One way or another, anxiety seems inextricably linked to the use of social media, and a swath of recent papers seem to suggest that this link is one of the core drivers of digital usage. These data show that, while many people who use social media a great deal are anxious, when they are not using social media they turn to social media to reduce this ‘withdrawal’ anxiety and end up with another form of anxiety produced by engaging with their digital platforms. The implications for the mental health of this ‘double anxiety whammy’ are clear, and research even suggests that some people turn to alcohol to reduce their stress levels while they are posting on social media!
One of these recent studies has shown that higher amounts of screen time are associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression 1 – adding to the already copious literature on the subject 2 . What is striking about this new study, however, is that it provides longitudinal data to suggest that, over a time course of four years, adolescents who use social media a lot of show corresponding increases in their levels of anxiety and depression. To this extent, this study develops the literature, as a temporal relationship is a stronger piece of evidence than a correlational one obtained from two measures taken at the same time as one another.
Of course, there are always caveats to be made for any single study – even showing clear temporal precedence between screen time and later increased anxiety is not evidence that screen time causes the anxiety. It may be that initially anxious people use social media to alleviate their anxiety, and this usage just makes them worse 3 . Moreover, many other factors could have contributed to the increased anxiety in adolescents who used social media a lot. As we shall see, for such heavy users, removing access to social media produces anxiety 3,4 . We also need to be careful about the type of activity that such screen time represents – as another recent study has demonstrated, educational screen time does not seem to be as harmful as social media screen time 5 . The latter also appears to have negative effects on the integrity and connectivity of brain structure, when compared to reading traditional printed material6.
The idea that anxious people tend to gravitate to social media as a form of escape from their worries has some evidence to support it – certainly, the withdrawal effects from social media appear to suggest that it serves such a ‘sedative’ function 4 . However, recent research has suggested that once on social media, whatever the stresses that motivated entry into the alternative digital world, these may be replaced by other stresses, which simply fuel the anxiety 3 . For example, individuals with Generalised Anxiety Disorder tend to make upward comparisons – comparing themselves unfavourably with others – this makes them even more anxious than before 3 .
The nature of social media makes such social comparisons highly likely. The usage of ‘likes’, and ‘followers’ (even ‘reads’ – if you are an academic posting on Research Gate or even Psychology Today !), is set up to drive such comparisons, with the clocking up of these numbers serving as a powerful reinforcer 7 . Thus, the anxious individual leaves their digital platform with new anxieties, which may simply make them more susceptible to the negative effects of life stresses in the next inter-digital period, and drive them back to the social media platform in a futile attempt to relieve these anxieties. Coupled with the effects of withdrawal in very heavy users, which also tend to increase anxiety 4,8 , this all acts as a powerful driver for more and more use.
Very concerningly, such highly anxious individuals, on their return to social media, apparently show an increased tendency to engage in alcohol consumption when posting 3 . This alcohol consumption will also increase anxieties and depression in the longer term. Such unhealthy behaviours have already been noted in heavy internet users 9 , in addition to poor mental health, and these will promote poor physical health, which has been associated with heavy internet use 10 . These negative effects on the individual will also cause more internet-use driving anxiety, and drinking will tend to produce unfortunate and inappropriate behaviours online.
All of the above maps a very depressing picture of social media as an anxiety and depression driving platform – indeed, it might be suggested that social media is a platform that thrives (depends?) on the production of anxiety and depression. This would not be the first time that an activity, mainly, or in part, depends on its negative consequences for continued usage – think of cigarettes (or, indeed, any addictive substance, for that matter).
There is a further anxiety-driving process that fuels social media use for the digital addict – often termed the ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO 7 . In general terms, FOMO is an anxiety about being disconnected from digital resources, like social media. It might happen if you are in a remote area without a signal, or, in extreme cases, when you are trapped in a real ‘face to face’ situation, and you cannot get your device out for a few minutes!
