Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on January 10, 2022
More and more research seems to suggest that there’s a direct correlation between social media use and depression. But can using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram really have that big of an effect on your mental health? Let’s take a look at what scientists have discovered, and see how you can use this information to reduce your chances of depression.
How Social Media Fuels a Dopamine Addiction
You know that little feeling of happiness you get when you post a selfie and it gets positive likes and comments? This type of feeling happens because of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for sending pleasurable messages to your brain. Basically, any time you do something worth rewarding, like eating a delicious meal or having a positive social interaction, you’ll get a feel-good boost thanks to dopamine.
Social media has allowed people to get near-instant dopamine gratification. All you have to do is post a picture, get some likes, and you’ll instantly get that feeling of pleasure. Unfortunately, that’s not great for your mental health.
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You’ll crave more and more gratification from social media, becoming addicted to your phone. In fact, you might spend more time on your phone than you do with real-life socializing, which can fuel depression and feelings of isolation.
Of course, that’s if your pictures get likes and comments. But what if they don’t? This is just as bad of a problem. When your content doesn’t get as much attention as other people’s, you might see a decrease in self-esteem. You might think you’re not pretty or smart enough, which can also be fuel for depression.
Fear of Missing Out on Social Media
Fear of missing out may sound like a silly phenomenon, but it’s actually a real thing. When all of your friends are on social media, you may feel like you have to join, or you’re missing something important.
The feeling of being excluded can contribute to depression. You might feel like you’re not part of the group, which can again tie back to feelings of self-worth. You may also develop stress or anxiety about missing important updates or invitations. If you don’t check your phone for a day, you may start thinking about all of the content you skipped and feel a sense of panic.
Unfortunately, using social media can sometimes be a lose-lose proposition. By using it to feel more connected to the world around you, you often miss out on real life connection opportunities.
For example, if you’re at a party, you may be more focused on taking pictures for your Instagram than actually having fun and talking to others. And if you weren’t invited to that party in the first place, but you see photos from it later, you’ll feel even further isolated.
Social Media Takes Away From Healthy Habits
Clearly, social media can wreak a lot of havoc on your mental health. It toys with your dopamine and creates stress and anxiety. But more than that, it can also cause you to form unhealthy habits.
One study found that children who use their phones before bed get an hour less of sleep on average than their peers who don’t. There could be a few reasons for this. It’s easy to get sidetracked with time when you’re scrolling through endless videos on TikTok or Instagram. You might just plan on spending 10 minutes browsing, but before you know it, an hour has passed.
But also, using your phone can make it harder to fall asleep. Most phone screens emit blue light, which suppresses melatonin production (the hormone that helps you feel tired). Without enough sleep, you’ll feel sluggish and have trouble concentrating the next day. Over time, this can start to wreck your mental and emotional health.
Sleep isn’t the only issue, though. Using social media frequently means you’ll probably be less active. When you’re on your phone, you’re probably being sedentary instead of working out or moving around. Exercise is key for the production of serotonin, a hormone that plays a huge role in stabilizing your mood.
How to Step Back and Unplug for Your Mental Health
If you’re feeling depressed and think that social media might be a potential cause, you should try to cut back on using your phone as much. This is easier said than done! Flat out deleting your accounts probably isn’t the answer, at least not right away. However, there are several things you can try.
One thing you can do is to turn off notifications. That way, you won’t get a separate ping for every single update. Rather, you’ll only see new notifications when you choose to log in. This might help prevent you from constantly engaging with your phone so you can break the cycle.
You can also try limiting your time on the apps each day. Facebook and Instagram let you set daily time reminders so you get a warning when you’ve exceeded your limit. There are also third-party apps you can use to track the time you spend on each app, as well as settings in some phone operating systems that provide a notification once you’ve hit a certain time.
Finally, make sure to limit social media use before bed. To promote this, charge your phone in a room other than your bedroom. That way, you won’t be tempted to sneak a quick peek at your phone. To fill the pre-sleep void, you could try reading or meditating instead.
Don’t Let Social Media Fuel Your Depression
Social media and depression are linked, but they don’t have to be. As long as you make smart decisions when it comes to your social media usage, you should be able to keep your accounts. After all, they can help you stay connected with long-distance friends and family.
Just make sure not to rely on social media for validation or gratification. And if you need more help, consider contacting a medical professional for additional information.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes.