Social Media and Mental Health

By Michele Leno, Ph.D., LP
September 24, 2017

Social Media and Mental HealthWhat would you be doing right now if social media did not exist? There are still some that have not succumbed to the dynamic world of relationship building, sharing, following, messaging, promoting etc. via social media. However, the vast majority (roughly 81 percent) of the U.S. population has at least one social media account, and Facebook alone has about 1.94 billion monthly active users worldwide.

In fact, many people have come to prefer this method of interacting over traditional, in-person, face-to-face socializing. As a psychologist and social media user, I question the overwhelming fascination with social media. Some of us remember life before social media, though recollections may be murky at best.

When I consider the basis for the seemingly instinctual drive toward social media, two words come to mind: “emotional tug.” Most humans establish connections on a visceral level; sure we are in contact with new people and places daily, but certainly not every single encounter moves us.

We appreciate things that make us feel: Comedians make us laugh; music motivates us; haunted houses elicit fear. Social media is more like the roller coaster of emotions, possessing the ability to create laughter, love, inspiration, sadness and fear all in a matter of minutes.

Have you ever experienced an abrupt change in mood for better or worse after scrolling through your feed? Have you ever dedicated way too much time arguing with someone over a parasocial relationship (a one-sided relationship that exists only on social media and generally with a celebrity)? If so, you are well aware of the social media effect.

Not every social media user has the same agenda, but it is likely that every user is looking to connect, share and/or learn, all of which require some type of emotional involvement. The limbic system, often referred to as the emotional brain, is an area of our brain thought to house the amygdala, otherwise known as the center for emotions, behavior and motivation. Because of this, it is reasonable to believe that social media has the ability to activate the amygdala.

Understanding the connection between emotion and events could significantly improve your social media experience. Specifically, social media has the ability to evoke happiness, sadness and excitement as well as anxiety, depression, envy, frustration etc. and essentially dictate our moods. If the only emotions you ever experience as you browse social media are inspiration, love and happiness, then you are probably an anomaly and able to teach a lesson or two in social media management and engagement.

However, most social media users experience a more diverse set of emotions. You have probably heard someone say in reference to a social media connection, “I am so tired of blank.” It is far less common to hear, “I am so tired of hearing about his/her vacations and success because it makes me feel jealous and frustrated with my own life.”

People generally do not share the deeper negative feelings that emerge due to either lack of insight or shame about the feeling itself. To clarify, if you experience not so desirable feelings while noticing someone else’s success on Facebook, this does not mean that you are someone who wants other people to fail; it just means that you are having a narcissistic moment that compels you to make another person’s post or journey all about you.

The depression and anxiety that arise as a result of your unpleasant social media experience do not merely vanish after you exit, but linger, affecting you consciously or subconsciously. Depression and anxiety surface when we anticipate a threat to our wellbeing; persistent focus on what one perceives as negative stimuli feeds depression and anxiety.

Is it possible to use social media and have a healthy state of mind? Yes, though balance is key. It is essential to manage and check yourself often.

Practice metacognition (think about your thinking) to recognize irrational versus rational thoughts. All are vulnerable to subconscious influence and awareness takes practice. Replace your passive scrolling and engaging with focus and intent, understanding that connecting is optional. A diverse network generally comes with a diverse set of opinions, and if your tolerance is not yet up for the challenge, it may be best to connect only with like-minded individuals.

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Michele Leno, Ph.D., LP, is a Michigan-based psychologist and the founder of DML Psychological Services. With over 10 years of professional experience, she provides therapy, consulting services and court-ordered psychological evaluations to adolescents and adults throughout metropolitan Detroit. Her email address is:

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