The Effects of Social Media on Mental Health: Self-Esteem, Upward Social Comparison, & Depression

social media and mental health

It started with My Space and Facebook. Then Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram came along. Now we have the unusual, but comical TikTok. Who knows what’s next in the world of social media?! One thing is for sure: We are constantly bombarded with photos, images, audio, visuals, memes—you name it. These stimuli are rather new to human beings because just two decades ago, our cell phones were not yet smart phones; we didn’t have all this media in the palm of our hands—every single day, all day long. It’s safe to say that although advances in technology and the birth of social media have certainly brought us many positive things—conveniences, more awareness of social issues, even greater safety—there are the inevitable consequences, too. But awareness is everything. If we are aware of our clicking, tapping, and scrolling—and what it can take away from us—then we can take action to ensure that technology adds value to our lives rather than leaving us struggling emotionally.

There’s an important point we should all be aware of, first and foremost, and that is the fact that problems with social media use (which I will define in more detail in this article) are not just an affliction of the young. Tweens, teens, and college-aged kids are not the only cohort that are adversely impacted by the dark side of social media. I’m referring to the negative (and unrealistic) social messages about beauty, physical fitness, luxuries, and overall materialism that’s all over virtually every social platform. Yes, young people may be at greater risk of being emotionally affected by social media use, but us older and more mature adults are not in the clear. What seems to really make a significant difference in terms of how much and how badly social media can affect mental health lies on one main factor: How long you expose yourself to it. The reason social media-related depression, low self-esteem, and other emotional issues are tied to young people could simply have to do with the fact that this age group may have more time than adults to be logged in. Nonetheless, the potential consequences of too much time spent on Instagram (or your favorite social media spot) can impact us all.

Research has found that social media use is associated with a greater risk of developing low self-esteem, depression, and what is known as the consequences of upward social comparison. We’ll discuss each of these concepts below.

It’s unclear whether people who are emotionally affected by social media use may just be more prone to developing depression or tend to struggle with low self-esteem  to begin with. However, let’s look at it this way: If you take a person (maybe this person can be you) who has never had issues with depression or self-esteem and then expose that person to at least a few hours of active social media viewing, every day, how long do you think it will take for that person to start experiencing at least some negative effects to emotional health? Let’s say you’re a female (although this applies to males, too) and you log into Instagram and you’re flooded with images and videos of beauty, physical perfection, fit and toned bodies—you get the idea. (Instagram is well-known for being flooded with this sort of content.) As a female (or a male), what do you think is the likelihood that eventually, with time, you might start to compare your own physique and overall appearance to what you see on social media? You can be pretty “stable” emotionally, but there is a good chance that viewing this type of content will begin to affect your self-esteem with time—or at least, the psychological research has provided us some pretty solid evidence of this likelihood.

Then there is the phenomenon known as ‘upward social comparison,’ which occurs when people view the social media pages of others and then begin to compare their own lives to the lives of these online personas. Although most people know that what is posted on social media represents only partial truths (at best), many of us still view content and engage in upward social comparison. All of a sudden, your home, the vehicle you drive, the vacations you go (or don’t go) on, your romantic partner, your clothes, your job, your weight—you get the idea—seem less valuable or desirable to you than what you’re seeing on your feed. You might begin to compare yourself, even if just for a second, and maybe begin to wish and wonder what it would be like if you had that person’s life. This thought process is pretty normal and human in a lot of ways. The issue lies in the length of time you expose yourself. The research has found that people who spend several hours (even just 2 to 3 hours) on social media every day can suffer some of the adverse consequences. And, the three most common ‘side effects’ (low self-esteem, depression, upward social comparison) are very much interrelated because upward social comparison can lead to depression just like low self-esteem can make a person more likely to engage in upward social comparison, and so on.

Awareness of the potential effects of social media is critical so that we can implement strategies to regulate, and if necessary, decrease our use and exposure. Imagine spending 1 to 2 hours daily, or more, staring into your smartphone. Think of the other activities and important tasks you are likely missing out on. Consider tracking your screen time to really get an idea of how often you’re logged in so you can then implement effective strategies to make sure you log yourself out and get back to living and experiencing the many healthy and satisfying aspects of your life.

Arnold Gillo, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Therapist, a Behavioral Health Consultant, and the Clinical Program Planner for State of Nevada ICF Program