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Real-Life Support Is Better for Your Mental Health Than Social Media

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows problematic social media use can worsen people's mental health.
  • Experts suggest that social media can be used in a positive way if people use it to build and maintain relationships with others.

Social media can help people stay connected with each other, especially during a pandemic. But a recent study highlights some of the downsides to using these platforms, like the ways problematic social media use can worsen your mental health.

Researchers surveyed 403 undergraduate students in the U.S. about their social media use. The survey defined problematic social media use as causing one or more of the following traits, which are associated with addictive behaviors:

  • Preoccupation
  • Mood modification
  • Tolerance
  • Conflict
  • Withdrawal
  • Relapse

In addition to being surveyed on their potentially problematic social media use, the students were asked about their real-life social support, social support on social media, depression, anxiety, and social isolation. This survey took place between January 2020 and April 2020, before many COVID-19 protocols were enacted in the United States.

The researchers found that "problematic social media use was significantly associated with reduced real-life social support and increased social support from social media." Problematic social media use was also associated with increases in depression, anxiety, and social isolation. The research was published online on April 29 in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

Previous research also links social media addiction to depressive symptoms. "[The study] not only reinforced and found very similar findings of previous research, but it suggests that we take social media with a grain of salt," Charles R. Figley, PhD, the founder of the Traumatology Institute and the Paul Henry Kurzweg, MD Chair in Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University, who was not involved with the study, tells Verywell.

The Way You Use Social Media Matters

"It really comes down to how each of us specifically relate to social media platforms," Michele Goldman, PsyD, MA, licensed clinical psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation media advisor, tells Verywell. "Are we seeing pictures or videos people post and assuming their lives are better than ours? Are we comparing other people’s perceived successes to our failures?"

If someone's interactions and support on social media are limited to likes, retweets, and comments, this may have negative consequences.

"Typical social media interactions are therefore limited and may not allow for more substantial social interaction, which may be needed to provide the type of social support needed to protect against negative mental health," the researchers wrote.

Real-life social support and social support on social media both had a positive or neutral effect on a person's social media use. Researchers defined real-life social support as in-person social interactions with family, friends, and others.

The study found that this real-life support was associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and social isolation. The researchers noted that social support on social media did not negatively impact depression, anxiety, or social isolation, but it didn't necessarily improve mental health either.

Turning to Social Media During COVID-19

While this study classified social isolation as a sign someone may be struggling with their mental health, social isolation quickly became an essential step in limiting the spread of COVID-19 over the past year. As a result, people may find their relationship with social media changing.

"When COVID hit…social media [was] in some cases…one of the only ways of connecting with the outside world," Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, chief of clinical services at The Dorm, tells Verywell.

Social media use during the pandemic can be extremely complicated. A February 2021 study published in the Humanities and Social Sciences Communications journal suggests that anxiety attributed to seeing content on social media pertaining to COVID-19 may cause people to feel powerless, or on the flip side, can help them be resilient and take action in pursuing social distance protocols.

As a result, the researchers of this study recommended that people on social media do the following to decrease problematic social media use:

  • Promote constantly trustworthy sources of information to limit uncertainty about COVID-19
  • Use online platforms to cement and embrace social norms that emphasize the promotion of protective behaviors
  • Use social media to stay connected with others, through scheduling daily social online activities with family, friends, colleagues, and broader social actors

What This Means For You

While some research links social media use and mental health issues, you can still use social media in ways that help you stay connected to others. Finding support in real life and in online communities can both be beneficial in supporting your mental health.

Social Media Use Can Be Helpful

Social media can help us stay in touch with loved ones, especially with older relatives or friends who are increasingly using one or more of these platforms. The Pew Research Center found that social media use among people 50 and older increased between February 2019 and February 2021. "There is a significant amount of contact with real friends and family members, even if they are not adept at using social media," Figley says.

You can also use social media to make new connections based on a particular interest, which can lead to more social support in person. "Social media can be a way to find certain groups that are maybe engaging in activities or hobbies or causes that are congruent with the individual's authentic self, like maybe finding a group of people on social media who go rock climbing every weekend together," Fialk says.

Each person experiences social media differently, which is why it's important that a person individually considers how being online affects them. "Really pay attention to whether or not you feel more support and connection after your social media use," Goldman says. "There is nothing wrong with using social media to create connections."

How to Turn to Your Community for Support

The study published in Addictive Behaviors found that seeking real-life social support may offer more mental health benefits over seeking social support online or participating in social media use.

For some people, it can be difficult to evaluate if someone is available to give in-person support. Goldman says that this could lead to a situation where two people may want to reach out and support each other, but neither know whether to start. "They might be waiting for someone else to lean in and take the first step," she says. "As a result of the pandemic, most of us are newly coming out of periods of isolation, and we might have a hard time connecting."

Goldman says that it is also important to think about what type of support you want when you're engaging with people in your lives or are looking for a new community. "Think about what you are really looking for—social relationships, service to your larger community, making change in a meaningful way—and then search for ways to find that," she says. "Trust that other people want connection too."

Mental Health Professionals Can Help

If you're not comfortable reaching out to people in your life, you can also reach out to a mental health professional for support. "What's nice is that having that person having somebody who's totally outside of your friend group or your family enables the person who's seeing them and who's struggling to talk freely and not be afraid that what they're going to say," Fialk says.

Mental health professionals can also help you evaluate your relationship with social media and help you come up with ways to reach out to members of your community. "You can also ask your mental health provider, 'Is this too much?'" Goldman says. "We can help to slow down the process so you don’t feel the need to navigate the pace on your own." 

However, as social media continues to grow in popularity, mental health professionals need to learn more about the potentially problematic relationship between social media and mental health. The researchers of the study published in Addictive Behaviors explained that "clinicians should be aware of this relationship between problematic social media use, social support, and mental health."

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  4. Pew Research Center. Social media fact sheet. Updated April 7, 2021