The Psychological Effects of Social Media

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According to Statista, at least 4 billion people have mobile phones and over 2 billion have smartphones. In America, 77% of U.S Americans have at least one social media profile and there are at least 2.34 billion users worldwide. 91% of people ages 16 to 24 use the Internet for social media. “Social Networking sites are termed to as web-based services that give an opportunity to individuals to create their own personal profile with the choice of their own list of users and thereby connect with them in an altogether public forum that provides them with features such as chatting, blogging, video calling, mobile connectivity, and video/photo sharing”. With so many people spending time using social media, I wondered if there could be potential consequences. From personal experience, I realized that social media was starting to play an unhealthy role in my life. Every time a notification popped up on my screen, I immediately stopped whatever I was working on and scrolled endlessly through my phone, remaining distracted from work that actually needed to get done. I also noticed I was stressed with deciding what to post on social media and who would like it. I was curious to see if there was any research or evidence on the psychological effects of phone usage and social networks. With so many people using social media, it is not surprising to find that there were plenty of articles debating this topic.

In an article published by Forbes, Alice G. Walton writes that social media can have some potential effects on the overall mental well-being of an individual. According to Time, one effect could be decreasing a person’s memory. Written by Andrew Gregory for Time Health, the article discusses research that claims those who consistently post images and videos of their life encounters on social media are less able to recount those moments. Gregory examines the research of Diana Tamir, a psychologist, and professor at Princeton University. In her study, Tamir attempts to measure the level of enjoyment and memory a person has after documenting their experiences of a TED talk or tour. Participants were placed into four groups: those who documented with photos or notes, those who took videos but deleted them, those who posted on social media, and those who internally documented and reflected. Then groups were told to rate their enjoyment and take a quiz on the material. Tamir’s results, according to Gregory, showed that there was no correlation between enjoyment, but those who posted their experiences online did 10% worse on the memory quiz.

The researchers determined that the result was due to transactive memory, Gregory mentions. In broad terms, transactive memory is the complex way a person divides and stores information (“Transactive Memory”). Information is either internally or externally stored. With increasing technology and internet accessibility, anything that is not mentally stored can be accessed externally elsewhere through numerous resources. Another study shows that with ever-increasing technology, social media, and phone use, people are now using their internal storage to remember where to retrieve information rather than remember the actual information itself. Gregory believes that capturing and storing moments on social media “externalizes” the information and reduces our ability to remember the event itself. I believe that another reason people’s memories of the event decrease when they post online is that they are so focused on sharing the information, they are not paying attention to their surroundings. For example, people may be focused on posting and captioning a picture during a concert, instead of paying attention to the music with friends. Gregory also makes this point by saying that people may remember what is in the post but will miss out on the experience that cannot be “captured” through sharing on social media.

In addition to possibly affecting a person’s memory, social media may also decrease the overall well-being of an individual, as claimed by the following studies. According to Newsweek, a 2017 Royal Society of Public Health study found that using a phone “excessively” can lead to depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Andrew also mentions that another 2014 study found that internet overuse can be associated with increased “suicidality” and depression. The Royal Society for Public Health found that 7 in 10 children in the UK have been exposed to cyberbullying, while 9 in 10 girls deal with self-image issues.

Through online use and social networking sites, children can become exposed to cyberbullying. A Scientific American article mentions that in 2013, there were large reports of suicide cases related to the website, The website served as a platform for people to anonymously ask each other questions. Pappas also mentions that although social media is commonly used, its repercussions are not well known. In a study, Hamm reviewed 36 different cyberbullying cases and found that those who are bullied as adolescents are twice as likely to show signs of depression as adults. Finding Facebook as the most common social media studied, Hamm found that 23% of teens reported being bullied on social media, and 15% reported bullying others. Two of the studies found that those who both bully and are bullied exhibit the most mental issues. Pappas points out Hamm’s variety of findings, by noting one study found 5.4% of adolescents to fall into this category, while another study reported 11.2% of people both bullied others and were bullied themselves. As far as social media goes, Hamm found only 10 of the 36 studies to show connections between cyberbullying, social media, and mental health, but only one showed causation.

Some researchers also study the effects of social media use on adolescents’ self-esteem. Due to how edited and filtered images on social media are often portrayed as reality, many teens develop “false perceptions” of other people’s lives. These misconceptions increase comparison and feelings of “inadequacy”, which can cause even lower self-esteem. While adolescents may face concerns about body image, constant social media and phone usage mean a person is spending less time being physically active. Another study at the University of Pittsburgh found a correlation between the duration people scroll through social media feeds and the negative feelings of their body image. Katie Hurley reviewed this study in her article and states that the researcher found those who spent time scrolling through social media were 2.2 times more likely to report concerns over their physical appearance and nutritional habits. Hurley also discovered that the research showed 2.6 times the risk for people who spent excessive periods of time on social media.

