There’s no shortage of evidence that social media can worsen depression and anxiety. One recent study even found that those who are online most frequently (at least 50 times a week—which let’s be honest—is most of us in a Covid-19 world) have three times the odds of perceived social isolation as those who went online less than nine times a week.

With the seismic events happening in 2020, we’ve probably never experienced those negative effects as acutely—while simultaneously feeling the need to communicate online more than ever. Thanks to social distancing, screen time is way up, while platforms like Twitter and Instagram are helping activists organize the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The irony of social media is that it can simultaneously bring people together and facilitate social isolation,” says Audrey Ervin, psychologist and academic director of the graduate program in counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University.

How Social Media Hurts Mental Health

When we look at someone’s Instagram or Twitter account, it’s highly unlikely that we’re getting the full picture.

“People tend to present the highlight reels of their lives,” says Erin A. Vogel, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.

This might mean posting the most flattering photos of yourself from glamorous vacations, while ignoring all the afternoons that you’re face-planted on the couch watching Friday Night Lights reruns. This unrealistic view can have a negative effect on the mental health of others.

I’ve found that people mostly make what’s called upward comparison,” says Vogel. “Especially when people who are prone to low self-esteem or self-doubt, looking at social media might make them think of themselves as less attractive or less intelligent.”

Similarly, social media only offers a snapshot of the world at large. In our curated news feeds, it’s easy to get lost in an echochamber of negativity or misinformation—particularly now that the 24/7 news cycle seems to be on speed. The general state of alarm and anxiety isn’t helping, either. Without an emotional break, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless.

“There is so much news and uncertainty—especially around Covid,” says Vogel. “We’re reading about other peoples’ thoughts and speculations. We’re all overthinking together—being on social media can really amplify that feeling.”

How Social Media Helps Mental Health

Despite its bad rap, social media has the potential to improve mental health, particularly in an era of social distancing when face-to-face interactions are difficult. It’s not surprising, then, that we’re using the internet to reach out more than ever. The use of Facebook, for example, rose 27% from January to March this year.

“One benefit of social media is the ability to connect with others and decrease feelings of isolation,” says Ervin.

Thanks to hashtags, chat groups, and other community-building tools, social media also empowers groups who might struggle to find a sense of belonging.

“Connecting with others around a shared identity point or social issue can be very powerful and liberating,” says Ervin. “For instance, LGBTQ youth are often greatly relieved to learn that they are not alone. Similarly, connecting with others around a shared experience of loss can provide hope, inspiration, or support for coping. Social media can help people to feel less isolated as they share narratives of empowerment and hope. People can connect around shared values, interests, causes, and strategies to make meaningful social change.”

Black Lives Matter uses social media as a platform to organize its nonviolent protests, share important resources, and voice messages against systemic racism. Rallying on social media as well as on the streets isn’t just performative—it’s a crucial, effective tool that helps protesters coordinate their actions in real time so they can avoid disruption and keep the world informed about their movement.

When You Need A Break From Social Media

Healthy social media might look different from one person to another. But one thing is key: moderation. What does that mean for you? “We tend to look more at how social media is affecting the person’s life than time itself,” says Vogel. “If someone is on social media so much it’s getting in the way of their other obligations or they feel distressed when they’re not able to use it, that might signal their use is becoming a problem for them.”

Seven Tips For Healthy Social Media Habits

Maintaining a positive relationship with social media is all about how you use it. Follow these tips to get on the right path.

  1. Seek a new source. Learning about the latest Supreme Court case or COVID-19 vaccine trial from the article that your uncle posted on Facebook isn’t just less reliable than subscribing to a paper like The Washington Post or Wall Street Journal—it can quickly become overwhelming. Because your feed is bombarded with information from many different people (some more biased than others) it’s up to you to process that information and fact check. And who wants that? Instead, depend on the sources you trust the most, and try to dismiss any background noise or frenzied speculation on the Twittersphere.
  2. Reach out. Social media is at its best when it does what it was originally designed for: making social connections. Whether you’re building new ties or maintaining a friendship, “keeping in touch with lots of people, especially those who mean a lot to us, helps us to be less lonely,” says Vogel.
  3. Stay active. If you’ve ever fallen into an Instagram hole, only to emerge hours later, this one won’t come as a surprise: Active social media use—such as direct messaging, updating your profile, sharing photos, and posting status updates—is generally better for mental health than passive browsing. While scrolling through our friends’ posts is okay in moderation, it can lead to feeling disconnected.
  4. Cut ties. Maybe it’s a coworker with unsavory political opinions or your college roommate who posted one too many selfies. We all have that one person on our feed who, for whatever reason, we just can’t stand. This is permission for you to unfollow them. If that certain someone happens to be family, and unfollowing isn’t feasible, try out the mute button. You’ll be spared whatever is making you angry or upset, and maintain the peace.
  5. Set boundaries. Feel yourself slipping into a social media coma? It might be time to set a few restrictions. Consider turning off notifications or setting your phone on airplane mode when it’s a distraction to work or in-person human interaction, like meals or family time. It’s also a good idea not to go on social media—and to limit screen time generally—before bed in order to improve sleep quality.
  6. Detox. If you feel like you need a longer break, take a social media hiatus, whether it’s a day or two weeks. While research shows that the effectiveness of this type of detox is mixed, it will be helpful to retintegate social media back into your routine in a thoughtful way when you get back online.
  7. Keep perspective. If you feel yourself spiraling, remind yourself that what you’re witnessing online isn’t the full story. “No one’s life is perfect,” says Vogel. “They’re only showing what they want you to see.”

Surfing social media and obsessing over the news may actually make you feel more isolated and give you a distorted sense of what’s actually going on. The constant shifting attention between apps and platforms also has the potential to shorten your attention span and make it difficult to focus on things. Think you might have an internet addiction? Take this quiz.

Last Updated: Sep 10, 2020