Can Social Media be Harmful? A Psychologist’s Perspective

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

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Andrew L. Martin, PsyD

Dr. MartinI am frequently asked if social media is bad for us – for example – is it reducing the amount of time we spend face-to-face with our family and friends, or is it otherwise making us depressed or anxious? 

Dr. Summer Allen, a research and writing fellow with the Greater Good Science Center addressed this question and several related questions in an excellent online article (link listed below). She shared that so far, most evidence suggests that using social media does not reduce or replace in-person interactions, or generally cause negative mental health effects. Regarding mental health effects, the documentary film, The Social Dilemma discussed a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found a correlation between social media use and reduced well-being, however additional study suggests this is because people struggling with anxiety and depression may be using social media more than others.

Still, social media use may result in stress for some people, and Jeffrey Hall and his colleagues at University of Kansas have begun researching potential signs including, ‘fear of missing out,’ ‘communication overload,’ ‘feeling like you can’t take a break,’ and ‘approval anxiety.’ If validated, these signs could indicate an opportunity to examine and change some problematic thoughts that lead to anxiety. 

The research is still pretty thin on internet or social media ‘addiction.’ As with substance use, or any other behavior, if that behavior is taking up too much of your time, is causing problems in relationships, or you’re struggling with trying to stop or cut down, you may want to ask a therapist for guidance. The Social Dilemma also included discussion of how rewarding social media can be on a chemical level in the brain, keeping us coming back for more out of habit. Luckily, lots of alternative behaviors can be just as rewarding, and healthier (for example, planning and engaging in enjoyable activities, walking, playing with children or grandchildren).  

For parents, developmental psychologist Kaveri Subrahmanyam identifies a couple potential problem areas to consider – bullying, and oversharing of personal information. Similar to how we ask our kids about their day at school, it might be helpful to ask children how they’re being treated on social media. This can be another opportunity to help them manage their reactions to bullying, learn how to set boundaries, and appropriately assert themselves. When it comes to sharing personal information on social media, Subrahmanyam encourages a balance, recognizing that personal sharing is important to developing relationships, but children need to be reminded of the ‘forever’ nature of digital posts.

Is there anything psychologically good for us about using social media? Well, the jury is still out on that as well, but at least one information expert, Nicole Ellison of University of Michigan, believes we probably will find evidence of positive effects. For example, Hall and his colleagues have begun looking at the difference between active social media use (reading and engaging with others’ posts) and passive social media use (simply reading through information without engaging), testing the idea that active use may have more benefits than passive use.  

Finally, we’ve heard concern over the truthfulness of information that is presented as news on social media. In searching for the truth, it may be helpful to remember that it is normal for us to seek out information that matches our current beliefs. Essentially, we look for information to confirm what we already believe. To check this natural tendency, some people use a variety of news sources, including people with whom they usually don’t agree. To help, some news sources indicate how many, and which other agencies are carrying a story, as a way to gauge the story’s validity.

Summer, A. (2019, September 20). Social Media’s Growing Impact on Our Lives. American Psychological Association.

Orlowski, J. (Director). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Film]. Exposure Pictures.  

Steele, R. G., Hall, J. A., & Christofferson, J. L. (2020). Conceptualizing digital stress in adolescents and young adults: Toward the development of an empirically based model. Clinical child and family psychology review, 23(1), 15-26.

Uhls, Y. T., Ellison, N. B., & Subrahmanyam, K. (2017). Benefits and costs of social media in adolescence. Pediatrics, 140(Supplement 2), S67-S70.


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