Most people use social media in one form or another. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, and while social media can sometimes be beneficial, it’s important to be aware that social media is associated with a number of issues and potential dangers, including stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
Understanding the dangers of social media is important, both so you can deal with them yourself, and so you can help others deal with them. As such, in the following article you will learn about the issues that are associated with social media, see who is most vulnerable them, and find out what you can do to deal with them effectively.
What are the dangers of social media
The use of social media is associated with various issues, when it comes to people’s emotional wellbeing, mental and physical health, and many other areas of life. Specifically, research shows that the use of social media is associated with:
- Emotional exhaustion.
- Low self-esteem.
- Low-quality sleep.
- Health problems.
- Addiction to the social media, which can be referred to as social media addiction, or as addiction to a specific platform (for example, Facebook addiction).
- Interference with important obligations, such as schoolwork, which can lead to issues such as worse grades.
- General issues, such as exposure to misinformation, violation of one’s privacy, and political polarization.
- Issues that play a role in specific situations, such as cyberbullying and stalking.
Some of these issues aren’t limited to social media, but are rather associated with internet use in general. However, many of these issues are associated most strongly with social media and with behaviors that are almost entirely exclusive to social media. An example of this is the negative impact of taking a ‘selfie’, which has been shown to increase people’s social sensitivity and reduce their self-esteem.
Finally, note that some of the research listed here only shows that these issues are associated with social media, and does not conclusively prove that they are caused by it, since the causal relationship is more difficult to establish. Nevertheless, there is sufficient research on the topic to reasonably assume that social media can likely cause some of these issues in some cases, and assuming this is also the most prudent course of action in most cases.
Overall, social media use is associated with a variety of issues. These include emotional and mental issues, such as anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem, physical issues, such as worse sleep quality, and general issues, such as exposure to misinformation and political polarization.
Caveats about the dangers of social media
There are several caveats that are important to keep in mind with regard to the dangers of social media.
First, as noted in the previous section, much of the research on this topic is correlational, meaning that it only shows that the use of social media tends to coincide with experiencing various issues. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a causal association between social media and those issues, meaning that one causes the other. Furthermore, even if such a causal association exists, its direction is not always obvious, meaning that it’s unclear whether increased use of social media leads to those issues, whether it’s the other way around, or whether a bidirectional effect exists. As one study notes on the association that they found between depression and social media:
“Because our data were cross‐sectional, the directionality of this association is not clear.
It may be that individuals with depression tend to use more social media. For example, depressed individuals with a diminished sense of self‐worth may turn to social media based interactions for validation. Subsequently, individuals may suffer from continuous rumination and guilt surrounding Internet use, while feeling compelled to continue the cycle due to low self‐efficacy and negative self‐appraisal. Due to the high accessibility of social media and the possibility of socialization in a controlled setting, individuals with underlying depression and anhedonia may be more drawn to social media interactions rather than face‐to‐face interactions.
It may also be that those who use increased amounts of social media subsequently develop increased depression. Multiple studies have linked social media use with declines in subjective mood, sense of well‐being, and life satisfaction. For example, passive consumption of social media content—as opposed to active communication—has been associated with decrease in bonding and bridging social capital and increase in loneliness. One explanation may be that exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and/or more successful lives. Consequently, these envious feelings may lead to a sense of self‐inferiority and depression over time.
It is also possible that the feeling of ‘time wasted’ by engaging in activities of little meaning on social media negatively influences mood. Additionally, the substantial rise in the amount of time young individuals spend on the Internet—particularly on social media—has led some to call for the recognition of ‘Internet addiction’ as a distinct psychiatric condition that is closely associated with depression. Finally, it is possible that increased social media exposure may increase the risk of cyber‐bullying, which may also increase feelings of depression.”
— From “Association between social media use and depression among US young adults” (Lin et al., 2016)
Second, in many cases, the studies on the topic are limited to homogeneous student samples, which means that they may not generalize well to other populations.
Third, some studies on the topic have found evidence that conflicts with studies showing that social media leads to certain issues. For example, one study did not find evidence that the use of social media is associated with clinical depression.
Finally, although there is considerable evidence suggesting that social-media use is associated with a variety of issues, this doesn’t mean that social-media use necessarily leads to negative outcomes in every situation. This is evident in research on the topic that shows that social-media use doesn’t always have a negative impact on people’s mental health, together with research that suggests that social-media use can even be beneficial in some cases.
