Social media use and mental health seems to have a love/hate relationship. Brailovskaia and Margraf (2016) conducted a large study comparing users and non-users of Facebook on various mental health variables. While they found that users were significantly more likely to score higher on scales of narcissism, they also scored higher on extroversion and self-esteem.
In 2019, Bekalu et al. found social media use to be associated with positive health outcomes. Interestingly, though, those who reported an emotional connection to social media had significantly more negative health outcomes. The authors suggest that social media use can be healthy and can help increase well-being, but can also be unhealthy. The key in their research is the motivation behind social media use.
More recently, an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Epidemiologia found that excessive use of social media can be related to anxiety and depression. This means that not only does reason for use matter but also the amount of time on social media. The study by Ulvi et al. (2022) completed a meta-analytic study of the relationship between social media use and mental disorders. A meta-analysis is a statistical technique that reviews multiple empirical studies to determine a grand effect or the effects of multiple studies on the same variables. They limited their research to the last ten years and combined a total of 20 studies that evaluated social media use and mental health.
The study defined mental health as the cumulation of emotional, psychological, and social well-being. They countered this definition with the most recent definition of mental disorders from the DSM-5 to determine if there are significant relationships between the two and if these relationships are consistent across the 20 studies. They focused their social media searches on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter because these were the most commonly studied platforms.
Keep in mind when evaluating any study is the bias toward significant results. Many studies are conducted on mental health issues that do not find significant results. Often these studies are rejected for publication because they failed to find a significant difference or relationship. More often, though, they are not submitted for publication. This means that for every significant result in research on a specific topic, there may be one or more similar studies that never got published. That being said, meta-analyses are beneficial because they look at multiple studies and can determine if results are consistent across all studies. Replication is the best way to verify differences and relationships found in research and the meta-analysis is the gold standard.
Similar meta-analytic studies found similar results. For example, Valkenburg et al. (2022) looked at social media use and mental health among adolescents. They found, like Ulvi et al. (2022), that excessive social media use is associated with increased ill-being. However, they found discrepancies in the literature and effect sizes that were small in some cases and moderate in others. Interestingly, they found similar results for the variable of well-being. This suggests that ill-being and well-being may not be opposites and that social media use is related to both. Obviously, more research is needed to better understand the details about how social media use impacts mental health and how mental health impacts social media use.
Bekalu, M. A. (2019). Association of social media use with social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health: Disentangling routine use from emotional connection to use. Health Education and Behavior, 46(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119863768
Brailovskaia J, Margraf J (2016). Comparing Facebook Users and Facebook Non-Users: Relationship between Personality Traits and Mental Health Variables – An Exploratory Study. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0166999. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0166999
Ulvi, O. et al. (2022). Epidemiologia, 3(1), 11-25. https://doi.org/10.3390/epidemiologia3010002
Valkenburg, P. M. et al. (2022). Social media use and its impact on adolescent mental health: An umbrella review of the evidence. Current Opinion in Psychology, 44, 58-68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.08.017