The psychiatric dangers of social media

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Medically reviewed by Amanda Zeglis, DO, MBA
Published May 23, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • The number of people using social media is skyrocketing, which has raised concerns over users’ mental health.

  • In adults aged 18 years and older, data demonstrate that social media use is independently associated with self-reported, new-onset depressive symptoms. In youth, dose-dependent exposure to social media is related to mental distress, self-injury, and suicide.

  • Some experts recommend having constructive discussions with teenagers and other family members to curb the potential harms of social media.

Social media has suffused nearly every aspect of daily life. According to research cited by the University of Maine, 4.48 billion people worldwide use social media, which is more than double the number from 2015.[] The average time spent on social media per day is 2 hours 24 minutes, which adds up to 5.7 years in a person who uses from 16 to 70 years of age.

Concerns over the effects of social media use have inspired researchers to look for links between its consumption and mental health.

The link to mental health

In a JAMA study, researchers surveyed 5,395 users with minimal depressive symptoms who used Snapchat, Facebook, or TikTok between May 2020 and May 2021.[]

They found that these sites were related to higher levels of self-reported depression in users who didn’t initially report depression. After adjusting for covariates, these associations held—with the exception of Snapchat use.

The authors concluded that these results weren’t due to broader consumption of other forms of media. On further analysis, they found that the results didn’t change when baseline social interactions were considered. In other words, decreased face-to-face encounters weren’t to blame. The authors couldn’t determine causation.

The potential detriments of social media use by children have also been a concern. “Social media use has been associated with diminished well-being and greater levels of anxiety and depression, predominantly in cross-sectional studies among adolescents or young adults, although concern has been raised that reporting bias may result from individuals with greater depressive symptoms overreporting social media use,” wrote the authors.

In a review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), investigators found that data from a variety of cross-sectional, longitudinal, and empiric studies indicated that social media use led to heightened mental distress, self-injury, and suicidality among young people.[] This relationship appears to be dose-dependent, with girls more affected.

Underlying reasons

The authors of the CMAJ article hypothesized that social media could exert negative effects by impacting teen self-view and impacting their view of interpersonal relationships via social comparison and negative interactions.

These negative interactions could include cyberbullying, as well as the promotion of self-harm and suicide. Additionally, chronic sleep deprivation from excessive social media use could have negative impacts on a young person's cognitive control, socioemotional functioning, and academics.

Gaps in the research

Research on social media’s effects on mental health is emerging, and there are shortcomings that call into question the veracity of any associations made.

In an umbrella review (or review of reviews) published in Current Opinion in Psychology, authors found that in reviews published between 2019 and mid-2021, most found the association between social media use and mental health “weak” or “inconsistent,” with only a few finding the correlation “substantial” and “deleterious.”[]

The authors pointed out that these reviews are cross-sectional in nature and fail to prove causation.

"Other identified gaps involved the lack of attention to mediators to explain the association of SMU [social media use] with mental health, and the lack of attention to risk and protective factors that may uncover which adolescents are particularly susceptible to the effects of SMU."

Valkenburg, et al.

“Most reviews, therefore, called for longitudinal studies to determine the causal direction of the effects of SMU on mental health, as well as for research designed to investigate why and for whom SMU is associated with mental health.”

Potential solutions

Although study results on social media use are mixed, some experts have provided recommendations on how to advise adolescents about the topic.

Work collaboratively with teens and their families to develop prudent approaches to decrease the potential harms of social media use. Such approaches could include practical problem-solving and education.

This communication should be non-judgmental, open, and age-appropriate.

What this means for you

The skyrocketing use of social media among US citizens is an area of concern, especially when it comes to young people, who could be at risk for self-harm or suicide due to mental distress and depression caused by these sites. In such cases, work with these people and their family members to find ways to reduce social media’s harmfulness through problem-solving and education.

Related: Doctors use social media to boost mental health
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