The Link Between Social Media And Depression

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In today’s world, it’s common for individuals to turn to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok for news, social connection, and entertainment. However, both everyday people and mental health experts have started questioning whether time spent on social media is linked to depression. We’re going to examine the increase in social media use, and whether or not spending time on these platforms can lead to depression.

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Is social media use harming your mental health?

The rise of social media use

Twenty years ago, socializing with your friends involved getting together in person, and connecting with strangers was almost unheard of. However, that all changed with the advent of social media.

In 2005, only 5% of adults in the United States reported using social media, but that percentage rose to 72% in 2021. It’s true that social media use does vary by age, with a larger percentage of younger adults partaking in social media than older adults. This use is spread throughout social media platforms, with YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram topping the list.

The prevalence of depression

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 8.3% of United States adults experienced a major depressive episode in 2021.

These episodes included at least two weeks of depressed mood or a loss of interest in activities, as well as symptoms including sleeping too much or not enough, irritability, low energy, and/or difficulty concentrating.

Individuals living with major depressive disorder may find it difficult to complete responsibilities related to school or work. Their symptoms can cause challenges with maintaining both social, familial, and romantic relationships.

Despite the seriousness of depression, it’s important to recognize that help is available. Therapy, medication, or a combination of both can help individuals manage symptoms of depression. However, not everyone is interested in or able to receive treatment for their depression—the National Institute of Mental Health reported 61% of individuals experiencing major depression received treatment in 2021 . A lack of treatment may be related to limited awareness about the seriousness of depression, an individual’s belief that they don’t need help, or problems with affording treatment.

The link between social media and depression

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In a 2020 study published in Nature, researcher Jonathan Haidt noted the connection between the increase in social media use and an increase in depression rates. Haidt makes it clear that the proposed link between technology and depression is related to social media use, not screen time alone.

A 2016 survey also examined the link between social media use and depression. The researchers surveyed 1,787 adults between ages 19 and 32 about their social media use habits as well as feelings of depression. While the link between social media use and depression is strong, it’s important to recognize they do not mean that social media use causes depression. It is also possible that those with depression are more likely to turn to social media.

With that said, it is worthwhile to examine the impacts of social media and how they might lead to depression.

Fear of missing out

One aspect may be an increase in the fear of missing out, or FOMO. While some argue social media allows individuals to become more connected to people, others argue it can increase feelings of loneliness. When individuals spend time on social media, they may see activities others are partaking in without them. This can lead to the belief that they are missing out on activities which can lead individuals to feel isolated and left out, even if they have strong social connections in real life.

In 2018, a group of researchers conducted an experiment to test the impact of social media and FOMO on mental health. The study consisted of a group of 143 undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. The students’ feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and FOMO were measured at the onset of the experiment. After these readings were taken, half of the students were instructed to limit use of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat use to ten minutes per day, and the other half was instructed to continue using these social media platforms as they normally would. These social media use patterns continued for three weeks.

At the end of the three week period, the students' feelings were measured again. The group with limited social media use showed a noticeable decrease in loneliness and depression, and both groups showed decreases in anxiety and FOMO. This suggests that the control group used social media more thoughtfully during the experiment.

Feelings of isolation

A 2017 survey reported that individuals with greater social media use also experienced greater perceived feelings of isolation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals are more isolated, but rather that they feel more isolated.

When an individual feels more isolated, they may be less likely to reach out to others, which can increase true isolation.

Sleep deprivation

Research indicates that disturbed sleep can lead to depression, and evidence suggests that more time spent on social media leads to poor sleep. Therefore, it is possible that social media use may increase the likelihood of poor sleep which may increase the likelihood of developing depression.

When social media use becomes problematic

While increased social media use may be linked to an increased likelihood that someone will develop symptoms of depression, many people use social media and do not develop depression. Therefore, it can be beneficial to recognize how much you are using social media and how it is impacting your life.

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Is social media use harming your mental health?

If you find that spending time on social media makes you feel isolated, unwanted, or disconnected, it may be a good idea to limit your social media use. However, doing so may be more difficult than you would like, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Connecting with a mental health professional may help you recognize how social media use is impacting your mental health, and also provide you with a support system that can help you decrease your time spent on social media.

If your social media use coincides with depression, it may be difficult to find the energy to visit an in-person therapist. In that case, online therapy may be a more appealing option. Online therapy allows you to connect with a licensed therapist from anywhere with a strong internet connection, which means you can complete sessions from home.

A review of research reported that online therapy was just as effective as traditional therapy at improving the symptoms of multiple mental illnesses, including major depressive disorder.

Takeaway

Using social media does not mean you will develop depression, but increased social media use is correlated with a greater likelihood of developing depression. Social media use can also lead to feelings of isolation as well as a fear of missing out. If you believe social media is harming your mental health, you can connect with a therapist for help.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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