Scrolling For Happiness: How Social Media Affects Mental Health

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
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Social media permeates nearly every aspect of our lives, including our inner world. Most of us cannot imagine a life without social media or the connections it provides for us. It’s where friendships are born, used furniture can be found, and memes reign supreme when we need a good laugh. But amidst the endless scroll, we need to step back and look at the impact of social media usage on our most important relationship—the one we have with ourselves.

Given that the term ‘social media’ has the word ‘social’ in it, we might be led to think only about how our digital lives affect our relationships with others. In reality, sending Snaps, posting regularly to gain followers, or watching TikToks dramatically impacts an individual’s emotional well-being. It’s time we shine some light on this digital universe’s impact on our mental health, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth.

How Social Media Affects Self-Esteem

Picture this: You’re passively scrolling through your feed while waiting for your dog to find the perfect place to pee, and bam! You stumble upon a post showcasing your friend’s perfectly filtered vacation photo in the Philippines. Suddenly, you have a pit in your stomach, can’t remember the last time you got to bask in the sun, and you snap at your dog to hurry up already. Your mood just took a turn for the worse… again.

Sound familiar?

Social media has a knack for showcasing curated highlight reels, leaving us feeling inadequate in comparison. From flawless selfies to enviable accomplishments, the constant exposure to others’ seemingly perfect lives can trigger feelings of unworthiness.

And here’s a shocker for you, this is why therapists don’t encourage people to focus on their self-esteem. Why? Because self-esteem is all about comparison! Self-esteem says I am only smart if someone else is less intelligent or I’m only good enough if I’m somehow better than another. 

That’s messed up! 

Another toxic effect of focusing on comparing ourselves to others is that the bar keeps moving. There will always be someone who gets more likes, has more followers, makes funnier comments, or generally appears more professionally, personally, and sexually fulfilled. If you put your validation and sense of worthiness on these external factors, you can never be happy or content just as you are. 

And that comes with some heavy consequences for your mental health.

Social Media’s Impact on Depression and Anxiety 

An international group of researchers released a report in 2020 that looked at 16 high-quality research papers exploring the relationship between social media and mental health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found a correlation between social media and mental health issues. The most commonly reported problems were depression and anxiety. Still, it’s worth noting that other difficult psychological experiences arise from social media usage, especially around body image, disordered eating, self-harm, and device addiction. 

Classic symptoms of depression and anxiety can include poor sleep, loss of appetite or overeating, not enjoying the activities one used to enjoy, excessive worry, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and social isolation.

Depression and anxiety in the context of social media usage looks like… 

  • Mindlessly reaching for your phone only to have 25 minutes pass without realizing you’re even on social media.
  • Feeling like you can’t leave your phone for any period of time.
  • Being distracted by notifications making it hard to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing.
  • Difficulty being in the present moment. 
  • Losing passion for what used to excite you.
  • Feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, or loneliness, especially after seeing pictures of other people’s seemingly near perfect lives. 
  • Having your mood go up and down based on a post’s likes, followers, and comment counts. 
  • Worrying that your friends are hanging out without you or that you’ll miss something vital if you’re not always online. 
  • Intrusive thoughts about troubling content you saw, which can lead to lost sleep, second-guessing yourself, or losing time playing out heated imaginary conversations with family members with differing political views.

It’s common for people to use social media to get through stressful moments in their day—mindlessly reaching for the phone when they are trying to avoid an unpleasant task, such as writing a research paper. Additionally, after using the phone and social media to avoid the task or numb unpleasant feelings, people experience higher levels of depressive and anxious thinking, including guilt or worry. 

It can be challenging to determine what came first—did social media bring about depression and anxiety? Or were the anxiety and depression always there, and increased social media usage followed? A paper from researchers at MIT looked to answer this question. They tracked reports of mental health symptoms and utilization of mental health services at the colleges where Facebook first rolled out its services. These researchers found that when Facebook launched at a college, students experienced an increase in severe depression by 7% and anxiety disorders by 20% within one year. And while the current versions of Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are not the same as Facebook in the early 2000s, research continues to show the linkage between excessive social media usage and increased feelings of inadequacy, envy, and social comparison. 

No one goes onto social media intending to compare themselves to others. Typically, someone turns to social media either like a drug—that is, to have a more positive experience than the present moment. They may want to check in with friends, get inspired by artists they follow, or check out the newest viral dance trend. And wanting that isn’t wrong.

There are positive sides to social media too. 

The Positive Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

Social media usage isn’t all doom and gloom. A recent report from the Pew Research Foundation found that teens are likelier to say social media platforms have negatively impacted their peers than themselves. This could be because they see the benefits that connecting with others digitally brings to their lives. When used mindfully, social media can support mental health in many ways. 

