Social media and mental health

Social media platforms are specifically designed to keep us coming back for more and to hold our attention for as long as possible — and they’re very good at it. So, how many times have you checked your social media today...?

A beautiful young woman blogger, vlogger or influencer is receiving emoji and emoticon reactions in her mobile smart phone device while making a post, sharing or video logging on social media


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You may have just logged onto Facebook when you woke up this morning, or had a scroll through YouTube in search of a video on the way into work, or quickly checked Instagram to see your friends’ latest holiday pictures when you sat down at your desk. This evening, you may end up checking your feeds again on the way home, then again while you’re eating dinner, again while watching TV, and finally one more time in bed before going to sleep.

According to We Are Social’s Digital 2022 report:

  • Australia has 21.45 million social media users with social media penetration in the country currently at approximately 82.7%.
  • The average Australian spends an average of 6 hours and 13 minutes per day online.
  • 88% of those online users watch videos, 34.5% watch vlogs, 64% stream music, 35% listen to podcasts and 34% stream radio stations.
  • Australians  spend an average of 1 hour 57 minutes per day on social media.

Is social media bad for us?     

woman team work group are check the social network media and use application in online community for sharing and commenting while travel around the world

As well as thinking about how many times you’ve checked your social media today, think about why you’ve logged on.

Social media can offer a number of benefits. They can help us:

  1. Communicate and stay up to date with family and friends around the world,
  2. Find new friends and communities
  3. Join worthwhile causes
  4. Find emotional support
  5. Discover sources of valuable information
  6. Find vital sources of social connection, especially if you live in a remote area.

If you’re accessing social media to find specific information, check on a friend who’s been ill, or share new photos of your kids with family, for example, your relationship with social media is likely to be a largely positive one.

However, if you’re logging on purely out of habit, to see if your latest post has ‘likes’ or to mindlessly kill moments of downtime, then your social media experience may be more negative. If you fall into this category, you’re more likely to spend longer on the platforms and be more susceptible to experience some form of social media addiction. This is defined as an urge to constantly check social channels in order to experience fast, short-term pleasure via the secretion of dopamine.

This feel-good hormone is associated with reward and pleasure, and is released, for example, when we receive a large number of likes for one of our posts. However, if a user logs on and doesn’t experience this instant gratification through this perceived acceptance, the user is likely to search harder for the reward.

This might mean continuing to refresh their social media feeds in the hope of seeing that more people have ‘enjoyed’ the post, thus helping to achieve personal validation. What is dangerous about this compulsive use is that, if gratification is not experienced, users may internalise beliefs that they are ‘unpopular’ or ‘unfunny’ etc.

How can social media be ‘addictive’?

People sitting down on their phone, tablet and laptop and logging into social media

Social media platforms are specifically designed to keep your attention — even if you’re not necessarily searching for gratitude. Why are they designed this way? Well, they make their money from ads, and the longer you – the consumer – spend on the platform, the more likely you will see an ad.

So, keeping you entertained for as long as possible is profitable and, to achieve this, they build features into their apps that manipulate brain chemistry. These tricks are borrowed straight from casinos and slot machines, which are widely considered to offer some of the most addictive gaming machines ever invented.

Just one example of social media platforms mimicking gaming machines is the ‘pull-to-refresh’ feature, where dragging the screen downwards prompts the screen to reveal new content. Not only is the action itself similar to pulling the lever on a slot machine, but it takes advantage of what psychologists call ‘intermittent reinforcements’. This is the sense that something exciting might be waiting for us, but we’re not sure when it will appear. Social media reinforces this through the intermittent provision of rewards. It’s the unpredictability of the reward that keeps people coming back for more.

Is social media impacting my mental health?

Upset sad teenage girl lying under blanket on sofa and using mobile phone

You may be asking: “So, I spend a little bit longer on social media than I should. Is it really that much of a problem?”

Well, everyone is different and there’s no set length of time spent on social media that can be defined as ‘bad for your mental health’. Rather, it has to do with the impact it has on your mood and other aspects of your life, along with your motivations for using it.

For example, your social media usage may be problematic if it causes you to spend less time experiencing face-to-face contact with people, distract you from work or personal tasks, or leaves you feeling envious, angry, or depressed. Social media may also be detrimental to your mental health if you are motivated to use social media just because you’re bored or have “FOMO” (or fear of missing out).

Other indicators that social media might be negatively impacting your mental health can be:

  1. Spending time on social media even when you are out with family or friends
    While you’re in a social situation, are you constantly checking social media? This may be driven by feelings that others may be having more fun than you, or that you simply can’t resist the urge to check up on something else during what you deem as a ‘break’ in the conversation. Whatever the case, this habit can not only alienate those that you are with, but cause you to miss out on the mental health benefits of quality social interactions.
  2. Comparing yourself to others
    Social media is full of people seemingly living exciting lives, or who are fit and healthy. This can make you feel as if you’re not doing enough with your own life and/or create a negative body image of yourself..
  3. Experiencing cyber bullying
    You may be creating stress and anxiety for yourself by feeling you need to go online to monitor the comments and reactions of others to your posts, and to respond to trolling and negative reactions.
  4. Being distracted at work
    Work can be boring sometimes, so social media can provide the perfect distraction. However, this habit can put you under pressure to meet a deadline and impact success and career progression.
  5. Having no time for mindfulness
    If every spare moment is spent checking social media, then there’s no time for reflecting on who you are, what you think, or why you act the way that you do — the things that allow you to grow as a person.
  6. Suffering from sleep issues
    You may think that social media helps you unwind before you go to sleep. However, the light from screen devices and the addictive nature of social platforms can keep you awake and disrupt your sleep patterns.
  7. Worsening symptoms of anxiety or depression
    Social media can often be perceived as something that brings us joy. However, social media has been proven to make people feel more anxious, depressed, or lonely.

How to change your social media habits

Young woman using mobile phone isolated on blue background with sad expression

If you believe social media is negatively impacting your mental health, according to multiple studies, the best thing to do is not to use them at all.

A study published in the journal ‘Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking’ took 154 study subjects and randomly assigned half to quit social media for a week and half to carry on as normal with their online habits. The results were clear. According to the report: “At the end of the week, there was ‘significant between-group differences’ in wellbeing, depression, and anxiety, with the intervention group [those not using social media] faring much better on all three metrics. These results held even after control for baseline scores, as well as age and gender.”

If you want to opt out of social media, it can be helpful to know that your desire is shared. A survey conducted in 2019 found that half of Australians had ditched social platforms at some point for some length of time. The respondents’ motivations for taking time off varied from wanting to remove themselves from the “always on” digital culture, to wanting to cease comparing themselves to others. The majority (52%), though, cited “boredom” and “time wasting” as the main reasons for limiting social media use.

For some people, switching off entirely is not so easy. For example, you might need to use Facebook for events or work. The vast majority of social media usage comes via apps on the phone, so if this applies to you, delete the app off your phone and switch to only using social media on your desktop. This should reduce the frequency and overall time you spend on your social profiles.

Other ways you can reduce your social media usage includes:

  1. Using screen time reports to track how much time you spend on social media a day and setting goals to reduce it.
  2. Turning off your phone at certain times of the day, such as when you’re at a social event, at dinner, or playing with your kids. Don’t take your phone with you to the bathroom.
  3. Not taking your phone or tablet to bed. Try leaving them outside of the bedroom overnight.
  4. Disabling social media notifications.
  5. Staggering your checks. If you compulsively check your phone every few minutes, wean yourself off by limiting your checks to once every 15 minutes. Then every 30 minutes, then an hour, and so on.

Social media can have a positive impact on our lives, however, it has also been proven to negatively affect our brain chemistry and the way we feel. The key lies in the how and why we use these platforms. Are we using them for information and connection, or are we using them as an escape, a way to experience gratification, or a source of entertainment when we’re bored?

If you fall into the latter category, it’s important to remember that you have control over your relationship with social media. For example, whether you have an iPhone or Android device, you can delete one or more of your social media platforms in just a few seconds — a move proven to make people feel better for free. Ultimately, any decrease in social media use can be beneficial to your mental health, so give it a try.

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