iphone in the dark, showing glowing icons on the screen

Is Social Media Harmful?

Social media is now part of our lives. It includes popular sites such a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok.

There are concerns about its impact on our lives, especially our psychological and emotional wellbeing. The issues may also be related to other sites such as YouTube, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

During these times of social isolation in Covid-19 scenario, social media gets more tempting.

Research indicates that those who use social media are more likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem.

The relationship between such issues and social media is both correlational as well as causal in nature. Correlational relationship means that persons who are depressed tend to use social media sites more in the first place.

In contrast, causal relationship means that the use of social media sites increases the severity of mental health issues (though the nature of the causal relationship is more difficult to establish).

woman on sofa, staring at mobile phone at night time.

Moreover, research also points other dangers of social media use, which may include:

  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Increased feelings of envy
  • Cause emotional exhaustion
  • Increase stress levels
  • Cause sleep issues and reduce sleep quality
  • Interfere with essential obligations, such as school or occupational commitments
  • May lead to various health problems, triggered by the psychological or emotional strain that people experience while using it.

Due to the association between social media usage and mental health issues, psychologists now use terms such as ‘social media depression‘ and ‘social media addiction‘.

Read More about Internet addiction

Internet addiction

Smartphones in almost everybody’s hands have given them easy access to the internet anywhere, anytime. The other potential adverse impact of social media includes getting misinformation, violation of personal privacy, cyberbullying and stalking.

Taking a ‘selfie’ and posting online has been shown to increase people’s social sensitivity and decrease self-worth.

couple of women taking a selfie on a mobile phone

It’s not all bad

Though this blog focuses on the negative impact of social media, it does not mean that it always harms everybody.

In some ways, social media can be beneficial – connecting people, discovering old contacts, spreading important news and forming positive groups.

Social media can prove to be helpful, if used with the right intent and in moderation.

Why people keep using social media?

There are several reasons why people keep using social media, even though it negatively affects them. The goal is similar to the reason why people continue to engage in other detrimental behaviours.

Some may be unaware of its harmful impact, or couldn’t care less. Some may have a psychological predisposition for indulging in such compulsive behaviours while others may get their boost or validation for low self-worth.

A study found that those using social media compulsively begin to suffer from distortion bias – they feel tasks that prevent them from getting onto social media take a longer time than they actually do.

smartphone on desk with sticky notes that look like notificationsOther studies examined the fear of missing out (FOMO) syndrome, which is associated with engaging in social media while conducting other tasks, such as driving or studying.

People with a strong need to ‘belong’ tend to experience significant fear of missing out, and they also tend to use social networks more frequently than others and experience more stress when they feel that they are unpopular on their favourite social networks.

Who is most vulnerable to the dangers of social media?

Several background factors cause people to be more vulnerable to the psychological dangers of social media. These include, among others:

  • Having depression or anxiety
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Being unsatisfied with life
  • Being lonely
  • Lacking a secure support system.

Some personality factors are also associated with an increased prevalence of psychological issues that are generally related to the use of social media. These include, among others:

  • Having high levels of neuroticism
  • Having high levels of narcissism
  • Being prone to social comparisons
  • Being emotionally invested in social media.

Then there are ‘lurkers’ – people who primarily observe information produced by others, rather than participate actively by posting or commenting.

The emotional wellbeing of such persons is more likely to be adversely impacted by social comparisons and envy, without having an outlet for expression.

someone scribbling out the facebook logo on a smartphone

Is social media affecting you negatively?

Sometimes, it can be difficult for you to notice that social media is making you depressed or that you are addicted to it.
One tool you can use is a short questionnaire that was developed by psychology researchers about your usage of social media. Check out following questions (adapted from that questionnaire) to find out if you have experienced any of these issues over the past year, and to what degree:

  • Preoccupation

    Have you regularly found that you are always thinking about when you can use social media again?

  • Tolerance

    Have you regularly felt dissatisfied because you wanted to spend more time on social media?

  • Withdrawal

    Have you often felt bad when you could not use social media?

  • Persistence

    Have you tried to spend less time on social media, but failed?

  • Displacement

    Have you regularly neglected other activities (e.g. hobbies, sport) because you wanted to use social media?

  • Problem

    Have you regularly had arguments with others because of your use of social media?

  • Deception

    Have you regularly misled your family, friends, or partner about the amount of time you spend on social media?

  • Escape

    Have you often used social media to escape from negative feelings?

  • Conflict

    Have you had severe disagreements with your family, friends, or partner because of your use of social media?

The more issues you’ve experienced due to your social media use, and the more severe these issues are, the more negatively your social media use is affecting you.

scrabble blocks spell out the word "like"Even if using social media doesn’t make you experience overt adverse outcomes, you should still ask yourself whether using it is making you feel better and whether you think that it’s a productive and positive way to spend your time.

If the answer to those questions is ‘no’, then you could likely benefit from reducing the amount of time you spend on social media.

How to avoid the dangers of social media

If based on this information, you realise that your use of social media is negatively affecting you, there are two main things that you can do:

  • You can reduce your use of social media
  • You can start using social media in a more positive way.

Reduce usage

In general, the less you use social media, the less you will suffer from its negative impact. This reduced usage refers not only to the time which you spend browsing social media, but also to other factors, such as the number of platforms that you use.

There are various things that you can do to reduce your use of social media. The simplest thing to do is to simply decide to use social media less frequently, or to stop using it entirely.

app icons on a smartphone, including facebook and twitterSometimes, this happens naturally, and many people end up feeling social-media fatigue over time, which causes them to take a break on their own.

However, this isn’t always easy to accomplish. As such, you will generally benefit from setting concrete goals for yourself when it comes to reducing your social-media use.

For instance, you might decide to limit your use of social media to only two platforms. Alternatively, you might choose to remove all social media apps from your phone, and only access social media from your home computer.

Make it positive

Although social media is associated with many issues, it’s essential to keep in mind that using social media won’t necessarily negatively influence you.

As long as you’re using social media in a manner that is both moderate and positive, it probably won’t have a significant negative impact on your health and wellbeing.

Furthermore, there are also some potential benefits to using social media, such as the opportunity to form and strengthen connections with other people.

woman poses with food in her hand, taking a photo with a smartphoneAs such, the use of social networks can be beneficial when it leads to positive social interactions and increased social support, and can sometimes actually help reduce feelings of loneliness.

Accordingly, in addition to reducing your use of social media, another thing that you can do to minimise the potentially negative impact of social media is to focus on using it in a positive way.

For example, instead of using social media sites to consume information passively, you can try to use them in a more productive manner, which involves communicating with people that you care about or discussing hobbies that interest you.

So next time you decide to get on to Facebook or Instagram, think twice. It’s only a digital social media, not real life. So, get a life, friend!

If you feel you need to speak to someone about your social media usage, our qualified counsellors are available to talk. You can send us a message online, or call us on 0800 140 4044

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