As Hurley points out, the reason for this excessive use of social media could be due to a desire for likes and support. The UCLA Brain Mapping Center did a study where they found “increased activity in the reward center of the brain” for people who gained many likes on their photos. I wondered if this sensation created from likes and social media interaction could cause addiction. In Scientific American, author Simon McCarthy-Jones writes an article investigating whether or not social media could be an addiction. Similar to Hurley’s article, McCarthy-Jones discusses the “reward” and “valuation system” seen in social media. He states that humans naturally want to feel a sense of belonging, receives “self-relevant info” and attain “social status.” Social Networking platforms contain all three things that humans want. To begin the question of whether or not social media is addictive, McCarthy-Jones refers to B.F. Skinner’s pigeon lab, which involved a group of pigeons being rewarded with food after “pecking” a button. In the trials where the pecking of a button resulted in the direct reward of food, the pigeons pecked the button more often. However, when the food was only given some of the time, the pigeons pecked the button even more frequently and “frantically”. McCarthy suggests that this experiment could be applied to social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook acts like a “slot machine” where people check their notifications looking for “rewards” and “self-relevant info”. While this may seem addictive, McCarthy-Jones wants to point out the difference between “addiction” and “social networking addiction.” The term “addiction” relates to chronic conditions with severe mental impact. For most people, social media does not cause severe permanent issues or feelings of withdrawal. Yet, there are about 5% of adolescent users who show those “addiction-like symptoms”.

While studies claim that social media negatively affects the mental “well-being” of an individual, a majority of researchers and psychologists disagree with the claim because there is little quantitative evidence explicitly showing the direct causation of these psychological problems. In fact, only one of the 36 studies Hamm researched proved the causation of cyberbullying through social media. One 2017 study points out that the more time a person spends on their phone, the more prone they become to developing anxiety. This information was gathered on a questionnaire basis between people ages 18 to 22. Yet, only two of the studies have been tested long enough to show that anxiety developed after the use of social media. One main problem is that researchers struggle to keep up with the quickly changing and developing social media platforms. Most of the time, the research is too small or short to test whether social media cause these psychological problems, or those with already developed illnesses are drawn toward social media.

In a Newsweek article, Joseph Frankel argues that many claims are “based on inconclusive science”. Most articles that discuss the negative effects of social media make huge claims with little data to support them. Many of them come from Jean Twenge, who wrote a letter to Apple trying to enact policy change after reports said social media has a connection to suicide and depression. Orben states in Frankel’s article that her evidence is only a correlation observed from a small sample of studies. Frankel writes that even Twenge agrees her results do not show causation. Still, the letter went viral and contributed to the list of dramatic headlines that Przbylski believes to be the problem. In Przbylski’s article, he complains that the media “oversimplifies” research evidence and makes huge claims that are often negative. When the media does this, they are misinforming the public. Frankel mentions Przbylski in his article, saying that Przbylski believes that people are missing the point by saying something is only good or bad. Most of the time, media focuses on the negative and generalizes research or topics that are quite “complex”. Przybylski states that social media is diverse and this conflicting evidence of good and bad outcomes means both are possible. 57 studies show that social media is related to increased narcissism, but other research shows Facebook “increases self-esteem and promotes feeling connected to others.

Nina Godlewski wrote about a study led by the University of Queensland in Australia, where a break from Facebook decreased levels of cortisol stress hormones. Godlewski states that stress was reportedly lower, but so was “well-being” since some wanted to use Facebook again, often to stay in touch with family and friends. However, Godlewski mentions that the study was only done in one week because it is hard to give participants an incentive to refrain from Facebook for months. Godlewski also finds a contrasting study done in Denmark, that reported an overall increase in “life satisfaction” after leaving social media platforms like Facebook.

Many psychologists agree on the fact that the psychological effects of social media depend on the circumstance or reason a person uses it, according to the following sources. The amount a person uses social media is important. Przybylski refers to a study of 120,000 teenagers in the UK, that concluded reasonable use of social media was not unhealthy. The study reported that those who were on social media 1-3 hours a day felt better overall than those who did not use social media. However, those on their phones for more than 3 hours felt lower levels of well-being. Przybylski says this counters the assumption that social media is a drug because a moderate usage of drugs would have negative health implications.

In addition to the amount people use social media, the way which people use it can also affect overall mental wellness. According to Katie Hurley, social media is good for the teenage desire for socialization, and for those who struggle with “face-to-face social skills”. Hurley also says social media is a good way for kids to make stronger connections and find security in “marginalized groups”. Hurley’s claims can be seen in the research of Khurana N, who sampled a survey of 100 people located in Delhi aged 15-24. Each answered 10 questions regarding social media connectivity, usage, and overall well-being. Khurana found that 45% of people spent more than 2 hours on social media for the purpose of connecting with friends, 74% agreed that online platforms built relationships, and 68% said that social media had a positive impact on them. On the contrary, social media can seem to have negative impacts on overall well-being, inducing anxiety and possibly depression. The evidence can go both ways.

I learned that there is a wide range of evidence relating to data on whether there are negative effects of social media. Through these articles, I found that it can be hard to objectively measure well-being and happiness, and every person uses social media for different purposes and different amounts. In conclusion, the authors and researchers show it is hard to quantify exactly how social media is affecting a person’s well-being when most of the studies are done through limited questionnaires.

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The Psychological Effects of Social Media. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved June 19, 2024 , from

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