As of 2017, three billion people or about 40% of the world’s population, use online social media – and with a daily average of about two hours per day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms or half a million tweets and Snapchat photos shared every minute. Those numbers are likely to increase each year.

What is the impact of all that time and energy being spent on social media, and how much of our lives does it dominate? What are the detrimental effects to our mental health? Those are the kinds of questions that researchers have begun to examine. Thus far, the results are a mixture of positive and negative, but the negative impacts are significant.

STRESS

Many people use social media to vent about almost anything, and it can be consumed by negativity without knowledge or information being transmitted, causing stress for many.

In 2015, researchers at the Pew Research Center study showed social media induces more stress than it relieves.

In the Pew survey of 1,800 people, women reported being more stressed than men. Twitter was found to be a “significant contributor” because it increased their awareness of other people’s stress.

“Stress might come from maintaining a large network of Facebook friends, feeling jealous of their well-documented and well-appointed lives, the demands of replying to text messages, the addictive allure of photos of fantastic crafts on Pinterest, having to keep up with status updates on Twitter, and the ‘fear of missing out (FOMO)’ on activities in the lives of friends and family,” the report says.

The Pew report also showed that Twitter acted as a coping mechanism for some – and the more women used it, the less stressed they were. The same effect wasn’t found for men, whom the researchers said had a more distant relationship with social media. Overall, the researchers concluded that social media use was linked to “modestly lower levels” of stress.

In 2014, Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer published a report in Computers in Human Behavior that found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for 20 minutes compared to those who just browsed the internet. The study suggested that people felt that way because they saw it as a waste of time.

A good or bad mood may also spread between people on social media, according to research by Lorenzo Coviello and colleagues published in PLOS ONE who assessed the emotional content of over a billion status updates from more than 100 million Facebook users between 2009 and 2012.

Whether a happy post translates to a genuine boost in mood, however, remains unclear.

ANXIETY

A study by Biran A. Primack and colleagues published in the journal Computers and Human Behaviour found that people who report using seven or more social media platforms were more than three times as likely as people using 0-2 platforms to have high levels of general anxiety symptoms.

Researchers Anca Dobrean and Costina-Ruxandra Păsărelu from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania reviewed existing research on the relationship between social anxiety and social networking in 2016, and published their results in New Developments in Anxiety Disorders, and found the results were mixed with some research showing a connection between social media and anxiety, and other studies not finding this.

DEPRESSION

A study by Joanne Davila and colleagues published in Psychology of Popular Media involving more than 700 students found that depressive symptoms, such as low mood and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, were linked to the quality of online interactions. Researchers found higher levels of depressive symptoms among those who reported having more negative interactions.

A similar study by Brian A. Primack and colleagues published in Computers in Human Behavior conducted in 2016 involving 1,700 people found a threefold risk of depression and anxiety among people who used the most social media platforms. Reasons for this, they suggested, include cyber-bullying, having a distorted view of other people’s lives, and feeling like time spent on social media is a waste.

Microsoft has entered the field by developing a classifier than can accurately predict depression before it causes symptoms in seven out of 10 cases by analyzing their Twitter profiles for depressive language, linguistic style, engagement and emotion.

Researchers Andrew G. Reece and Christopher M. Danforth from Harvard and Vermont Universities published a study in EPJ Data Science which analyzed people’s Instagram photos to create a similar tool last year with the same success rate.

SLEEP

Research by Joshua J. Gooley and colleagues published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, found that light can inhibit the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which facilitates sleep – and blue light, which is emitted by smartphone and laptop screens, is said to be the worst culprit. In other words, if you lie on the pillow at night checking Facebook and Twitter, you’re headed for restless slumber.

A study by Jessica C. Levenson and colleagues published in Preventive Medicine the researchers surveyed 1,700 18- to 30-year-olds about their social media and sleeping habits. They found a link with sleep disturbances – and concluded blue light had a part to play. How often they logged on, rather than time spent on social media sites, was a higher predictor of disturbed sleep, suggesting “an obsessive ‘checking’”, the researchers said.

The researchers say this could be caused by physiological arousal before sleep, and the bright lights of our devices can delay circadian rhythms. But they couldn’t clarify whether social media causes disturbed sleep, or if those who have disturbed sleep spend more time on social media.

ADDICTION

A few researchers have argued that tweeting is as addictive as cigarettes or alcohol. A team headed by Wilhelm Holmann at Chicago University used smartphones to gauge the willpower of 205 people aged 18-85, and published their results in Psychological Science. They  found that as the day wore on, willpower became lower. Their paper says highest “self-control failure rates” were recorded with social media. “Resisting the desire to work was likewise prone to fail. In contrast, people were relatively successful at resisting sports inclinations, sexual urges, and spending impulses, which seems surprising given the salience in modern culture of disastrous failures to control sexual impulses and urges to spend money,” they said.

Despite the argument from a few researchers that tweeting may be harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol, social media addiction isn’t included in the latest diagnostic manual for mental health disorders.

That said, social media is changing faster than scientists can keep up with, so various groups are trying to study compulsive behaviours related to its use – for example, scientists from the Netherlands have invented their own scale the Social Media Disorder Scale, published in Computers in Human Behavior, to identify possible addiction.

