How Social Media Impacts Your Mental Health—And What You Can Do About It

March 5, 2021

Seen at Zoom

We Americans have a love-hate relationship with social media. 

We log in and use our social media apps—71 percent of us, mostly on a daily basis. Some would say we’re addicted. 

But we also lament its impact on our culture and politics, and on a more personal basis, on our mental health. In 2020, millions of us made The Social Dilemma, a docu-drama detailing the nefarious design tactics and toxic effects of social media, one of the most popular films on Netflix. And the Oxford English Dictionary included doomscrolling, the innately relatable term for anxiously, endlessly consuming a deluge of bad news online, on its list of words of the year.

So if you’re concerned about the negative effects of social media on your overall well-being, you aren’t alone. However, if you want to turn that love-hate relationship into a positive one, you don’t need to quit cold turkey, delete your accounts, and lose your primary method of contact with old friends or distant family. 

Because the science is starting to suggest that how social media impacts mental health is not a black-and-white matter. There’s a lot of benefit to connecting with other humans over social media. You just need to be mindful of how you do so. 

How your emotional connection to social media impacts well-being

For years, scientific research has been unclear about how social media impacts mental health. As Dr. Jeffrey Hall of the Relationships and Technology Lab told the American Psychological Society, “This is a very, very hot topic. Overwhelmingly, the literature says that if there is an effect, the effect is extremely small, and is likely not in the direction we expect.” 

One recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health dove a little deeper, and begins to quantify the different ways people engage with social media. In it, the researchers specifically asked participants to rate themselves on scales that measured their social well-being (things like feeling integrated into a social group, feeling acceptance, feeling like a contributing member of society) and positive mental health (such as enjoying life, feeling confident and satisfied, feeling equipped to deal with life, and being calm and well-balanced). 

Then, researchers measured not just how often or for how long people used social media, but how strong their emotional connection was to their favorite platforms. They asked questions about whether they got upset when they couldn’t use it, or felt disconnected when they had been away. 

Essentially, the study found that if people had these strong emotional connections to social media, and felt dependent on it, it was linked to poorer social well-being and mental health. But if people used social media as part of their daily routine but didn’t feel such strong connections to it, social media had a positive effect. 

“...These findings suggest that as long as we are mindful users, routine use may not in itself be a problem. Indeed, it could be beneficial,” as lead researcher Mesfin Awoke Bekalu told the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public

Active versus passive use

Bekalu’s research aligns with other recent studies that seem to follow the same trend: it’s not how often we use social media but how we use it. We are social creatures. When you use social media to actually connect with other humans, that’s generally a good thing. This is especially true during a pandemic where face-to-face interactions are much more limited. 

But when you only scroll and consume and compare your life to the filtered and Photoshopped lives on social media, you run into trouble.

For example, one longitudinal study shows that when people used Facebook passively—just scrolling through posts—they were more likely to feel envy and report a negative impact on their well-being. But when they actively engaged with others by commenting or exchanging messages, they usually reported feeling better.

What does this mean to us and our love-hate relationship? Using social media less often doesn’t necessarily make us happier. But using it smarter, and more mindfully, could make all the difference. 

How to be a mindful social media user

This is all good news! And you can start improving your relationship with social media today. 

We suggest you take a moment to reflect on how you’re using these apps right now, examining what makes you feel good, and what makes you feel worse. Do you get sucked into doomscrolling? Are you having a hard time getting work done because you’re pinged with notifications every 10 minutes? Are you staying up, endlessly refreshing that feed, later than you’d like? 

Write down what you love and what you hate. Then, pick one or two tactics that will help you address the “hate” side from the list below. Like all good habit-building practices, start small and build momentum over time. 

  • Don’t sleep with your phone in your bedroom. The research is pretty clear on this: when you use social media late at night, you sleep worse. One easy way to break this habit is leaving your phone to charge overnight in another room, even if it means you need to dig up a good old-fashioned alarm clock. (This also helps if you want to break the habit of waking up and immediately starting your day with the news, Slack, or email.)

  • Educate yourself about how apps are designed to addict you. Knowledge really is power, and the more you understand how social media apps are designed to hook your brain on their dopamine hits—ever notice how that “pull-to-refresh” feature functions like a slot machine?—the more equipped you’ll be to counteract those sneaky designs. The aforementioned Netflix docudrama is an entertaining place to start, and this ScienceDirect article dives into the psychology of app design.

  • Pay attention to your passive use. If you’re scrolling without engaging or refreshing for new posts to mindlessly consume, it’s probably time to set down the phone. If you find that difficult...

  • Take advantage of apps that limit your app usage. First, software companies created this social media monster, and now others have come with several apps to help you fight it. Use a screentime monitor or application blocker to prompt you after a set number of minutes, or to limit your access to your own apps for a certain amount of time per day.

  • Turn off smartphone and desktop notifications for social media apps. This one is simple, and will help immensely if you struggle with distractibility issues. (It’s the first change I personally made after watching The Social Dilemma!)

  • Take days off. While you don’t need to swear off social media, many people swear by the positive benefits of taking an entire day off the apps. A short break may be the shake-up you need to recalibrate your relationship to social media.

Our hope: when you reframe your perspective to use social media mindfully instead of cutting it out altogether, it becomes much easier to change your habits. Ultimately, social media is just a tool, and you can choose to use it or disregard it altogether. But if you feel bogged down by its role in your life, this should help you gain back some control and build a healthier relationship and a healthier you.

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