In our ever-connected world, social media has become an integral part of our lives. From Facebook and Instagram to Twitter and TikTok, these platforms offer a window into the lives of friends, family, celebrities, and even strangers from around the globe.

Yet, beneath the surface of this digital revolution lies a complex and often paradoxical relationship between social media and our mental health.

Social Media’s Reward System

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At the heart of social media’s allure is the brain’s reward system. Every comment, like or share triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-happy chemical associated with pleasure and reward. This physiological response makes scrolling through our feeds akin to a rewarding activity, akin to indulging in our favorite foods or engaging in intimate encounters.

But here lies the paradox: while this rush of pleasure keeps us hooked, it can also lead to addictive behaviors, fostering anxiety and depression when our online interactions don’t meet our expectations.

Some surprising statistics to set the context here:

  • Almost 4.8 billion people worldwide are social media users, representing 59.9% of the global population and 92.7% of all internet users.
  • Between April 2022 and April 2023, around 150 million new social media users were added – a 3.2% increase. If we further break those numbers down, it equals approximately 410,000 new social users every day – and 4.7 every second.
  • Almost 32% of teenagers in the U.S. claim social media has had a negative impact on users their age – while only 9% believe this applies to themselves.

The Unceasing Scroll and the Comparison Trap

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As our screens light up with notifications, it’s easy to get caught in the relentless cycle of scrolling. Social media platforms are created to make users addicted to their platforms, employing algorithms and notifications that encourage prolonged use. We all have experienced how a social media app shows an ad about some brand/destination/topic you were looking up online earlier. This constant stimulus can disrupt our daily lives, impacting productivity and our ability to focus, all while exacerbating feelings of anxiety and isolation.

A common human tendency these days is to measure self-worth in Likes and Shares and question ourselves, “Why did my photo not get enough likes?” or “Why someone else’s photos are getting more viral?”.

This is one of the most insidious aspects of social media- the pervasive culture of comparison. Users are continually exposed to carefully curated highlights of others’ lives, leading to unrealistic standards and feelings of inadequacy. Whether it’s the perfect vacation photos or enviable achievements, the constant exposure to these idealized images can erode self-esteem and contribute to symptoms of depression.

Superficial Connections vs. Meaningful Relationships

“Why didn’t that friend like my photo, but they liked someone else’s post?” We find ourselves lost in these questions about our superficial online connections. Digital interactions can feel superficial and lack the depth of face-to-face conversations. In an ironic twist, the more time we spend on social media, the more isolated we may become in the real world, contributing to feelings of loneliness and depression.

Cyberbullying and Online Harassment

You might have experienced some sort of trolling online or seen someone else get trolled. The hidden identity on the internet can bring out the worst in some individuals, leading to cyberbullying and online harassment. The emotional scars left by hurtful comments, threats, or public shaming can run deep, causing significant psychological distress. This issue is especially concerning among adolescents who are still developing coping mechanisms.

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and Its Consequences

FOMO is a pervasive phenomenon that can lead to chronic anxiety. The constant barrage of updates on social media can make us feel like we’re missing out on exciting events, parties, or life experiences. This fear can become paralyzing, pushing people to engage with social media compulsively, even when it negatively impacts their mental health.

The Physical Toll: Sleep Disturbances and Beyond

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Recent studies have shed light on the physical toll of excessive social media use. A 2018 British study linked it to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep. Excessive screen time, particularly before bedtime, can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia and fatigue. Moreover, the chronic stress and anxiety induced by social media can manifest physically as headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, and even cardiovascular problems.

The Early Start and Its Consequences

Research suggests that the age at which teens start using social media plays a pivotal role in its impact on their mental health. This influence is especially pronounced among females. While teen males often express their emotions physically, females tend to do so relationally by excluding others and sharing hurtful comments. Social media provides fertile ground for such harmful interactions, increasing the opportunity for these behaviors.

For example, a high school kid who sees her best friend forming new bonds and sharing pictures of their outings might feel the sting of exclusion more acutely than in the past. Two decades ago, she might have been unaware of these activities unless explicitly told.

The Filtered Reality: Unrealistic Expectations

Moreover, social media distorts our perceptions of appearances and reality. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat inundate us with filtered and altered images, perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards. Unlike in the past, when teens saw retouched photos of models in magazines, these idealized images are now a thumb-scroll away at any given time.

Apps that offer airbrushing, teeth whitening, and various filters have made it easier for everyone to present themselves as flawless. This digital illusion makes it increasingly challenging for teens, who are already navigating the tumultuous waters of puberty and self-identity development. At this stage, their brains are still developing, impulse control is limited, and peer relationships are of utmost importance.

This seems to be a very vulnerable age to have access to something where there is no stopgap before they post or press the send button. It becomes difficult to identify what’s real and what’s not. And any negative experience at this age might stay with the teens as they grow up.

The Impact Extends to Adults

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While the vulnerabilities of adolescents are evident, adults are not immune to the allure of social media’s filtered reality. Recent years have seen an upsurge in plastic surgery requests from individuals wanting to resemble their filtered Snapchat and Instagram selves.

A poignant example is a New York Times article from June 2018, which recounted the story of a newlywed couple nearly on the brink of separation after their honeymoon. The wife’s preoccupation with planning and posting selfies on social media took precedence over spending quality time with her husband.

Final Thoughts

The influence of social media on mental health is a complicated and evolving issue. From the early exposure of adolescents to the allure of filtered perfection, social media’s impact is profound.

Finding the right balance between the digital world and the real one is crucial for maintaining mental well-being. It’s a reminder that behind the filters and curated posts, authenticity and meaningful connections still hold significant value in our lives.

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