Feeling increasingly anxious when scrolling Facebook or Instagram? Maybe social media is fueling your social anxiety symptoms.

For many people, social media is a big part of daily life. If you wake up in the morning and grab your phone for the latest Twitter updates, you’re not alone.

About 72% of people in the United States currently use at least one social media platform. That’s more than 223 million people checking out social media feeds.

How you react to social media depends on many factors. If you live with mental health conditions, such as an anxiety disorder, social media use may have a particular effect on your symptoms.

In general, if you live with social anxiety, you may benefit from some aspects of social media. But it’s more likely that some of your symptoms will increase or intensify.

Social anxiety disorder is the second most common anxiety disorder. It affects approximately 12.1% of U.S. adults at some point.

When you live with social anxiety disorder, you may have persistent fears about being in social situations. You might also constantly worry that other people will judge you or be focused on you at all times.

These concerns often impact how you function in the world and relate to others.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a reference handbook used by many mental health professionals, outlines the criteria for diagnosing social anxiety disorder.

According to its criteria, symptoms of social anxiety must be present for at least 6 months and include:

  • significant fear or anxiety of being judged
  • significant fear or anxiety of being in social situations
  • avoidance of social situations, or intense fear and anxiety when exposed to them
  • fear or anxiety doesn’t match the possible threat that the situation poses
  • intense distress or impairment in occupational, social, and cognitive areas

Both children and adults can experience symptoms of social anxiety disorder. Only a mental health pro can accurately diagnose this condition.

New followers, “likes,” enthusiastic comments — all of these can trigger the reward system in your mind. These social media boosts can cause the brain to release dopamine, a “feel good” hormone.

Feeling rewarded can subconsciously encourage you to keep checking to see if you have new likes, comments, or followers.

If you stop checking social media, the lack of positive reinforcement could actually cause you to experience anxiety. According to a study from 2015, decreases or changes in dopamine may increase your chances of feeling anxious.

But what happens if you already live with anxiety symptoms?

It depends. Everyone is different and many factors may be at play.

In the case of social anxiety, your fear and anxiety about being judged by others may increase in a setting where it’s easy to compare yourself with others or feel evaluated by a like — or lack thereof.

In some cases, these same factors may cause you to experience social anxiety symptoms for the first time.

“Social media can definitely cause social anxiety,” says Charna Cassell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oakland, California.

You could experience symptoms of social anxiety if you feel that you don’t “live up” to the ideals on your feed, says Cassell. You could become increasingly worried about what others think of you or how your online life may compare to your offline life.

For example, you may start getting anxious about meeting people in person if you’ve put a lot of effort into portraying only a few aspects of your life.

Or you could fear being scrutinized by others if you’ve relied on using social media filters on your photos to change your appearance.

If you already live with social anxiety disorder, seeing the successes of others may also have an impact. A 2018 study suggests that social media use could result in a fear of missing out (FOMO).

FOMO could in turn lead you to compare your experiences with others, sometimes creating a sense of inadequacy.

This inadequacy may turn into social anxiety symptoms if you feel like you don’t “fit in” in certain social situations. Then, you may start to fear being exposed to or judged by others.

Research suggests that compulsive use of social media may trigger social media fatigue in adolescents. Fear of missing out may indirectly account for this fatigue, and sometimes could result in increased anxiety and depression symptoms.

According to 2015 and 2020 studies, longer use of social media platforms may also be associated with increased symptoms of social anxiety. These symptoms may be more significant if you passively use the platform.

In other words, if you use social media only to see what others post, you may be more likely to develop social anxiety symptoms than those who use it more actively and interact with other users.

There’s limited research on the potential benefits of social media in general, and particularly for people living with social anxiety.

Some people may think that interacting in the online world is easier for someone with social anxiety disorder. It would mean you didn’t have to face other people or fear their reactions.

In fact, some research suggests that living with social anxiety disorder may lead you to use social media more often, and sometimes compulsively.

However, a virtual setting doesn’t necessarily decrease the source of your anxiety when you live with this condition. While you may feel more comfortable at some level, you could still be worried about judgment and scrutiny. There are some exceptions, though.

A 2014 study showed that perceived Facebook social support may benefit people living with social anxiety symptoms.

Basically, study participants living with the disorder who felt supported by other Facebook users reported feeling more at ease and enjoying social media, compared to those who didn’t experience this support.

A 2016 review of research also found that people with social anxiety who experienced social support and connectedness while using social media benefited greatly when they didn’t have offline access to these resources.

The review also pointed to a few findings suggesting that people with social anxiety may be more prone to problematic social media use.

“‘Unhealthy’ social media use is any sort of use that affects your daily life,” Cassell says. “If it’s the first thing you check in the morning, if it feels compulsive, or if it’s causing you to lose sleep, it may be indicative of addiction.”

Social media can impact people living with social anxiety.

In some cases, it might increase your fears of being judged by your choices or appearance. This usually stems from comparing yourself to others, or from comparing your online life to your offline reality.

For some people, social media can benefit well-being. Specifically, social support and connectedness experienced via social media may compensate for lacking this in your offline life.