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Social Media’s Impact on Mental Health 

Social media is used by approximately 82% of the United States population to consume news, information, entertainment and much more. 

Some people develop an unhealthy relationship with social media where they overuse and abuse the digital platforms. This habit can lead to depression in young adults and low self-esteem and poor sleep quality in teens, among other negative mental health effects.   

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic  

Social media overuse was magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic when it became the primary source of entertainment and connection for many during school closures and social distancing precautions. Close to 30% of U.S. social media users said they spent an additional one to two hours a day online in March 2020, according to a survey conducted by Statista. 

False connections and gratification    

The irony of the term “social” in the phrase “social media” is that many people who use these platforms for multiple hours a day tend to socialize digitally more often than they do in real life. Studies have found that those who attempt to compensate for a lack of physical social space through social media networking activities can develop the following negative emotions:  

  • Alienation 
  • Depression
  • Insecurity 
  • Isolation 

Additionally, the mentally rewarding nature of retweets, likes and shares on social media platforms often leaves users craving more. Studies found that when a person receives positive feedback on pictures or personal information about themselves on social media, the reward area of the brain is ignited. 

When someone experiences something rewarding, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated and dopamine levels rise. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. 

Essentially, when someone sees a notification of a like, the brain can receive a dopamine rush that sends it along reward pathways leading to pleasure. 

Social media’s role in body dysmorphia 

Social media can impact a person’s physical well-being as well. Sites like Instagram are flooded with perfectly filtered photos of models and influencers, which can lead to low self-esteem and even eating disorders among young adults. 

One University of Pittsburgh Medical Center study found that participants who spent the most time scrolling social media during a given day were twice as likely to report eating and body image concerns when compared to their peers who spent less time on social media. 

Teens generally consider enhancing their appearance on social media to be an important vehicle for achieving popularity online. When they feel like they fail to measure up to the “ideal” body image, negative feelings and anxiety may influence the desire to alter one’s appearance. 

Platform to decrease stigma

While overusing social media can have a negative impact, its high visibility and prevalence has proven it can be used to promote positive change. For example, hip-hop artist Logic named a song after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number in 2017. The song, titled “1-800-273-8255,” helped to decrease the stigma around asking for help and encouraged individuals to call the number if they needed it. A British Medical Journal study saw a 27% increase in phone calls to the lifeline that year. Researchers linked three events to an uptick in calls: the song’s release and performances of the song by Logic at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards and at the 2018 Grammy Awards.

Tips for preventing prolonged scrolling

  • Set a “cut-off time” before bed to put the phone down for the rest of the night. 
  • Turn notifications off for stretches of the day.  
  • If possible, switch phones into Airplane mode during the workday to avoid distractions. 
  • Use an alarm clock instead of the phone’s alarm clock to disconnect more of the day from the phone. 
  • Seek out positivity when interacting with social media. Look through family photos, find cute animal content or read an uplifting story.

Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips and information, visit AHealthierMichigan.org