"Off to Norway!" he wrote. "A baby makes 3!" she exclaimed. "I got a promotion!" another one wrote.
Social media. It was initially used to keep in touch with people you don't see on an everyday basis. Now it has morphed into something much more. Instead of being happy for others’ accomplishments and life changes, it has triggered a sense of inadequacy in some people.
Research has shown that these social comparisons may be linked with a higher likelihood of having depression (1). This comparison factor in social media can lead to jealousy—many people will admit that seeing other people’s tropical vacations and perfectly behaved kids is envy-inducing.
Indirectly, social media applications act as the catalyst for destructive behaviors like unnecessary comparison, cyberbullying, and approval-seeking. A side-effect of the way in which social media applications are designed is that users tend to showcase a highlight reel of their lives; posting all the positive and important moments while leaving out the negative and mundane.
When users observe these highlight reels from other people, they often compare these portrayals to the worst parts of themselves.
The disparity then leads to feelings of shame, irrelevance, and inferiority. These negative feelings can prompt users to engage in destructive behaviors, such as approval-seeking. Users are also more likely to participate in cyberbullying, where they can hide behind anonymity to remove themselves from the consequences of harassment. Some of the consequences can be fatal. Unfortunately, social media only makes it easier to engage in these detrimental acts.
In any case, it is not good to compare yourself to others who seem "better off" than you. People tend to make themselves look better off than they really are on social media. However, it is important to recognize and understand that social media is not someone's “real life.”
A study published in Computers in Human Behavior in December 2016 found that the use of multiple social media platforms is more strongly associated with depression and anxiety among young adults than time spent online.
In the study, a survey was administered to 1,787 young adults across the U.S. It gathered information about the subjects’ use of eleven prominent social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn. The findings showed that people who used a higher number of social media platforms (between 7 and 11) had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than people who used 0 to 2 platforms (2).
What the data does not yet show is whether increased social media use causes depression, or whether depressed people tend to use social media excessively (1).
More work will be needed to fully understand how social media affects our mental health. From the research that has been done so far, it seems like taking a break from social media isn’t a bad idea. People who have done so are generally happier for it. This doesn’t mean they have to give it up completely, but cutting down or taking periodic breaks is probably wise. All of this is not to say that there are no benefits to social media—obviously it helps keep the world connected and helps people find lost connections.
Despite the possible negative effects, there are also some positive mental health benefits from using social media. Social media offers a chance to connect with others and to allow people with mental illness to express themselves without revealing their identity. It allows self-expression without the danger of stigma.
Announcing a goal via social media promotes accountability to others, allowing for positive reinforcement from friends and for the creation of an online social support system. An increasing number of websites are now offering support through social media channels. These forums connect people and allow them to share personal experiences. These types of opportunities can promote helpful information-seeking activities and recovery.
There are both negative and positive effects from using social media. But like everything else in life, there is a balance.
1. Zagorski, Nick. “Using Many Social Platforms Linked With Depression, Anxiety Risk.” American Psychiatric Association, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.pn.2017.1b16.
2. Primack, Brian A. “Use of Multiple Social Media Platforms and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Nationally-representative Study Among U.S. Young Adults.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 69, 2017, pp. 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.013.