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The Science of Social Media and Mental Health: How it Affects Us and How to Use it Mindfully

Christy Johnson
October 16, 2023
October 2, 2023

Social media has become a vital part of our lives. It can help us keep in touch with others, share our thoughts and feelings, learn new things, and bring us joy. However, emerging research suggests that social media can also have negative effects on our mental health, such as increasing stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem. It is important to learn how social media affects our mental health and practice using it in the most supportive manner for ourselves and our unique lifestyles. Each person’s individual needs around social media will vary; however, there are some helpful guidelines to consider. In this article, we will explore how social media impacts our mental health and what we can do to use it mindfully and responsibly. 

How Social Media Impacts Our Mental Health

New research is helping us understand the extent and the mechanisms behind the effects of social media on mental health and wellbeing, as well as the factors that influence them. By understanding how social media impacts us, we can make more informed and mindful choices about how we use it. 

Body Image and Self-Esteem

Research shows that social media use can have negative effects on body image by creating unrealistic expectations, comparisons, or judgments that can harm one’s self-image and self-esteem. Researchers are seeing that social media is particularly potent at influencing how people feel about their bodies, especially teens and young adults. Social media is thought to be more potent than other forms of media due to its wide availability on smartphones and ease of access. 

Social media can make us feel bad about ourselves or our lives by showing us images or videos of people who seem to have perfect appearance, health, or relationships. These images are often edited, filtered, or manipulated to create unrealistic or unattainable standards of beauty or wellness. Some of these images also come from online influencers who promote harmful or unscientific advice for money or fame. Comparing ourselves to these images can cause us to develop negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors toward our bodies, such as anxiety, criticism, perfectionism, dysmorphia, eating disorders, or unhealthy habits. We should remember that what we see online is not a true reflection of reality and that we should not judge ourselves based on these images.

Controversial or Distressing Content and Feelings of Negativity and Anger

Social media can also expose us to content that is hateful, violent, or controversial, which can trigger negative emotions or reactions. For example, seeing posts or comments that are rude, abusive, or discriminatory can make us feel angry, hurt, or offended in turn. This can then lead to greater feelings of frustration, resentment, or hostility. 

One of the reasons why we may encounter such content on social media is that the platforms use algorithms that show us content that is likely to capture our attention and engagement. The algorithms are designed to maximize the profits of the platforms by keeping us online for as long as possible. However, this also means that the algorithms tend to favor content that is polarizing, sensationalized, or misleading, as these types of content tend to generate more reactions and interactions from users.

According to a recent study by researchers from Yale University, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter amplify content that evokes moral outrage, anger, or indignation. The study found that such content is more likely to be shared, liked, or commented on by users, creating a viral effect. The study also found that users who are exposed to more outrage-inducing content tend to express more outrage themselves, creating a feedback loop that reinforces and escalates negative emotions.

Another recent study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that false news stories are more likely to spread on social media than true ones. The study analyzed millions of tweets and found that false stories reached more people, faster, deeper, and more broadly than true stories. The study also found that false stories elicited more surprise and disgust from users than true stories, suggesting that emotional reactions play a role in the diffusion of misinformation.

This information helps us to remember to be critical and curious about what we see and hear on social media. Do not believe everything you see or hear on social media without verifying the source, date, and credibility of the information. You can use tools such as or to check the accuracy of the information before you share it or react to it. You can also seek out diverse and reliable sources of information that can challenge your assumptions and broaden your understanding.

Sleep, Productivity, and Wellbeing

Social media can also interfere with our sleep, productivity, and wellbeing by encouraging us to spend too much time online. This can have negative consequences for our physical and mental health, such as disrupting our circadian rhythms, reducing our attention span, impairing our memory, and increasing our stress levels. To understand why we may find it hard to stop using social media, it is helpful to understand how it affects our brain chemistry.