Why people keep using social media
There are many reasons why people keep using social media even when it’s bad for them, and these reasons vary across individuals and across circumstances.
One notable reason why people continue to use social media even though it affects them negatively is that they’re simply unaware of its harmful influence. Furthermore, in some cases, people are aware of the harmful influence that social media has on them, but they don’t care enough about these dangers to want to change their behavior.
However, many people continue to use social media even though they know it’s bad for them and even though they want to stop, because they’re psychologically predisposed to keep using it. For example, one study found that people keep using Facebook despite the fact that it makes them feel bad, because they keep expecting it to make them feel better.
In addition, other studies found that the use of social media is associated with the fear of missing out, including in contexts where the use of social media is especially problematic, such as while studying or driving. The fear of missing out is particularly prominent among people who feel a stronger need to ‘belong’, and these people also tend to use social networks more frequently than others, and experience more stress when they feel that they’re unpopular on their favorite social networks.
Finally, there are also many situational factors that can cause people to use social media, even when they wish that they didn’t. For example, if all of a person’s friends use a certain social media network, that person might use it too, simply so they can be aware of what’s going on in their social circles. Similarly, the high accessibility of social media can also push people to use it, for example when they see the icon for a social media app every time they open their phone.
Overall, there are many reasons why people continue to use social media, even though it’s bad for them. These reasons include a lack of awareness of the risks involved, psychological mechanisms such as the fear of missing out, and situational factors such as the high accessibility of social media.
Who is most vulnerable to the dangers of social media
Certain factors are associated with an increased tendency to use social media in a problematic manner, or to suffer from issues as a result of using social media. These factors include:
- Suffering from depression.
- Having low self-esteem.
- Being unsatisfied with life.
- Having high levels of neuroticism.
- Having high levels of narcissism.
- Being prone to social comparisons.
In addition, when it comes to specific certain specific dangers of social media, other factors can increase people’s vulnerability. For example, when it comes to cyberbullying of children, factors such as psychological difficulties, lack of parental support, and peer norms can make children more vulnerable.
Finally, the way in which people use social media can also make them more vulnerable to its dangers. For example, people who use social media in a way that does not reflect their true self, for example by trying to reinvent themself online, tend to experience more issues as a result of social media use, such as loneliness.
Similarly, research shows that passive use of social media, which involves using it primarily to consume content that’s produced by others, is more strongly associated with mental health issues than active use of social media, which involves using it to actively engage with others. This can be attributed to passive use of social media generally being more likely to provoke social comparisons and envy, among other things.
Overall, various factors are associated with an increased tendency to suffer from issues as a result of using social media. This includes underlying issues, such as depression and anxiety, as well as the way in which people use social media, such as when it comes to only using it for passive consumption of content.
How to tell if social media is affecting you negatively
In some cases, it might be obvious to you that social media is affecting you negatively, for example if you feel that it always makes you feel depressed.
Furthermore, even if this is not obvious, it may only take a bit of thinking about how you use social media and how you feel when you use it to realize that your use of social media is problematic. To help yourself do this, you can try to actively identify issues that social media might be causing you, such as feeling anxious because it seems as though other people are much more successful than you.
In addition, when considering how social media affect you, it can also be beneficial to ask yourself whether it benefits you in any way. This can help you get a clearer picture of the value that social media brings you, and in some cases, you might realize that even if it’s not actively harmful, it’s still a waste of time, and you can do other things instead, which will be more productive and enjoyable.
When considering the way you use social media, you can use the following questions, that are adapted from a dedicated questionnaire, and ask yourself whether you’ve experienced any of these issues over the past year, and if so, then to what degree:
- Preoccupation. have you regularly found that you can’t think of anything else but the moment that you will be able to use social media again?
- Tolerance. Have you regularly felt dissatisfied because you wanted to spend more time on social media?
- Withdrawal. Have you often felt bad when you could not use social media?
- Persistence. Have you tried to spend less time on social media, but failed?
- Displacement. Have you regularly neglected other activities (e.g. hobbies, sport) because you wanted to use social media?
- Problem. Have you regularly had arguments with others because of your use of social media?
- Deception. Have you regularly lied to your family, friends, or partner about the amount of time you spend on social media?
- Escape. Have you often used social media to escape from negative feelings?
- Conflict. Have you had serious conflicts with your family, friends, or partner because of your use of social media?
The more issues you’ve experienced due to your social media use, and the more severe these issues are, the more problematic your use with social media likely is. However, note that this questionnaire revolves only around some aspects of problematic social media use, but doesn’t cover all the issues that social media can lead to, meaning that you might have a problematic relationship with social media, even if you haven’t experienced these issues in particular.
Finally, it’s important to note that you might not be able to accurately judge yourself whether social media is problematic for you. Accordingly, you might benefit from using self-distancing techniques, which will help you assess your situation, or from asking for feedback from someone whose opinion you trust.
If you still struggle with assessing your situation in spite of using the above techniques, or if you suspect that your issues might be serious, then strongly consider seeking a professional opinion on your situation. This can involve, for example, a licensed psychologist who will be able to assess your situation in-depth.
Overall, if you’re unsure whether social media is affecting you negatively, you can think about how you use social media and how you feel when you use it, while trying to identify any potential issues. You can also ask yourself guiding questions on the topic, ask someone such as a friend for their opinion, or get help from a professional.
How to avoid the dangers of social media
There are two main things that you can do to avoid the dangers of social media:
- Reduce your use of social media, or eliminate it entirely. To achieve this, you can use various techniques, such as implementing software-based solutions to limit your access, reducing the visibility of social media on your digital devices, and finding alternative activities to engage in.
- Focus on using social media in a positive way. For example, this can involve using media to actively communicate with people that you care about, rather than using it as a passive way to consume information.
In the next two sub-sections, you will learn more about the techniques that you can use to achieve these things, and about general tips and guidelines that you should keep in mind while trying to avoid the issues associated with social media.
Reduce or eliminate your social media use
There are various things that you can do in order to reduce your use of social media.
The simplest is to simply decide to use social media less frequently, or to stop using it entirely. This reduced usage can involve not only the time which you spend browsing social media, but also other factors, such as the number of platforms that you use, the situations in which you use social media, and the type of information that you share there. Sometimes, this happens naturally, and many people end up feeling social-media fatigue over time, which causes them to take a break from social media on their own.
However, this isn’t always easy to accomplish in practice, especially given the reasons that cause people to continue using social media even when they know that it’s bad for them. Accordingly, you may benefit from using various techniques to reduce your use of social media. Such techniques include the following:
- Set clear goals for yourself. People are generally better able to follow through on goals that are concrete compared to those that are abstract. This means, for example, that instead of having a vague goal, such as “use social media less”, it’s generally better to have a more concrete goal, such as “use social media for no more than 10 minutes a day”.
- Use software-based solutions to limit your access. For example, you can use browser extensions that limit your access to your preferred social media sites, or use an app to block access to social media on your phone during times when you should be doing things such as studying or sleeping.
- Reduce the visibility of social media. For example, if you have a social media app on your phone, it can help to remove the icon for it from your home screen, so you won’t see it each time you open your phone.
- Find ways to reduce your need for social media. For example, if you’re constantly on social media because you’re afraid of missing out on upcoming events, you might be able to ask a friend to let you know about those events instead.
- Find alternative activities. For example, if you find that you keep using social media simply because you’re bored, try replacing it with hobbies or activities that are more meaningful and enjoyable for you.
- Hold yourself accountable. For example, you can tell someone whose opinion you value about your goals to use social media less, and ask them to follow up with you in a week to check whether you’ve successfully managed to achieve those goals.
- Reward yourself for making progress. For example, you can decide that if you manage to achieve your goal of not using social media for a month, then you’ll treat yourself by going out to an enjoyable event with your friends.
Note that you can start with relatively small goals, when it comes to reducing your use of social media. For example, you shouldn’t start by saying “I’m going to quit social media forever”, if that feels so overwhelming that you end up failing to make any progress. Instead, you can start by simply trying to limit your use of social media temporarily, which can make your goal feel more achievable, and which can therefore make you more likely to pursue it.
Furthermore, research shows that when people take even a temporary break from social media, that can lead to a reduction in their social media use in the long term, which means that even small goals can lead to long-term achievements in terms of reducing your use of social media. However, keep in mind that for some people, quitting completely might be easier than trying to simply limit their use of social media. This is something that you should take into consideration when deciding how to deal with your social media issues.
