Social media and mental health: how does social media affect mental health?

Contributing clinicians

Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford.
Dr Murali Sekar, Lead Consultant Psychiatrist in Eating Disorders at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.
Dr Lucinda Green, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist.
Georgia Henderson, Clinical Psychologist.

Social media’s impact on mental health

The rise of social media at the turn of the 21st century, has given us easy access to friends, family and people we admire – allowing us all to stay connected online. As social creatures, we crave contact with others, and social media allows us to do just that, any time, any place.

As social media sites have increased their influence on our lives, more attention has been drawn to the connection it has with our mental health. If social media is used excessively, it can lead to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and addictions.

Social media and mental health: 10 things you should know

  1. It’s estimated that, globally, 210 million people suffer from internet and social media addiction [1]
  2. Teens who spend 5 or more hours per day on their devices are 71% more likely to have one risk factor for suicide [2]
  3. Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) of 10 to 15 year olds have experienced at least one type of online bullying [3]
  4. Limiting social media use to 30 minutes each day, can lead to significant reductions in symptoms of loneliness and depression [4]
  5. Increased Facebook use is associated with a future decrease in mental health [5]
  6. 52% of students said social media made them feel less confident about how they look or how interesting their life is [6]
  7. 34% of young adults are afraid they'll miss out on things if they don’t use social media [7]
  8. 92% of parents think social media/the internet is having a negative impact on their children’s mental health [8]
  9. The more often young teens turn to social media, the more prone they are to developing an eating disorder [9]
  10. 1 in 4 teenage girls have edited a photo of themselves to change their face or body because of concerns about their body image [10]

Cyber bullying

Sometimes, people use social media networks to victimise and abuse others online. Harmful or offensive comments are commonplace in some areas of social media, making it a cruel place for people on the receiving end.

While this can happen to anyone, it’s especially a problem for children and adolescents. Hurtful comments, rumours and lies can have a big impact on the mental health of a child. It can be even more damaging if that child is also being bullied at school, as digital spaces give the perpetrator a chance to continue to bully out of school hours.

Fear of missing out (FOMO)

Whether it's on social media or not, when we see friends or family having fun, we get a sense that everyone is enjoying a more eventful life than our own. In many ways, this is just a natural human reaction.

Social media can intensify these feelings. If we see pictures of other people out enjoying themselves while we sit at home, this can make us feel like we’re missing out and worry that our social life isn’t an exciting as other people’s. Over time, these feelings can escalate into real mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Feelings of inadequacy

Social media has long been criticised for the ease with which people can manipulate images using filters and other tools. These doctored images often promote an unrealistic body image, which can cause us to feel insecure about how we look. This can lead to conditions like eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), particularly among younger people.

It’s not just other people’s appearances on social media that can make us feel insecure. The system of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ used by most social platforms, mean that we can be constantly comparing ourselves to other people. If we find that our posts receive fewer likes than a friend, it can make us feel less popular or generally inadequate. Also, it can mean that our sense of self-esteem and self-worth becomes dependent on the amount of engagement we get on social media, as opposed to more important things such as what we’re like as people.

Loneliness and isolation

Social media can also make us feel more lonely and isolated. Evidence shows that physical, face-to-face interaction with other people acts as a boost to our mental health, whereas a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that limiting face-to-face contact almost doubles the risk of someone developing depression.

If we start to reduce our face-to-face interactions with people, and only interact with them through social media, this can put us at a higher risk of:

  • Developing mood disorders like depression
  • Being less able to deal with stress
  • Feeling more isolated and lonely

Clinical Psychologist, Georgia Henderson, on social media and feeling ‘less than’:

“Social media tricks our brains in a number of ways. We compare ourselves constantly to our peers to check we ‘fit in’ and ‘belong’. Young people often have a mix of peers and celebrities on their social media channels, with little ability for their brain to tell the difference. So, instead of just comparing our lives to schoolmates and neighbours, we are comparing it to Victoria’s Secret models and Justin Bieber. This leaves most young people feeling ‘less than’.”

Read more here.

