Social media can help us feel connected to friends and family, but doom-scrolling can have a significant impact on your mental health.
You can share a family picture, hit the like button, or laugh at a viral Tik-Tok dance. You can scroll, and scroll, and scroll — there is always some new update or post.
Around the world, 4.62 billion of us engage, interact, and share our lives on social media platforms. Social media can be both connecting and isolating, meaningful and empty, euphoric and, for some, even depressing.
But despite widespread use, researchers are still working to determine if increased social media use is beneficial or harmful to our mental health.
With terms like “doomscrolling” recently entering our cultural vernacular, and for many, spending too much time online can put them in a negative headspace.
But can the endless scrolling actually make you depressed, and if it does, are the effects temporary or long-term? Does social media lead to situational depression or even develop into major depression?
Social media and situational depression
Situational depression can develop following a major life change or traumatic event. It can be completely natural to feel low, have less energy, and feel less enthusiastic about things after experiencing things like:
- a traumatic event
- the death of a loved one
- job loss
- a significant breakup or divorce
But situational depression can cause unhelpful feelings to be more persistent and can last for several months before you start to feel better.
You may find that your screen time increases as you experience situational depression. Some people may find comfort in escaping into highlight reels and trending topics. Others might cling to the euphoric hits from every “likes” or seek out like-minded people online to confirm their point of view.
A 2014 review proposed that social media and depression may be part of a destructive cycle. Those who are already living with situational depression tend to go on social media more, and their extended exposure can be associated with, or at least become a risk factor for, more symptoms of depression.
Social Media and clinical depression
If scrolling social media is keeping you from sleeping, maintaining a job, or taking care of your hygiene and nutrition, your social media use may have become problematic, or you may be dealing with clinical depression or major depressive disorder (MDD).
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), MDD is diagnosed when you’re experiencing at least five of the following symptoms during a 2-week period and at least one of the symptoms is either feeling sad or depressed or a loss of interest or pleasure:
- body aches
- marked change in appetite
- not sleeping or significantly oversleeping
- brain fog
- increase in irritability
- feeling anxious
- thoughts of suicide
What type of depression does social media cause?
Social media isn’t inherently harmful to your mental health, especially if it doesn’t replace other forms of healthy social interaction. However, exposure to harmful behavior and rhetoric through social media can impact your mood and even cause depressive symptoms.
For example, toxic positivity can be harmful.
Belonging to social media communities that demand “good vibes only” can cause you to repress any unwanted distressing feelings, potentially contributing to symptoms of depression. In these circles, you may feel unwelcome if you’re experiencing challenges or you, or think others, believe, you’re “not working hard enough” to overcome them.
Toxic positivity can also influence how you view (and post about) your real life. You may feel pressured to only share joyful posts and pictures of your life, ignoring the entire spectrum of your naturally occurring joyful and difficult experiences.
Bullying online can also have a real-world impact on your mental health.
A 2019 study involving university students in the United Arab Emirates showed an increase in bullying online, while another recent study explored the link between cyberbullying and depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder.
Social media quickly folded into our everyday lives, but research on its impact is still catching up. While the results are contentious, a 2019 review and a
Social media also has health benefits. However, it will largely depend on:
- how you use social media
- what you’re looking to get out of it
- any pre-existing mental health conditions that could be affected
A recent study looked at the relationship between social media behaviors and depression in college students who were born between 1980 and 2000, or Millenials.
The study revealed five behaviors associated with MDD. College students were more likely to meet the criteria for major depression if they interacted with social media in the following ways:
- frequent “upward comparisons” or comparing yourself to others you perceive to be better than you
- self-reported being bothered by unflattering photos
- posted solo photos of themselves instead of group pics
- followed less than 300 accounts on Twitter
- being placed higher on the Social Media Addiction Scale
People seeking support for existing mental health conditions
Today, it may seem like social media is just raging political fights in the comments section, but it’s also a place for like-minded people to share resources, information, and experiences. These shared spaces have the potential to build trust in people that you otherwise would never have met.
Specifically, a 2021 study analyzed groups from an online community of people with depression on social media. The results showed that a sense of group identity and the sharing of resources for depression had a positive impact on members’ depressive symptoms.
However, socializing support, which is when some members excessively shared and engaged with the online community, had a negative impact on depressive symptoms.
Let’s say you post a photo and put your phone down to go about your day. But you keep hearing the delightful chime notification every time someone likes it. So, you open the app to see who thumbs-upped your pic.
Then, the chiming applause starts to slow down. Maybe the notifications just aren’t coming through? Do you have bad cell reception? So, you keep opening the app and refreshing it, just to make sure there’s no lag — but still nothing.
So you keep refreshing, to the point that you can’t focus on a conversation with your roommate and end up sitting on the couch scrolling instead of completing your to-do list for the day.
This almost persistent rechecking is very common and isn’t necessarily your fault, either.
These apps are designed to be
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), these obsessive actions can be even more challenging to manage.
Some studies have found that 25% to 50% of people with OCD also experience major depressive symptoms at some point in their lives.
Rumination is a pattern of unhelpful thinking that puts your thoughts and worries on repeat.
Ruminative thinking about social media has been found to occur in high school students, according to research published in 2020. When students who experience cyberbullying begin to fall into rumination, they’re also left open to psychological distress.
Paying attention to how you’re using social media — how much and for what purpose — and how it affects you can be the best way to prevent or minimize its impact.
Do you notice you’re feeling more sad, lonely, isolated, or depressed when you spend time on social? Or do you walk away feeling recharged, or like you have spent your time meaningfully?
If you have an iPhone, consider using the “Screen Time” feature to track how you’re using your phone.
When social media becomes too distracting, consider turning off notifications for a while or removing the app from your phone until you feel like you’re in a better place to log in again.
The double-edged sword of social media can potentially offer you a healthy community platform for managing anxiety and depression, but at the same time, it can also potentially worsen unhealthy thought patterns.
If you ever start to feel like you can’t manage symptoms on your own, consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist. A trained mental health professional can help design the right treatment plan for your specific needs.
Connecting with other people with whom you share the same interests or life experiences can be very rewarding.
But being involved in an endless loop of scrolling, refreshing, and searching for a fulfilling mental reward (that may not be coming) can worsen your depressive symptoms.
Social media is designed to be hard to resist. If you notice unhealthy depressive thought patterns or behavior emerging, there are tools and professionals that can help you manage your social media impulses, so you can get back to what’s meaningful to you.