When social media gained mainstream popularity roughly 15 years ago, people imagined a better-connected world. The possibilities felt endless for expanding social spheres and communicating more easily than ever before. That was the dream, but for many people, the proliferation of social media has turned into a nightmare.
In a recent survey from Pew Research Center, almost two-thirds of Americans now say that they think social media has a “mostly negative effect” on how things are going in the U.S. Their reasons may differ depending on the person, but a staggering number of people in the country have a low opinion of social media. That doesn’t even get into the adverse health impacts it can have.
Anthony Carmona, a former judge of the International Criminal Court, gave a sobering analysis of social media and how it affects our lives. “Social media websites are no longer performing an envisaged function of creating a positive communication link among friends, family, and professionals. It is a veritable battleground, where insults fly from the human quiver, damaging lives, destroying self-esteem and a person’s sense of self-worth.”
Can social media really be that bad for you? According to research, the answer is, “yes.”
Quick Stats on Social Media Use
Social media is not a niche market—it’s everywhere today. Nearly 4.2 billion people around the world use social media. The most popular platform is Facebook, which has nearly 3 billion monthly active users. YouTube comes in second at 2.3 billion, followed by WhatsApp and WeChat. Even Twitter, a social media platform with a comparatively small number of users, still has almost 400 million users.
It’s not just that a lot of people use social media. They also spend a lot of time on it. According to research from Global Web Index, the average social media user is on it more than two hours a day. And that number is only increasing, with more and more people creating numerous social media accounts. Global Web Index also shows that the average millennial and Gen Z-er now has eight accounts, which is an increase from only five back in 2014.
It’s clear from these numbers that social media use is rampant and extensive. Most people use it constantly, often putting in more hours on social media than they do with traditional television. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that many problems have cropped up from that use.
How Social Media Is Harmful
1. More Sleep Problems
In a study published in The Lancet, researchers found that the more someone uses social media, the more likely they’ll have poor sleep. That lack of sleep can lead to other significant problems, such as depression and memory loss.
The same study found that the effects of social media use were more prevalent in younger people such as teenagers. In other words, the earlier someone starts using social media in their life, the more harmful it can be.
This issue is compounded by the use of devices with a screen, such as a smartphone. Research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital discovered that using a screen device right before bed messes with a person’s circadian clock, which controls your sleep rhythm. So if you look at a screen before going to bed, such as when browsing social media, you will have a harder time getting deeper, more restful sleep.
2. Increased Negative Body Image
One of the most serious issues surrounding social media is the effect it has on body image. A thorough review of the scientific literature surrounding the subject concluded that social media plays a large role in how people, particularly women and girls, can have a negative view of their bodies. The review discovered that this stems from platforms that predominantly use photos, such as Instagram. Body image issues from social media also contributed to eating disorders.
According to Claude Mellins, a professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia Psychiatry, the problem—again—was particularly serious for younger people. Mellins has stated, “Young people’s brains are still developing, and as individuals, young people are developing their own identities. What they see on social media can define what is expected in ways that is not accurate and that can be destructive to identity development and self-image.”
This tends to happen because women and girls are likely to unfairly compare their bodies with others on social media. A survey of female university students found that women are more likely to negatively compare their bodies to distant peers, acquaintances, and celebrities.
3. Increased Depression
Social media can also lead to feelings of depression. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tried an interesting experiment to test this. They divided students into two groups—one group used social media like normal, while the other limited their social media browsing for three weeks. The researchers discovered that those students who limited their use experienced less loneliness and depression.
Social media can intensify feelings of loneliness in part because when viewing other people’s lives on social media, they seem so happy. This is, of course, an illusion of having a perfect life. It seems like people only post about good things happening to them and avoid the bad. A survey from Reviews.org found that 31 percent of social media users say their accounts don’t accurately represent their lives, while 27 percent admit to exaggerating on social media. Influencers, in particular, will show what appears to be an amazing life, but it’s all dressed up and professionally filtered.
