The term social media is generally used to describe internet-based websites and applications where users can participate in conversations, connect with other people, share their thoughts, and otherwise engage in social networking in a virtual environment. Between them, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter/X, Instagram, and TikTok attract billions of daily users around the world.
Social media is still a relatively new invention. But despite its youth, social media platforms have become an integral part of our culture. Many people spend at least some portion of their day on social media—consuming news, forming opinions, and sharing highly curated (and sometimes outright deceptive) snippets from their lives with friends and strangers alike. Because of the outsized role social media now plays in day-to-day life, psychologists have begun conducting extensive research on how it affects our culture, our relationships, and our mental well-being. Overall, the conclusion is mixed; while social media can certainly have negative effects, both on individuals and on society at large, it can also influence our lives in positive and sometimes surprising ways.
Does social media make us depressed or anxious, or worsen our self-esteem? Many laypeople are convinced that it does, either based on their own personal experience or in light of the worsening mental health crisis among teens and young adults, many of whom have spent a significant portion of their lives on social media. Media reports on the dangers of social media may further fuel these perceptions.
Yet in reality, psychological research on the link between social media and mental health tends to be mixed. This is likely because social media, whatever its effect, is just one piece of a more complex mental health puzzle, and it’s difficult for researchers to design perfectly controlled studies to tease out its exact role. Another key reason is that social media affects different people in different ways. While some may find it isolating and depressing and report worse well-being after scrolling through their feeds, others find immense joy and support in the communities they’ve formed on social media. Indeed, some even report that the connections they made on social media may have saved their lives when they were feeling suicidal.
The connection between social media and depression is complex. Some studies have found that higher social media use is correlated with an increased risk of depression, particularly in children and teens. Yet other studies have concluded that the former likely did not cause the latter; these studies suggest people who are already depressed may be more prone to spending more time on social media.
Social media can certainly feel addictive, as anyone who has spent hours scrolling through Twitter instead of doing other, more important tasks can attest. But many researchers remain skeptical that social media, or the internet more broadly, are addictive in the same way that drugs are. Social media addiction is not in the DSM, and while it’s certainly possible for someone to spend an unhealthy amount of time online, few experts would classify such behavior as a true “addiction.”
The evidence is mixed. While many adults are convinced that social media is responsible for the youth mental health crisis, the truth is likely messier and less clear-cut. There is some evidence that time spent on social media can harm teens’ sleep, which is associated with worse mental health, and bullied teens may experience negative consequences when using social media. But even though some studies have found associations between social media use and, say, depression or suicidal behavior, researchers caution that it’s not clear whether the relationships are causal or if other factors play a more significant role. Some studies have even found that social media can play a protective role in teens' well-being—and for certain teens, not using social media at all could be a sign of withdrawal or disconnection.
Social media may have a negative effect on body image; this may be especially true for women and girls, though people of any gender can fall victim. This is because many of the images posted on social media—of celebrities and influencers especially, but also of friends and loved ones—are digitally altered or show a face/body that is otherwise unattainable. Constantly comparing oneself to these “perfect,” impossible images may harm one’s body image, research shows, increasing the desire to use photo filters or seek cosmetic procedures to move closer to the “ideal” image seen online.
Yes. Virtual communities can be sources of connection and support, allowing people to connect with others who share their interests, especially niche or “unusual” ones, and feel a sense of belonging. People who are physically disabled, geographically isolated, or struggling with depression may find particular value in online communities, as they can offer a sense of connection that may feel elusive in the real world.
Social media impacts different people in different ways, and if you suspect that social media is hurting your self-esteem or worsening your mood, you may benefit from a social media break. Some research has found that deliberately taking some time away from social media—even just a week—could improve well-being, and many study participants found that, afterward, they were better able to regulate their social media use and spend less time compulsively scrolling.
Social media’s incredible reach, combined with the platforms’ ability to disseminate information quickly and, in a sense, democratically, has allowed it to change the way that information—and especially news—is communicated and consumed around the world. Before the internet, the news was largely distributed by only a few, tightly regulated sources (for example, newspapers and TV stations). Now, anyone with an internet connection can share their perspective and add their story to the larger narrative.
The social media platforms themselves have generally argued that this is a positive development. Indeed, there have been countless cases where social media users brought to light stories and perspectives that the traditional news media has historically ignored, or uncovered instances where the official report of a story was false or misleading. Yet this democratization of news has also coincided with the rapid spread of disinformation—some of which is spread maliciously, and some of which is spread merely naively. And while most people may like to think that they’d be able to spot a false news story, that’s often not the case; cognitive biases and deep-seated political beliefs may make even the smartest among us fall for fake news.
Anyone can create a misleading or downright false social media post. Those who see it may believe it—and share it—if it seems like it might be true and if it aligns with their pre-existing values and beliefs. For example, someone who already believes climate change is a hoax is likely to share posts that align with that belief, even if they are fabricated. The more something is shared and seen, the truer it can start to seem, due to what’s known as the mere exposure effect. Social media algorithms may further fuel the spread of disinformation, serving users increasingly polarizing or extreme content in order to keep them engaged.
The rise of social media and the sharp increase in political polarization may be linked, though the exact direction of cause-and-effect is not entirely clear. Some research suggests that the widespread (and often politically charged) disinformation we see on social media increases our distrust of the “other side” and pushes some of us to more extreme views; what’s more, social media “bubbles” encourage us to interact only with like-minded others and demonize those who we disagree with. Yet some experts argue that social media is not a direct cause of polarization, and instead merely reflects a broader shift in society at large; indeed, some longitudinal evidence suggests that increasing polarization in the U.S. began long before social media came into our lives.
One of social media’s great strengths is its ability to connect us with like-minded others. But in doing so, it may channel us into what are known as social media “bubbles,” identity-driven online cliques that present us only with people and information we’re already likely to agree with and shield us from anything that challenges our deeply-held beliefs. Many experts argue that these bubbles, which can create the illusion that anyone who disagrees with us is evil or foolish, increase polarization and our distrust of one another. Yet they may also have some positive effects; one study conducted during COVID-19, for example, found that people who were strongly connected to a social media “bubble” had better well-being than those who weren’t.