In a recent article, the authors even suggest that FOMO can happen when: “ …..people have multiple devices and social media accounts and have little time or desire to check them all…. FOMO can also happen when people get frustrated by others not responding. ” 7 . This fear produces a need to digitally reconnect, and the cycle starts again. It is not known whether individuals with Generalised Anxiety Disorder experience FOMO more than others – but it seems probable.
It also turns out that FOMO may have several sub-categories, linked to the particular uses by which individuals set their greatest store 7 . These types of FOMO include: missing out on popularity; missing out on information; missing out on social group interactions; and missing out on the chance to prevent negative comments about the self by others. All of which will drive anxieties that may also exist in the real world, apart from social media. Thus, being digitally disconnected, quite apart from the effects of withdrawal, and the effects of day-to-day life stresses, will produce FOMO. None of this looks like a good advert for the use of social media.
It is important to note that not everybody will experience these effects, and they may be more prevalent for those with anxiety disorders 3 – but that could be around 20% of the population. It may also be that some people use social media, not as a palliative escape from everyday troubles, but as a means of generating excitement in an otherwise dull life 11 . These people may not experience the same anxiety-producing withdrawal effects, but they may well experience the anxieties associated with social comparison and FOMO, meaning that they are not immune from increases in anxiety-related problems.
In summary, several recent articles have suggested that social media use is associated with anxiety and this anxiety comes in many forms – all of which are problematic for the person’s wellbeing. More than this association, it seems that social media, at least in part, feeds off the anxieties that it generates – subverting the social and psychological tendencies, that most of us have, to fuel its usage. As more and more governmental effort is placed into digitising the world, in an attempt to drive the economy, we do need to question whether there may be unavoidable collateral mental and physical health damage produced by such a drive.
1. Boers, E., Afzali, M. H., & Conrod, P. (2019). Temporal Associations of Screen Time and Anxiety Symptoms Among Adolescents. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.
2. Keles, B., McCrae, N., & Grealish, A. (2019). A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 1-15.
3. Bonnette A, Robinson A, Dailey S, et al. (2019). Upward social comparisons and posting under the influence: Investigating social media behaviors of US adults with generalized anxiety disorder. Spotlight on Research, pp. 1-25..
4. Reed, P., Romano, M., Re, F., Roaro, A., Osborne, L. A., Viganò, C., & Truzoli, R. (2017). Differential physiological changes following internet exposure in higher and lower problematic internet users. PloS one, 12(5).
5. Sanders, T., Parker, P. D., del Pozo-Cruz, B., Noetel, M., & Lonsdale, C. (2019). Type of screen time moderates effects on outcomes in 4013 children: evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 16(1), 117.
6. Hutton, J. S., Dudley, J., Horowitz-Kraus, T., DeWitt, T., & Holland, S. K. (2020). Associations between screen-based media use and brain white matter integrity in preschool-aged children. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(1), e193869-e193869.
7. Ali, R., McAlaney, J., & Alutaybi, A. (29.1.20). Redesigning social media platforms to reduce ‘FoMO’. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/redesigning-social-media-platforms-to-reduce-fomo-124228
8. Romano, M., Roaro, A., Re, F., Osborne, L. A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2017). Problematic internet users' skin conductance and anxiety increase after exposure to the internet. Addictive Behaviors, 75, 70-74.
9. Bibbey, A., Phillips, A. C., Ginty, A. T., & Carroll, D. (2015). Problematic Internet use, excessive alcohol consumption, their comorbidity and cardiovascular and cortisol reactions to acute psychological stress in a student population. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4(2), 44-52.
10. Reed, P., Vile, R., Osborne, L. A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Problematic internet usage and immune function. PloS one, 10(8).
11. Stockdale, L. A., & Coyne, S. M. (2020). Bored and online: Reasons for using social media, problematic social networking site use, and behavioral outcomes across the transition from adolescence to emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 79, 173-183.