  1. Cultivating a Sense of Belonging: Social media offers a sense of belonging in a world where individuals can feel isolated and disconnected. Platforms like Twitter, Discord, and Instagram can foster a sense of community and connect like-minded individuals who live geographically distant from one another but who share similar interests, struggles, or values. Digital communities can offer a sense of belonging and friendship for individuals who otherwise would be socially isolated and lonely. 
  2. Self-Expression: Social media can be a potent tool for allowing individuals to find their voices and express themselves in ways they might not otherwise be available. Uplifting self-expression can be anything from creating an Instagram following for your new puppy to activists making YouTube shorts supporting #transjoy.
  3. De-stigmatizing Mental Health: Pop culture icons and influencers have harnessed the power of social media to inspire and motivate others. They share personal stories, promote self-acceptance, and advocate for mental health awareness. Celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, and Chance the Rapper have used their platforms to discuss their struggles with mental health openly, encourage followers to seek help, and embrace their authentic selves. These figures empower individuals by sharing their experiences, providing hope, and reducing stigma around mental health challenges. 
  4. Peer Support and Validation: Social media platforms facilitate peer support by allowing individuals to share their experiences and find validation from others who have gone through similar struggles. Pop culture references, memes, and humor can act as coping mechanisms, helping individuals feel understood and less alone in their journey. Hashtags like #MentalHealthMatters, #SelfCareSunday, and #YouAreNotAlone magnetize virtual communities where users can share their stories, provide support, and celebrate each other’s victories. This sense of solidarity can profoundly impact mental health, fostering resilience and encouraging individuals to seek professional help when needed.
  5. Access to Information and Resources: Social media platforms provide a wealth of mental health information and resources. Users can easily access valuable knowledge, advice, and coping strategies, from mental health organizations like Mental Health Match and therapist influencers and support groups—one word of warning that not all mental health content is created equally. Be sure to follow accounts of qualified mental health professionals or reputable organizations. Red flags of misleading mental health content creators include bad-mouthing therapists and therapy, having no visible credentials, not linking to reputable sources for professional guidance, and claiming expertise on any given diagnosis based on their own singular experience.

The negative impacts of social media on mental health lead us to believe we are alone, not enough, and living poorly compared to others’ seemingly perfect lives. The positive side of social media offers the opposite. It affirms our sense of self-worth, offers opportunities for connection and belonging, and lets us know we are important enough to get the support and help we need. 

Using social media is a double-edged sword with negative and positive aspects, but there are steps to experience more of the good than the bad. 

Tips for a Better Relationship with Social Media

Set Clear Time Limits:  Establish time windows for your social media usage and schedule breaks in your day from your device. Then stick to it. One recent study found that college students who reduced social media usage by as little as ten minutes per day for three weeks reported improved mood and lowered FOMO. This same study found that 30 minutes per day is the recommended amount of time to use social media.

Curate Your Feed: Take a critical look at the accounts you follow. Unfollow or mute accounts that offer poor advice or who consistently make you feel inadequate or stressed. Curate your feed to include accounts that inspire, educate, and uplift you.

Strive for Self-Worth, Not Self-Esteem: Your most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. Social media should increase your sense of worthiness, not tell you false stories about how everyone else has it together but you don’t. Practice self-compassion and remind yourself that social media presents a curated version of reality. Focus on your journey and celebrate your accomplishments without seeking external validation. 

Turn Off Notifications: It’s hard to be present and take a break from your phone when it’s constantly dinging and telling you it needs your attention. Likewise, you don’t need to stay constantly connected or respond to DM’s immediately. 

Prioritize Your Mental Health: Regularly check in with yourself and evaluate how social media is impacting your life. If you feel flooded by anxiety and FOMO, bombarded by negative self-talk, or find that your phone has taken on an emotional support device role in your life, it might be time to seek professional support. A therapist can help you re-evaluate your relationship with social media (and yourself!) and offer helpful coping tools and new ways of thinking about patterns you feel stuck in. Mental Health Match provides an easy, quick, and free therapist-finding service so you can find the right clinician to meet your needs. 


Social media has become an integral part of our lives, and its impact on our mental health, for better or worse, cannot be ignored. However, while excessive social media usage can lead to depression, anxiety, and other struggles brought on by social comparison, it’s important to remember that our worth isn’t measured in likes or followers. 

Social media can be a platform for genuine connection, self-expression, reputable mental health resources, and a good laugh at the end of a long day. So remember to scroll wisely, keep your mental well-being in check, and stay authentic to yourself—both online and offline. 


​​Braghieri, Luca and Levy, Ro’ee and Makarin, Alexey, Social Media and Mental Health (July 28, 2022).

Hawi, N. S., & Samaha, M. (2017). The Relations Among Social Media Addiction, Self-Esteem, and Life Satisfaction in University Students. Social Science Computer Review, 35(5), 576–586.

Karim F, Oyewande AA, Abdalla LF, Chaudhry Ehsanullah R, Khan S. Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Cureus. 2020 Jun 15;12(6):e8627. doi: 10.7759/cureus.8627. PMID: 32685296; PMCID: PMC7364393.

No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression
Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, and Jordyn Young
Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2018 37:10, 751-768

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