Woman doomscrolling on her phone, worried about social media and mental health

How Does Social Media Play a Role in Mental Health?

Online social media sites allow people to connect with one another, both benefiting their mental health and adding yet another arena for challenges to arise. The concept of social networking plays on the basic need of human beings to stay together in groups and form a community to survive. As the technology developed to support it, it’s no wonder that the popularity of social networking sites grew since the tech boom of the 90s. 

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn are now household names in many American homes, and new ways to communicate through social media apps are growing exponentially. However, researchers are starting to investigate the role of social media in mental health. Even Netflix has featured a popular documentary, The Social Dilemma, which explores social media’s problematic and limited regulations and its link to overall wellness. 


Effects on the Brain 

The use of social media sites, in general, is rarely monitored and is unlikely to be seen as a problem behavior. The distinguishing factor between health and unhealth is whether there is “too much” use instead of a balance. Yet, it is also important to recognize that social media can work similarly to an addiction. 

As with any other addictive substance, we can use social media to dissociate from the responsibilities and stresses of our daily lives, numb from our pain or fill the hole of an unmet need.  To behave responsibly online, we need to be aware of the function of social media, the attention we garner for ourselves on there and the role it plays in our identity narrative.

While social media companies have taken some steps to help users moderate their online activity, their platforms are designed to be engaging, with sophisticated algorithms and features to compel users to spend more time on their products. These features act on the brain’s reward systems and generate increases in dopamine, as well as the release of oxytocin. 

Increased activity in the nucleus accumbens has also been found in teens, such as in response to gaining “likes” on posts. These findings are similar to the biological mechanisms of addiction and important to note as we consider a teenager’s social media exposure given their malleable brain and developmental stage. 

In the adolescent stage of life—where many of these issues with social media begin—it’s typical that teenagers have difficulty in self-regulation and critical thinking skills- especially when it comes to screen time. Add to this our dwindling attention span and the prevalence of ADHD, and the warnings about social media begin to make sense. 


Risks to Wellness

It is not until social media use has interfered with a person’s relational, personal, academic or professional life that the criteria for addiction have been met. Still, there are consequences and dangers present in any unregulated arena. 

There appears to be consensus in research that less social media correlates with lower rates of depression and feelings of loneliness. Several studies have revealed that anxiety and depressive symptoms can come about through comparison to others’ “highlight reel.” In addition to this, individuals are more likely to experience body image insecurity from filtered and photoshopped standards that are idealized and internalized. Bullying harassment and a fear of missing out are also common occurrences. 

Highlight Reel is a curated and preferred online presentation of the good moments, excluding struggles as they really appear in daily life and minimizing vulnerabilities. From the outside looking in, this view seems perfect, but it’s not the complete picture. 

A staggering 97% of teens are on their phones and using social media. Research has found:

  • People who spend seven hours or more of screen time in their day are more than twice as likely to develop anxiety and depression. 
  • Even an hour more of online media usage per day correlates with lower self-esteem and more serious depressive symptoms. 

These concerns with anxiety, depression and self-esteem are related to the content we’re exposed to online and in our interactions with others. About 37% of teens report being the victim of online bullying, and teens aren’t the only ones who experience and participate in the darker sides of social media and internet use. Much of what we’re comfortable saying and posting online is vastly different from the tact and care we take when presenting ourselves in person. 


We spend countless hours crafting our online persona, which at times, can be vastly different than who we are in reality. Without realizing it, we can make a habit of turning to our online connections to fulfill an unhealthy need for attention, validate our sense of self-worth and define who we are.


Setting limits on screen time and challenging yourself to take a step back from your unhealthy reliance can make a big difference in maintaining good mental health hygiene.  



Many Americans report that social media is the primary source of their news digest. In fact, in 2018, Pew Research Center found that one in five people get their news from social media outlets, with nearly a half of younger Americans ages 18 to 29 reportedly using social media platforms as their primary source. 

By August of 2020, The Center for Disease Control revealed that over 40% of Americans met the criteria for mental illness and reported struggles with substance use, isolation and suicide ideation. That year, anxiety and depression reached three times their prevalence from the same time last year. 

With Americans disconnected from their regular social events and likely needing a break to disengage from stress, there was more opportunity for media consumption, yet much of our newsfeeds featured fearmongering and content that was difficult to face- social injustices, political tensions, conspiracy theories and growing concern about health and the pandemic. 

Doomscrolling is spending excessive time in mindless scrolling through articles or content that is often negative, leading to psychological harm. 

Seeking a Sense of Control

Those who are more prone to anxiety tend to engage in doomscrolling as a way to feel more control in a wildly out-of-control world. So there becomes a double-bind where people may experience more stress and anxiety through their attempt to numb out and escape it. 

However, learning to be more present with our thoughts and emotions allows us to have better boundaries with information that may be detrimental to our well-being and mental health. Pausing to recognize that there is really no actual benefit to mindless scrolling and finally putting the phone down helps us feel more in control. 


Using Media For Good

On the plus side, online relationships can fulfill unmet real-life social needs.  Virtual relationships can provide a sense of belonging, validation and elevate mood through entertainment and interaction with others. People who feel misunderstood and perhaps lonely may use online connections to meet their needs of feeling comfort and community.  Studies have shown that people who are shy, have limited social skills or experience social anxiety may be drawn to online relationships. 

While it may not be a long-term solution for these individuals, social media and many other advances available to us because of the internet can help them get a foot in the door toward finding fulfilling real-life connections. 

With all its risks, it is still possible to enjoy social media while practicing awareness of some of its downfalls. Some suggest that setting limits of 30 minutes per day could lead to a more positive sense of well-being. Being mindful about the content you consume is also another way to practice boundaries. 

For instance, many platforms allow you to set filters on the posts you follow so you can be in control of what you see. There are also ways to monitor the length of time you spend on social media. 

Finally, take intentional breaks to go outside, connect face-to-face with others, spend time in your hobbies or do something that brings you joy. Keep your goals and values in perspective. In the end, we can be assured that no one will say that they wished they had spent more time online. 


Treatment at The Ranch Tennessee

Social media infiltrates many aspects of our lives, from the way we present ourselves, connect and feel loved by others to the way that we spend our time. All realms of our online lives carry both the potential for positive and negative effects, depending on the intentionality and care with which we approach them. Whether you struggle with a mood disorder like anxiety or depression, and attention disorder like ADHD or love addiction, The Ranch Tennessee has programs specifically designed for you.


A call to The Ranch Tennessee at 888-317-0697 is the first step on the journey of overcoming the challenges that plague you as you try to exist in our technological world. No matter which aspect of your mental health is suffering due in some part to social media, our skilled, compassionate therapists can equip you with the tools you need to regain control of your online and offline interactions and relationships.


Give us a call today if you’re looking to learn how to love yourself, feel happy again and improve your behavioral, mental, emotional and physical health.

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