Social media can trigger dopamine release by providing us with various forms of gratification, such as likes, comments, shares, or followers. These are also known as social rewards, which are highly valued by humans as social animals. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure. It is released when we experience something that makes us feel good, such as food or social interaction. Dopamine also motivates us to seek more of those rewarding stimuli, creating a cycle of reinforcement.

Social media also creates a sense of unpredictability and novelty, which are factors that increase dopamine levels. For example, we never know what we will see next when we scroll through our feeds, or what kind of feedback we will receive when we post something. This creates a sense of curiosity and anticipation that keeps us hooked and engaged.

The combination of social rewards and unpredictability can make social media scrolling very addictive and hard to stop. We may keep scrolling for hours, hoping to find more interesting or satisfying content or to get more validation from others. This can lead to a loss of control, a waste of time, and a neglect of other important aspects of our lives. Knowing how social media entices our natural drives can help us develop the mindfulness needed to set healthy limits. 

How to Mindfully Use Social Media

While it is true that social media can have negative effects on our mental health, it does not mean that we have to avoid it entirely. Social media can also have positive impacts on lives if we understand ourselves and engage in social media in a mindful and self-supportive way. Here are some tips to consider: 

  • Be intentional and purposeful about your social media use. Before you log on to social media, ask yourself why you are doing it and what you hope to gain from it. Are you looking for information, entertainment, or something else? How will it benefit you or others? How will affect your mood or wellbeing? Try to use social media in a way that aligns with your goals and values, and avoid using it out of boredom or habit. 
  • Be selective and moderate your social media consumption. Try to create an awareness of what you are engaging with and how it either benefits you or doesn’t, and then choose your social media wisely. Unfollow accounts that are unhelpful, negative, or harmful to you. You can also make efforts to seek out content that is evidence-based, reputable, positive, inspiring, or educational that can boost your mood and mindset. 
  • Limit your time on social media. Try to set daily or weekly limits on how much time you spend on social media platforms. You can use apps or tools that track your screen time or block certain activities during certain hours of the day. You can also turn off notifications or mute accounts that are not essential. 
  • Be respectful and compassionate towards yourself and others on social media. You can listen to others’ views and perspectives, but also respectfully agree or disagree. You can also avoid engaging in arguments or debates that are unproductive, stressful, or harmful. Remember that behind every screen, there is a human being with feelings and emotions.
  • Take breaks and find other activities that are pleasurable to you. Too much time with social media can make you feel disconnected from your real-life relationships and communities. Try to balance your online and offline activities by taking regular breaks from social media and engaging in other hobbies and activities that bring you joy and satisfaction. Read more about Relationships in the Online Era here. 
  • Be aware of the impact of social media on your mental health. It is important to pay attention to how social media affects you and learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, or low self-esteem that might be caused or worsened by social media use. If you notice any changes in your mood, thoughts, or behaviors that are affecting your daily functioning or quality of life, seek professional help from a mental health provider who can offer you support and guidance. If you have questions about starting therapy, this blog might help. 

Social media is a powerful tool that can help us stay connected, informed, and entertained, but it can also have negative impacts on our mental health if we use it excessively or indiscriminately. Social media can affect our body image, self-esteem, mood, attention, sleep, productivity, relationships, and wellbeing in various ways. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how social media influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and to use it in a mindful and responsible way. By following these tips, and cultivating an awareness in your own life about the effects of social media and how they impact you specifically, you can use social media in a healthy and balanced way that enhances your wellbeing and happiness. With mindfulness, you can make social media a more positive, supportive, and constructive space for yourself and others.

Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson is a licensed master social worker and mental health counselor that specializes in helping individuals increase feelings of safety and security in their bodies to help manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and other difficult life challenges. Christy brings to the table a special focus on neuroscience, mindfulness, and real-world practices for emotional regulation and stress management. Christy graduated from New Mexico Highlands University with a Masters degree in social work in 2021 and currently practices as a mental health therapist.