In addition, when deciding which techniques to use, it can help to assess your situation and figure out when, how, and why you use social media, and what makes it problematic for you. For example, you might realize that your problematic use of social-media occurs due to simple habit, meaning that you constantly check up on your social media accounts simply because you’re so used to doing it, rather than because you really want to, in which case blocking them entirely might be the best solution.
Finally, consider getting professional help if you need it or if you think it could be worthwhile for you. This can be especially beneficial if your problems with social media are relatively extreme, and you feel that you can’t handle them on your own.
Overall, to reduce or eliminate your use of social media, you can use various techniques, such as setting clear and achievable goals for yourself, implementing software-based solutions to limit your access, reducing the visibility of social media, rewarding yourself for making progress, and getting professional help if necessary. In addition, when deciding which techniques to use, it can be beneficial to assess the situation, and figure out when, how, and why, you use social media, and what makes it problematic for you.
Use social media in a positive way
Despite the fact that social media is associated with many issues, it’s important to keep in mind that using social media doesn’t necessarily influence people in a negative way. Furthermore, there are also some potential benefits to using social media, such as the opportunity to form, maintain, and strengthen connections with other people, and especially those who understand your situation, which can help reduce feelings of loneliness. Moreover, social media can be beneficial in unique ways in specific types of contexts, such as in education, where it can sometimes help students engage in learning.
Accordingly, if you want to avoid the issues associated with social media, you can focus on using it in a positive way, either in addition to or instead of reducing your use of social media. To figure out how you can achieve this in your particular situation, you should consider which aspects of social media are causing you issues, and which aspects you find beneficial, and then modify your use of social media accordingly.
In particular, there are two notable things that you should likely focus on, as they have been shown to lead to a more positive experience with social media:
- Use social media in an active way. Active use of social media, which involves things such as meaningful communication with others, is generally preferable to passive use of social media, which revolves primarily around consuming information.
- Use social media in an authentic way. Authentic use of social media, which involves honest self-expression, is generally preferable to self-idealized use of social media, which involves presenting an idealized and therefore disingenuous version of yourself.
In addition, when it comes to avoiding problematic comparisons on social media, it’s also important to keep in mind that many other people are likely displaying an idealized version of themself. As one study notes:
“Social media can seem like an artificial world in which people’s lives consist entirely of exotic vacations, thriving friendships, and photogenic, healthy meals. In fact, there is an entire industry built around people’s desire to present idealistic self-representations on social media. Popular applications like FaceTune, for example, allow users to modify everything about themselves, from skin tone to the size of their physical features. In line with this ‘self-idealization perspective’, research has shown that self-expressions on social media platforms are often idealized, exaggerated, and unrealistic. That is, social media users often act as virtual curators of their online selves by staging or editing content they present to others.”
— From “Authentic self-expression on social media is associated with greater subjective well-being” (Bailey et al., 2020)
Essentially, this means that you should keep in mind that even if it seems like many other people are leading amazing lives on social media, that doesn’t mean that it’s actually the case, as many people are actually presenting an idealized and disingenuous version of who they are. This ties in to the useful adage “don’t compare your behind-the-scenes with someone else’s highlight reel”.
Summary and conclusions
- Social media use is associated with a variety of issues, including emotional and mental issues, such as anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, and low self-esteem, physical issues, such as reduced sleep quality, and general issues, such as exposure to misinformation and political polarization.
- It is not always clear if the association between social media and these issues is causal, meaning that one directly causes the other, and if so then in what direction; nevertheless, it is reasonable and prudent to assume that social media can lead to some of these issues in some cases.
- People keep using social media even though it’s bad for them for various reasons, including a lack of awareness of the risks involved, psychological mechanisms such as the fear of missing out, and situational factors such as the high accessibility of social media.
- If you’re unsure whether social media is affecting you negatively, you can think about how you use social media and how you feel when you use it, while trying to identify any potential issues, or you can ask someone that you trust for their input.
- To avoid the issues that are associated with social media, you can reduce your use of social media by doing things such as limiting your access and finding alternative activities, and you can also focus on using social media in a more positive way, for example by using it only to communicate with people that you care about.