On the other hand, there’s also a tendency among some people to emphasize the sad and depressing in their lives. This concept is called “sadfishing,” where people post about how awful their lives are to get sympathy and more likes. Celebrities started this trend, but it’s caught on among many other groups. While seeking sympathy might sound like it could make you feel better, people can become increasingly depressed if their posts don’t receive the likes they were looking for.
4. Reduced Privacy
If you’re on Facebook, you’ve likely seen an advertisement for something that seems perfectly tuned to your interests. This happens on pretty much all social media platforms because companies collect data on you. While many people may be at least partially aware of this, they may not realize how pervasive it is.
For example, a study from URL Genius found that YouTube collects personal data such as your online search history and geographic location. Something that doesn’t pertain to the social media you use is still collected by companies. More worrisome are platforms like TikTok, which allows third-party software to collect data on you. Unlike networks such as YouTube, however, there’s no clear indication of what these third parties do with it.
5. More Polarization
Does the country seem vastly more divided than it did a decade or two ago? Social media may be to blame, at least to some extent. In a study from the American Economic Association, researchers found that when people stopped using Facebook for a month, it led to reduced polarization on policy issues. In other words, the less people used a platform like Facebook, the less polarizing their views became.
One of the main problems with social media in regards to polarization is how many people tend to reside in an echo chamber. Social media algorithms are often used to display ads people would prefer, while at the same time promoting posts that align more with someone’s views. The consequence is that people may be exposed to fewer different perspectives.
Of course, the problem with echo chambers is that many people create them for themselves. The Pew Research Center found that different sides of the political aisle approach social media differently, but the outcomes are similar. According to the research, conservatives were more likely to only see Facebook posts that conform to their view. However, liberals were more likely to block or unfriend someone due to that person having a different political opinion. No matter the reason, it results in less of a chance of seeing a different opinion.
6. Potential Negative Impact on Stress
When it comes to the impact social media has on a person’s stress levels, the research is a bit mixed. On one hand, you have research from Pew that shows using social media had little effect on stress in men, while it actually led to a slight reduction in stress for women. On the other hand, social media may increase things that can lead to more stress.
We’ve already covered the issue with lack of sleep, so let’s take a look at cyberbullying. According to a Comparitech study, 60 percent of parents with teenage children said their kids were victims of bullying in 2019. About one-fifth of that bullying occurs on social media sites and apps, which can, in turn, lead to increased stress. So doing the math, about 12 percent of all bullying happens on social media. That sizable chunk can truly affect a child’s stress levels and self-esteem.
A Word of Caution About Current Research
One thing to note about the research involving social media use is that it’s still in its relative infancy. There’s also the fact that many of these studies rely on self-reporting, which does introduce errors and irregularities. Although the data shouldn’t be taken at face value, it can inform people of the issues lurking behind social media. With more time, research will solidify on the effects of social media, but the early indications show that there is cause for concern.
Social Media Can Still Be a Force for Good
As things stand now, social media does more harm than good, but this isn’t a call to ban or eliminate it. Once people know the possible damage it can cause, they can work to avoid it. Social media can still be beneficial. It’s common for people to use social media to stay in touch with old high school buddies or friends who now live two time zones away. Social media is also a boon for small businesses, which can compete with larger rivals on a more level playing field.
In short, social media can do a lot of good—you just have to know how to use it.
First, it’s important to set limits for yourself. Professor Deborah Glasofer of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia Psychiatry had this advice to give: “I recommend limiting social media—creating boundaries that are reasonable and work for you—so you can be present with people in your life.”
Second, you need to form lasting and meaningful relationships with people in person. With social media, the focus seems to be on going wide instead of deep, collecting as many friends and followers as possible. Your focus should be on creating deep, genuine friendships with a smaller group of people.
Ultimately, using social media for good requires flexing personal responsibility. Be intentional about how you use it, don’t spend hours on it every day with no goals in mind, moderate your activity, and don’t use it as a substitute for real social interactions. As you do this, you can limit and even eliminate the harm social media causes while emphasizing the good.
Looking for some additional help when it comes to mental health? Check out The 10 Best Mental Health Apps for 2022.
Also, you can read, “Dealing With Anxiety: Short-Term and Long-Term Solutions.”