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The Effects of Social Media on Health

Social media is a way for us to connect with information and the people we care about but is excessive use sabotaging our health?

Key points

  • Use of digital media already takes up around 1/4 of any given day on average
  • Use of digital media is rising
  • Excessive social media use can affect health directly and indirectly (by reducing sleep quality)
  • Excessive social media use is associated with increased anxiety, fatigue, and depression
  • Social media use can also benefit health by providing connection and support
  • Limiting time on social media and the number of platforms could help to reduce negative effects while allowing the benefits of digital media
  • Mindfulness can reduce phone (and social media use) while improving self-esteem

In this modern world of ours, we want information…we want entertainment…we want stimulation…and we want it now!

The average person now spends around 6 hours per day accessing digital media (according to a Kleiner Perkins report of 2018), with over 3 hours per day spent accessing digital media by phone.

The average person now spends around 6 hours per day accessing digital media

According to a 2017 survey by Deloitte, the average person also checks their phone more than 40 times per day, with younger people (under 24 years of age) checking their phones around double that.[1]

Our obsessive drive to access information, entertainment, and distraction via social and streaming media, has a host of unwanted consequences from increased rates of depression and anxiety, through to reduced sleep quality and duration leading to effects on overall health and performance.

Access to information via the internet and the abundance of media, including social media, has been a boon to both work and home life, but there is a darker side to the ubiquity of media. Social media, in particular, can lead to problematic behaviours and can, in excess, be incredibly damaging to health.

Excessive social media use can be damaging to health

The effect of social media on sleep

Sleep quality and duration is critical to overall health. Reviews of the scientific evidence have suggested a link between poor sleep (either length or quality) and a range of conditions, including:

  • Chronic pain and arthritis1
  • ADHD2
  • Heart disease and stroke3, 4
  • Reduced cognition and brain health5-12
  • Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease12-14
  • Diabetes15, 16
  • Increased inflammation17
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety18-22
  • Reduced mood23
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)24
  • Weight gain and obesity25-27

Social media use is linked to poorer sleep (and to depression and anxiety) in young adults,28 and adolescents, and this is strongest in those who use social media more and those more emotionally invested in the social media platform.

Even after controlling for depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, night-time social media use predicts poorer sleep quality.29

Night-time social media use predicts poorer sleep quality

Night-time social media use is also associated with later bedtimes, increased pre-sleep arousal and alertness, and difficulty getting to sleep. This results in behavioural changes, particularly the ‘fear of missing out’ which delays the normal sleep-time and increases arousal, which in turn reduces sleep length and quality.30

The effects of social media on health

The effect of social media on health has also been studied directly. In particular, the effects on mental health have been extensively researched and associations have been shown between excessive social media use and:

  • Anxiety (especially ‘attachment anxiety’)
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

It has been suggested that excessive social media use results in fatigue which is linked to high anxiety and depression among adolescents.31 In fact, social media usage has a strong, dose-dependent association (i.e. the more you use, the greater the association) with depression and anxiety,32, 33 and those who use a greater number of social media platforms also have a higher risk of depression and anxiety. The most extreme users – regularly using more than seven social media platforms – have around three times greater risk of depression and anxiety than those who used only two social media platforms.34

The most extreme social media users have around three times greater risk of depression and anxiety

The effect of social media use on anxiety and depression is particularly strong in those with ‘attachment anxiety’ (an increased desire for reassurance and validation). It has been found that there is a significant, indirect effect of attachment anxiety on problematic social media use and that people with attachment anxiety use social media in an attempt to enhance their psychological well-being.35

Passive social media use (the act of ‘scrolling’) has a strong association with depression, but this may be at least partly due to those with pre-existing depression scrolling in order to distract themselves or find connection with others. Thus, the relationship between depression, anxiety, and other challenges to mental (and physical) health are likely to be ‘bi-directional’ where social media use, especially excessive use, could both result from and cause poorer health. Social media use is also associated with ‘toxic masculinity’ and depression in young males, with positive interactions mediating this relationship.36

Excessive social media use could both result from and cause poorer health

A 2-year longitudinal study found that problematic social media use and sleep disturbance (one will often lead to the other) significantly predicted increased symptoms of depression. 37

However, an 8-year longitudinal study has suggested that time spent on social media platforms does not, of itself, predict the longer-term risk of depression or anxiety.38

Can social media benefit health?

Social media also enables people to find support and information about chronic health conditions more easily and can benefit health indirectly.

Social media also enables people to find support and information about chronic health conditions more easily

About 1/3 of young people report seeking help and support online for mental and physical health challenges. Most of them (91%) report that this is helpful. Most do not report feeling more isolated as a result of social media use or that it worsens their mental health, although a sizeable minority (~34%) report that they often feel isolated as a result of social media interactions.39

Overall, the effectiveness of social media to improve health outcomes has been suggested as ‘minimal’ but nonetheless, there are self-reported improvements from the support provided by social media platforms,40 and forums, discussion boards and groups can be of significant benefit to those with chronic health conditions.41

Is social media positive or negative for health overall?

The inter-relationship between social media use and mental health is complex.42

The negative associations between poor health effects and social media use might result, at least in some cases, from the use of social media to distract or find connection with others, resulting from illness rather than causing it. However, it is more likely that the relationship between social media and health is bi-directional and that social media can have a positive role (by providing connection and support) or a negative one. It can directly worsen mental health by driving stress, anxiety and depression and indirectly affect health by disturbing our innate, restorative sleep patterns. 

Can we limit the negative effects of social media?

As we learn more about the potential health-related ramifications of excessive social media usage, more and more attention is being paid to how we can realise the benefits provided by social (and other online) media, while mitigating the negative effects on our health.

Limiting time spent on social media

In research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, undergraduate students were limited to using three social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) for a maximum of 10 minutes, per platform, per day. This ‘limited use’ group experienced significant reductions in loneliness and depression over a three-week period compared to an unlimited use group. Interestingly both groups also exhibited significant reductions in anxiety and ‘fear of missing out’, which suggests a benefit from awareness and self-monitoring of social media use.43

Limiting use of social media can result in reductions in loneliness and depression

Using mindfulness activities to reduce the impact of social media on health

Self-esteem affects social anxiety and stress, and this influences smartphone and social media use. In a study on the effect of mindfulness on these variables, it was found that mindfulness reduced smartphone use through a sequence of improved self-esteem which resulted in reduced social anxiety and thereby lessened phone use.

Mindfulness reduced smartphone use through a sequence of improved self-esteem which resulted in reduced social anxiety

This relationship is theorised to be cyclical with reductions in phone use being associated with improved self-esteem and improved self-esteem also resulting in reduced phone use.44


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