You open the app to check what’s new on Facebook. As you scroll down through news and friends’ captured experiences, you start to feel restless and uneasy. Where is this anxiety coming from?
When Facebook first launched about 17 years ago, it intended to connect people. And for the most part, it has done just that over the years.
Around 69% of U.S. adults use Facebook. Among them, 7 in 10 do so every day, and 49% visit the site several times a day.
But connecting people has consequences, and not all of them could be perceived as positive. Are symptoms of anxiety and depression two of them?
Ravi Chandra, MD, a psychiatrist and writer in the San Francisco area, says there are several studies that correlate symptoms of sadness, anxiety, and depression with Facebook use. Some of these, he says, imply causality.
“I wrote in my book ‘Facebuddha’ that we look at people’s wit, accomplishments, humblebrags, and so forth while we are stuck in our pajamas, looking at a computer screen,” says Chandra of social media use.
How does that make you feel? Everyone is different, and we don’t react to events in the same way. However, some studies point toward a potential link between Facebook use and certain mental health symptoms in some people.
For example, a 2015 study showed that spending time on Facebook viewing other people’s posts without interacting may increase your chance of developing social anxiety symptoms. Another study indicated that exposure to social content on Facebook news feeds had negative effects on self-esteem as well as depression symptoms.
Research also shows that the more time someone spends on Facebook, the higher chance they have of experiencing depressive symptoms. This relationship, however, seems to be mediated by the tendency to compare oneself to others. Even though the study found that this correlation applies to the general population, it seemed more evident among college students.
The question is, does Facebook cause these problems or does it exacerbate them?
Causation versus correlation
Causation means A causes B, or B is the product of A. On the other hand, correlation implies there is a relationship between A and B, but not necessarily a cause-effect link. In other words, when two factors are correlated, they may be present at the same time, but this could be due to chance or to a third variable causing both A and B.
Although many studies have looked at the causal effect of Facebook use on mental health, some may have had limitations that affected the results.
A 2019 systematic review, for example, analyzed 13 studies on the topic. Although researchers found a correlation between Facebook use and increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress, they also noted important methodological limitations in the designs and participant samples.
“There is causation, which requires directional evidence. The latter has not been adequately investigated in this topic, and we must, therefore, state that the relationship is correlational but not conclusively causative,” they concluded.
Why you’re on Facebook may affect how you feel about it
A person’s reasons for using Facebook, and who they’re connected with, might also play a role in the effect their Facebook use has on their mental health.
For instance, someone who uses Facebook only to connect with close friends and family may visit the site to share and enjoy updates from those they love. These may lead them to experience less Facebook-induced anxiety or depression compared to users who might focus on reading news or following influencers and people they don’t know in person.
Similarly, if Facebook is your main source of social interaction, you may experience anxiety or depression based on how often people interact with you on this social platform. This could be particularly the case if you’re seeking social support.
“People in distress often turn to Facebook, but their results of subjective support vary,” says Chandra.
It could become a vicious cycle. You may turn to Facebook to find support and human connection, but the more you use it, the higher the chance you stay away from face-to-face interactions.
“Real world social interactions are correlated with improved well-being, and Facebook use tends to take us away from that,” explains Chandra.
In time, Facebook may become your go-to interaction when feeling down.
“We’re not just ‘doomscrolling,’ we are ‘moodscrolling.’ We click on social media to pass the time, typically when we’re bored or lonely,” says Chandra.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique social circumstances. As face-to-face connection had to be limited, social media interactions became a necessity and only resource for many.
“Certainly, the internet and social media has been a significant source of connection for many people during the pandemic,” Chandra said.
But as many people turned to social media to stay in contact with loved ones, they were also exposed to other types of information.
As the new coronavirus spread around the world, so did the news about its origin and reach, potential treatments, and the effectiveness of the vaccine. The abundance of information, including fake news, could affect your experience while using social media.
Seeing others react to news, whether real or not, may also influence your reactions. In some cases, it could lead to panic-induced behaviors.
Chandra says the negative effects of Facebook use can be especially detrimental to those who are already susceptible.
Also, some of the platform’s features may allow users to spend more time focusing on images, communication feedback, and comparisons to other people’s lifestyles and interactions.
Research about social media use in teens suggests that adolescents who’ve already received an anxiety diagnosis may see an increase in the severity of their symptoms. In this case, some participants said the Facebook use led them to compare themselves to others. This, in turn, increased symptoms of anxiety.
If Facebook use is impacting how you feel, you may be:
- noticing a change in your mood during or after Facebook use, even if you can’t pinpoint the exact trigger
- questioning your real-world relationships based on interactions that happen online
- finding yourself more interested in online interactions than face-to-face connections
- experiencing negative thoughts toward yourself or others when scrolling Facebook or immediately after logging off
- increasingly comparing yourself and your life to what you’ve observed on Facebook
- feeling frightened, irritable, sad, or defeated because of news you view on Facebook
If you’ve noticed that Facebook use is negatively impacting your mental health, there are a few things you could consider doing to feel better.
Take a break
“Deactivating Facebook for 1 to 4 weeks leads to improvements in subjective well-being, and also a ‘decreased valuation of Facebook,’” says Chandra. “In other words, taking time away from Facebook leads people to de-emphasize Facebook’s importance in their lives.”
Connect in real life
Social connections help us to stay grounded.
If you’re feeling the negative impacts of Facebook use, you may want to reach out to a friend or family member you can visit in real life. This face-to-face interaction may help recharge you.
Research finds that engaging in physical activity may help reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety. The endorphins produced by moving your body are a great way to reduce stress and reset your headspace.
Facebook use may offer great resources, like the ability to connect with loved ones and have a diverse source of news.
However, it could also be related to experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly if you already live with these.
You can manage the effects of Facebook on your mental health with a few practical changes in your routine and social media use habits. But, if you feel you’re having a difficult time, it may be a good idea to seek the counsel of a mental health professional. These resources may help:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists