Social Media Making You Feel Off? What Science Has To Say

There have been many times when being on social media has made me feel negative or just ‘off’. I’ve even had to take periodic social media hiatus for one to two years because I felt it made me unhappy and sometimes even anxious. What could be so harmful about people viewing, liking, commenting, and sharing posts of their accomplishments, joyful moments with family and friends, delicious meals, celebrations of events, vacations, etc.? These seem pretty harmless to me but why then does social media have the ability to impact us negatively. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more research on how compulsive social media usage can impact us negatively, change our brain, cause social media fatigue, elevated anxiety, depression and so much more.


   Before getting into the negatives of social media, I do want to take a minute to acknowledge some of its positives:

  • You get to keep in touch with friends and family.
  • News and information can be received or easily shared.
  • It provides an opportunity to reach out for help.
  • It is entertaining.
  • You can promote without costs.

However, here are some of the reasons social media can make you feel off:

1. We compare ourselves to a false representation of another person’s life.

Although most of our lives consist of ups and downs, failures and success, quarrels as well as celebrations with our partners, difficult and also joyful moments with our children, hardships, and moments of joy; often the difficult moments are rarely shared. Most of us want to present our best-self on social media. The problem comes when we start comparing our lives at our moment to another person’s moment. Emma Seppaelae, Science director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education said that when “We compare ourselves to others, (we) get lost in their idealized lives, and forget to enjoy our own.” So what this means is that you may be sitting in the office on Monday and see a post of your friend enjoying a nice cocktail in the Maldives and start to compare your moment (at work) to theirs. When in fact you may have enjoyed a nice cocktail when you were on holiday, just not at the same time as them!

2. It is linked with negative emotions, depression, and anxiety.

A study surveyed 1787 young adults in the US and found that individuals who were in the highest quartile for social media site visits per week had a significantly greater chance of experiencing depression. In another study on 447 adolescents, it was found that “…those who were more emotionally invested in social media experienced poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of anxiety and depression.”. There are various reasons we feel worse off after social media usage and why it is associated with mental illness such as depression and anxiety. These include our error in forecasting that we would feel better after social media use, comparison and envy of peers, our need for validation not being confirmed, FOMO (fear of missing out), and a lack of self-awareness.

3. It is addictive

Researchers have found that although Facebook is often used to maintain relationships, pass time, for entertainment and companionship purposes, it also “…may be related to Facebook addiction through use that is habitual, excessive, or motivated by a desire for mood alteration.”. This means that using social media mindlessly or as a form of distraction to change the way you feel can lead to addiction over time.

Additionally, when you get hit with a “like”, neuroscientists have found that the “likes” were associated with activation of the same circuitry as receiving a reward like money. Researches have also found that the act of disclosing information about oneself is intrinsically rewarding and activates the same part of the brain associated with the sensation of pleasure that you get from eating food or receiving money.

4. It can be a huge distraction and a waste of time

Ever scrolled and scrolled and clicked and clicked and soon found yourself at your best friends, partners, cousin’s, high school friend who lives in the Amazon forest page, and wondered why you haven’t been invited to their wedding. Maybe not the exact mentioned! But we can all relate to the incessant distraction and what a waste of time social media can be. Social media use has risen over the years, and in 2019 global users spent at least 2 hours and 23 minutes a day on social media. Countries topping the list for most social media time used included the Philippines (4:01 hours), Nigeria (3.36 hours), India (2.25 hours), and China (2.19 hours). If using social media is not part of your job, then being on it 2.5 hours a day is a huge waste of time.

5. It affects our thinking and brains

We have seen above how social media affects our brains through the ‘reward’ network. But does it have any other impact on our thinking? The simple answer is yes. It can impact both our attention span and memory. A study found that those who frequently multitasked with different streams of media experienced more interference from the environment which made them perform worse on a task requiring task switching. This is because they weren’t able to filter their interference from irrelevant information. What this means is, if you jumped on Facebook for your personal use and then LinkedIn for work, there is a possibility of irrelevant information from Facebook (such a friend’s birthday) interfering with your attention and performance on LinkedIn. Also, people who did share their experiences on social media were found to inaccurately remember events as opposed to those who didn’t.

So should you drop out of social media or take a year hiatus? Not necessarily. Social media can be incredibly beneficial if we learn how to use social media and not let it use us.

The above article was first published in Medium by Illumination. 

Ms Bhali Gill is a registered Psychologist, Executive/Life Coach, Lecturer and Trainer with over 10 years of experience both in Australia and Singapore. She is also the founder of Corporate Wellbeing and Conscious Unicorn where she is dedicated to creating a productive, mentally healthy, and positive workplace for organisations and employees. She is also passionate about guiding people to discover and reach their inner potential whilst remaining aligned to themselves. Her work has also been featured in Forbes and Golf/Women.

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Written by,

Ms Bhali Kaur Gill, Associate Lecturer, Psychology Programme

School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences

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