Social Media and Its Impact on Mental Health

By Kelly Bryant, M2
Eastern Virginia Medical School

Social media is ubiquitous. According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use social media, and most users ‘sign on’ daily. The percentage is even higher for adults 18-29 years of age with 84% using at least one form of social media.1 A little over half of America’s teens use social media every day and 75% have at least one active profile.2 The pervasive use of social media raises an important question: Does it have an impact on mental health and if so, is that impact good or bad?

I said goodbye to Facebook and Instagram shortly after starting my undergraduate career. In my case, social media took up too much time and an unfortunate amount of emotional energy. My story is like many others–too often I found myself comparing my appearance and life experiences with models, celebrities, people I knew and even total strangers. I was overly concerned with what clothes to wear on an outing and how many ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ I might receive when I post a particular picture. I felt as though life was passing me by as I focused on my studies while everyone else was piling up experiences as reflected on their social media pages. Eventually I determined my use of social media was not only unproductive but maybe even unhealthy.  But is it necessarily unhealthy?

Social media offers many benefits. It allows users to stay connected to friends and family. It showcases creativity and self-expression. It provides cohesion for various online communities. But social media is facing growing scrutiny among the public and an increasingly popular opinion is that it’s having negative impacts on the mental health of its users generally, and adolescents and teens in particular. There are reports that social media is “fueling feelings” of depression, isolation, loneliness and anxiety.3 While it is temping to blame Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat for the alarming rise in depression among teenagers in the United States, we must ask whether social media is the cause for this depression or merely reflects already existing issues.4

One study of adolescents found that those who spent more than three hours a day on social platforms may be at risk for internalizing problems such as depression, anxiety, and suicide.5 And while there may be an association between heavy internet users and increased risk for internalizing problems, that does not necessarily mean that social media is causing the decline in mental health. Another study surveyed young adults on social media use and its importance in their lives and controlled for “perceived social support, conflict with parents, and need to belong.”6 But the study found no correlation between social media use and mental health problems among its participants. Rather it may be that the quality of social media use and preexisting mental health problems play a bigger role in determining how users are affected.7,8

For example, a study surveying 1,749 young adults on both their time and frequency of social media use found that such use was only correlated with depressive symptoms when the character of the use was “problematic.” The study authors characterize problematic social media use as “maladaptive…[with] addictive components.” The results of the study showed no correlation with depressive symptoms and the amount of time spent on social media platforms.7

Social media is here to stay. And our society has a tendency to blame issues associated with teens and adolescents on the activity du jour, like watching television or playing video games. While we must continue to investigate the impact of social media use on mental health, we cannot summarily blame the increase in social media use for the rise in depression and anxiety among the nation’s youth. Like television and video games, the nature of the use may be just as important as the amount of use and maybe more so. Accordingly, it is important for parents and mental health providers to discuss social media use with their teens, focusing on how to use social media better, instead of merely limiting their screen time.


  1. Pew Research Center. (2021, April 26). Demographics of social media users and adoption in the United States. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science &; Tech. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from
  2. Anderson, M., &; Jiang, J. (2021, May 27). Teens, Social Media &; Technology 2018. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science &; Tech. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from
  3. Robinson, L., & Smith, M. (2021, October 7). Social Media and Mental Health. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from
  4. Geiger, A. W., &; Davis, L. (2020, December 23). A growing number of American teenagers – particularly girls – are facing depression. Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from
  5. Riehm, K. E., Tormohlen, K. N., & Feder, K. A. (2019, December 1). Associations between social media time and internalizing and externalizing problems among US youth. JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from
  6. Berryman, C., Ferguson, C. J., &; Negy, C. (2017). Social media use and mental health among young adults. Psychiatric Quarterly, 89(2), 307–314.
  7. Shensa, A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., Sidani, J. E., Bowman, N. D., Marshal, M. P., & Primack, B. A. (2017). Problematic social media use and depressive symptoms among U.S. young adults: A nationally-representative study. Social science & medicine (1982), 182, 150–157.
  8. Davila, J., Hershenberg, R., Feinstein, B. A., Gorman, K., Bhatia, V., & Starr, L. R. (2012). Frequency and Quality of Social Networking Among Young Adults: Associations With Depressive Symptoms, Rumination, and Corumination. Psychology of popular media culture, 1(2), 72–86.
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