Social media’s connection to other conditions

Eating disorders

Idealised body images and photo editing tools used on social media, mean that these platforms may contribute to people developing eating disorders. A recent 2019 study said the more often young teens use social media, the more prone they are to developing an eating disorder.

There are also trends such as ‘fitspiration’ on social media, where healthy eating and fitness become an unhealthy obsession. Research from International Journal of Eating Disorders found that women who post 'fitspiration' images on Instagram are more likely to engage in eating and exercise behaviours that are potentially harmful to their physical and mental health.


Opening up your phone releases dopamine in our brains – a neurotransmitter known as the ‘happy chemical’. Over time, we can develop an association between using our phones and gaining a rewarding, pleasurable experience. While social media can be a welcome distraction at first, this dopamine hit can mean that you want to log on over and over again, which can soon spiral into an addiction.

In the US, it’s now estimated that as many as 5% to 10% of Americans could meet the criteria for being at risk of social media addiction.

Social media’s influence on families

Influence on children and teens

Social media can impact us all negatively, but when the damage is inflicted on children and young people, it’s natural to feel even more worried.

Social media can seem like the centre of a young person’s world. They probably don’t have the maturity or life experiences that an older person has to ‘cushion’ them from any negativity they might experience online. This means that the impact of social media on their mental health can be much greater than someone who's older and potentially more mentally robust, or with other things to focus on.

The impact of social media on young people is wide reaching, to the extent that Facebook (which also owns Instagram) has recently been criticised for keeping their own research on the topic hidden. Research suggests that these social media channels have a negative impact on young people’s body images (affecting young girls in particular) and that teenagers blame these channels for rising levels of depression and anxiety.

Cyber bullying is more keenly felt by younger generations too. The Office of National Statistics says that nearly 20% of 10 to 15 year olds have experienced cyber bullying, but a 2018 Pew Research study suggested this could be as high as 59%.

Calls for social media channels to do more to limit the negative impact they have on younger people are growing stronger, as are suggestions the government should get involved. In a Priory poll, we found that 67% of parents want legislation on smartphone use in 10 to 17 year olds. 44% go as far to say they would support an outright ban on smartphones for under 16s.

Influence on parents

For parents, worrying about the safety of your children online is bad enough, but adults are not immune from the impact of excessive social media use.

A survey by Priory found that social media is partially responsible for triggering symptoms of anxiety and depression in parents – fuelled by the same feelings of ‘FOMO’ and feeling ‘less than’ that affect our children.

  • 22% said that happy family pictures posted on Instagram or Facebook made them feel inadequate
  • 23% said it made them feel depressed
  • 36% said they thought that baby bloggers and ‘Instamums' were contributing to rising rates of depression amongst parents

Influence on relationships

Social media can also lead to tension or strain in relationships. It can cause feelings of jealousy or envy, especially if one member of the relationship becomes secretive with their smartphone use. As a response, over a third (34%) of partnered adults say they have checked their partner’s phone at some point.

These areas of conflict can lead to ongoing relationship problems. A study from 2017 said that people who engage more in “infidelity-related behaviours on social media” are less satisfied in their relationship.

Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist, Dr Lucinda Green, on social media and postnatal depression:

"Women who criticise themselves, or assume others will judge them, for failing to be the perfect mother they aspire to be, are at increased risk of postnatal depression. When social media projects idealised images of parenthood as the norm, it's easy for new parents to feel guilty or inadequate if their experience does not match this."

Read more here.

Signs your social media use is affecting your mental health

There are signs you can look out for that might suggest your social media use is having a detrimental impact on your mental health. These include:

  • You’re spending more time socialising on social media than face-to-face
  • You feel sad or low on self-esteem when you see other people’s posts
  • You find you’re comparing yourself to others in an unhealthy way
  • You’re distracted by social media when you're at work or school
  • You find you’re doing things/behaving in a certain way, just to attract likes on social media
  • You feel sad or disappointed if your posts don’t get as many likes as others
  • Checking social media is the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night
  • You start to neglect your other hobbies or interests in favour of going on social media more

How to modify your social media use for positive mental health

Become more aware of how much you use social media

Making yourself aware of how much social media consumes your life is the first step towards starting to cut back.

