those same teenagers get, on average, an hour less sleep each night than their peers who do not check their phones in the hour before bed.

Aside from the depressive symptoms directly caused by social media use itself, there is strong research support that lack of sleep can also cause people to feel depressed. In addition, sleep deprivation also impedes a person’s ability to focus. And, contrary to the common argument substance abuse causes sleep issues, new research suggests the opposite: sleep issues raise a person’s risk of developing substance abuse problems.

Not to mention that scrolling through social media is hardly relaxing. If anything, it's both exciting and anxiety-inducing - two emotions that will certainly contribute to keeping you up all night.

How To Reduce Your Use

Let there be no miscommunication: social media can be a wonderful thing. It can connect us to people we haven't talked to in years, and it can allow us to photos with family who live hundreds of miles away. It can help us set up events, like parties and book clubs, and it can provide hours of entertainment with funny memes and cat videos. But, just like anything else, too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing.

Social media should not be used as a crutch. It should not be our go-to activity when we have a bit of time to kill, or when we need our spirits lifted. Studies have shown that people who limit or eliminate their Facebook use are typically happier than those who don't. However, if you feel like cutting the cord is just too much for you to handle, then take steps to reduce your usage if you feel it is becoming too soul-sucking.

Research indicates healthy social media use (if there is such a thing) equates to no more than 30 minutes per day. That means only using it to briefly check on those around you - and maybe post the odd, occasional status update to let your family and friends know you’re still alive.

One example of how to limit your social media use is to get your news from somewhere else. A lot of us use social media for news because we can check and compare all of our news in one spot. But this also prevents us from being as informed as we should be because we can be easily distracted by an article designed to trigger us.

Instead, visit the actual website, not the Facebook page, of your favorite news website. If you feel this is too tempting, turn off the computer, and turn on the television. Failing that, it's time to kick it old school and drop a buck or two on a paper publication. At the very least, it'll do your eyes some good to get away from all of that backlighting.

Finally, if you’re considering messaging that person you knew back in college, why not give them a call instead (or at least text them). And then try to meet up with them in-person (if they’re nearby) for social interaction in real life and off the screen.

Have you found that social media tends to make you more depressed? Consider reaching out to one of our BetterHelp counselors for advice and more information.

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