And if social media addiction does exist, it would be a type of internet addiction – which is a classified disorder. In 2011, Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University in the UK have analysed 43 previous studies on the matter, and conclude that social media addiction is a mental health problem that “may” require professional treatment. Their study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health  found that excessive usage was linked to relationship problems, worse academic achievement and less participation in offline communities, and found that those who could be more vulnerable to a social media addiction include those dependent on alcohol, the highly extroverted, and those who use social media to compensate for fewer ties in real life.

Cornell University published research reporting “some people have in quitting Facebook and other social networks.” They even have a label for the failure to quit: “social media reversion.” The study used data from a site called 99DaysofFreedom.com, which encourages people to stop using Facebook for 99 days.

The site and study are interesting because they revealed the difficulty people have quitting Facebook because of addiction. Participants intended to quit, wanted to quit and believed they could quit (for 99 days), but many couldn’t make more than a few days.

SELF-ESTEEM

Women’s magazines and their use of underweight and Photoshopped models have been long maligned for helping to create self-esteem problems for women. Now, with social media’s easily manipulated images and videos, these concerns are being magnified.

According to one survey of 1,500 people by Scope, social media sites make more than half of users feel inadequate, and half of 18- to 34-year-olds say it makes them feel unattractive. Also, Nearly two thirds of social media users surveyed say that sites like Facebook and Twitter make them feel inadequate about their own lives and achievements; 62% of Facebook and Twitter users felt their own achievements were inadequate when compared to the posts of others, and 60% said that the sites had made them jealous of other users.

A 2016 study by researchers at Penn State University published in the journal Telmatics and Informatics,suggested that viewing other people’s selfies lowered self-esteem, because users compare themselves to photos of people looking their happiest. Research by Petya Ecklar and colleagues from the University of Strathclyde, Ohio University and University of Iowa also found that women compare themselves negatively to selfies of other women.

But it’s not just selfies that have the potential to dent self-esteem. A  study by Leif Denti and colleagues from the University of Gothenburg of 1,000 Swedish Facebook users found that women who spent more time on Facebook reported feeling less happy and confident. The researchers concluded: “When Facebook users compare their own lives with others’ seemingly more successful careers and happy relationships, they may feel that their own lives are less successful in comparison.”

WELL-BEING

In a study by Ethan Kross and colleagues published in PLOS ONE in 2013, researchers texted 79 participants five times a day for 14 days, asking them how they felt and how much they’d used Facebook since the last text. The more time people spent on the site, the worse they felt later on, and the more their life satisfaction declined over time.

But other research has found, that for some people, social media can help boost their well-being. Marketing researchers Jonah Berger and Eva Buechel published research in SSRN found that people who are emotionally unstable are more likely to post about their emotions, which can help them receive support and bounce back after negative experiences.

Research by Alexandre Mayol published in SSRN found people that would like to receive more Likes tend to be more unsatisfied with their life. The latter result suggests that Facebook use can exacerbate frustration and envy.

Overall, social media’s effects on well-being are ambiguous, according to a paper written by researchers from the Netherlands. However, they suggested there is clearer evidence for the impact on one group of people: social media has a more negative effect on the well-being of those who are more socially isolated.

RELATIONSHIPS

Does constant scrolling through social media on one’s phone affect relationships?

Even the mere presence of a phone can interfere with our interactions, particularly when we’re talking about something meaningful, according to a study by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein published the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships . Participants in their study were paired with strangers and asked to havea 10-minute conversation about an interesting event that had happened to them recently. Each pair sat in private booths, and half had a mobile phone on the top of their table.

Those with a phone in eyeshot were less positive when recalling their interaction afterwards, had less meaningful conversations and reported feeling less close to their partner than the others, who had a notebook on top of the table instead.

Romantic relationships aren’t immune, either. Amy Muise and colleagues at the University of Guelph surveyed 300 people aged 17-24 in 2009 about any jealousy they felt when on Facebook, asking questions such as, ‘How likely are you to become jealous after your partner has added an unknown member of the opposite sex?’. Their findings were published in Cyberpsychology and Behavior.

Women spent much more time on Facebook then men, and experienced significantly more jealousy when doing so. The researchers concluded they “felt the Facebook environment created these feelings and enhanced concerns about the quality of their relationship”.

ENVY

In a study involving 600 adults, roughly a third said social media made them feel negative emotions – mainly frustration – and envy was the main cause. This was triggered by comparing their lives to others’, and the biggest culprit was other people’s travel photos. Feeling envious caused an “envy spiral”, where people react to envy by adding to their profiles more of the same sort of content that made them jealous in the first place.

LONELINESS

A study by Brian A. Primack and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine surveyed 7,000 19- to 32-year-olds and found that those who spend the most time on social media were twice as likely to report experiencing social isolation, which can include a lack of a sense of social belonging, engagement with others and fulfilling relationships.

Spending more time on social media, the researchers said, could displace face-to-face interaction, and can also make people feel excluded.

“Exposure to such highly idealised representations of peers’ lives may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives, which may increase perceived social isolation,” they said.

CONCLUSIONS?

It’s clear that in many areas there is no consensus about the negative effects of social media but there is substantial research showing its dangers. Social media affects people differently, depending on pre-existing conditions and personality traits, and it can be damaging for those people already dealing with psychological and physical issues in life.

As with food, gambling and many other temptations of the modern age, excessive use for some  is inadvisable

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