Being more aware of your social media habits will increase understanding of how much technology is adversely affecting your life – and how you could replace your ‘addiction’ with things that might improve your happiness levels and mental health.

Reduce use wherever you can

Alongside becoming more aware of how much you use social media, you can introduce a series of small changes to your digital habits, making them instantly more sustainable and healthy:

  • Turn your screen to greyscale to reduce the lure and addictiveness of colours, sounds and app styles
  • Remove apps which ‘hook’ you in
  • Turn off all notifications
  • Use an app to track your usage of different apps and set a goal that aims to reduce it
  • Look for usage patterns. Are you logging in or switching on during times of stress, boredom, anger or sadness?
  • Don’t take your devices to bed with you

Prioritise other activities 

Social media is an enticing distraction. If you can shift your focus and engage your brain in something else that captures your attention, you’ll be less inclined to pick up your phone. There are loads of ways you can do this, like finding a new hobby, volunteering or practising mindfulness. Meeting someone face-to-face is proven to have a more positive effect on your mental health when compared to other forms of communication. Therefore, you could also take the time to reach out to family and friends and organise physical meet-ups with them.

Fundamentally, it’s a good idea to try and replace the dopamine hits that come from social media with something more fulfilling in the long-term.

Pamela Roberts, Therapist at Priory Hospital Woking, advises the following exercise:

“List the effects that social media might be having on your sleep and health, the time you spend with family, not concentrating on work or studies, or accessing inappropriate internet sites.

"Draw three concentric circles, consisting of an inner, middle, and outer circle. The inner circle will contain ‘harmful’ behaviours you want to stop doing – such as taking pictures for the purposes of social media, thinking in hashtags, obsessive scrolling, hours playing a certain game or lingering on a specific site or app. The middle circle will indicate things that might lead to those harmful behaviours, or triggers. This might involve checking phones for music or alarms, holding phones, notifications.

"The outer circle will be healthy options that will enhance your life. These are frequently the things you didn't have time for.”

Read more here.

Helping a child develop a healthier relationship with social media

Signs that a child isn’t having a positive experience online

Studies show that social media can affect young people more severely than any other age group. It’s bound to be a concern for parents who want their children to develop positive mental health, to the point where they may question whether their children should have a smartphone at all. Here are some warning signs that may suggest a child might not be having a positive experience with social media:

  • They seem nervous when they get a notification or go on their phone
  • They’re secretive about their online activity
  • They seem angry, sad or frustrated following phone use
  • They turns off their screen when you enter the room
  • They seem to be socially withdrawing from family and friends

Tips for keeping a child safe online

Get to grips with privacy settings

It’s important that you put some time aside to understand the apps your child uses. Try to get a feel for how these apps work and discover the ways they try to ‘hook’ users. It’s also a good idea to get your head around any privacy settings or parental controls you could make use of. This means you can step in if you feel you need to.

Encourage them to talk about their life online

Without being intrusive, try to regularly discuss with your child the latest ‘goings on’ on social media. What apps are new and trendy for kids their age? What viral videos have made them laugh recently?

Social media small talk like this encourages your child to open up about life online and helps you to gauge their general safety and how they’re feeling when using social media.

Introduce some basic boundaries

You can also nudge your child in the right direction by setting a few boundaries that encourage a healthy relationship with social media. You could introduce tech-free zones or times, like the dinner table or at bedtime. Lead by example and make sure you also follow these boundaries.

Instead, you can replace this time with other fun, engaging activities or family time to reduce your child’s temptation to break these rules.

Discuss social media with other parents

It can be really useful to start a dialogue with fellow parents to see how they also deal with the issue of social media. You could discuss setting up the same boundaries so that none of your children feels ‘left out’ or claims that every other child is allowed to do something they’re not.

Plus, it’s another good way to keep tabs on your child’s activity. Parents can look out for one another, keeping their ‘ear to the ground’ and alerting everyone else if something concerning arises.

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