Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Many of us are guilty of spending a lot of time on social media.
No matter what platform you prefer to spend your time on, we’ve all spent more than a few hours endlessly scrolling our feeds.
But after looking at all those vacation photos, party videos and outfits you envy, you might feel a bit down. Perhaps even depressed.
While our social media feeds can undoubtedly create the fear of missing out on something, does social media cause depression?
We go over how social media and depression are connected and answer whether or not social media can cause depression.
First, we’ll take a look at what depression technically is.
More than just feeling down or sad sometimes, major depressive disorder is a mood disorder that can negatively affect your feelings, thoughts and daily life.
Some common depression symptoms include:
A loss of interest in activities that are normally pleasurable, such as sex and hobbies
Irritability and anger, or frustrated outbursts over minor issues
Reduced appetite and weight loss
Increased appetite, food cravings and weight gain
Lack of energy or fatigue
Insomnia and difficulty falling asleep
Oversleeping and struggling to wake up
Feelings of restlessness, anxiety and agitation
Difficulty focusing, making decisions and recalling information
Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 21 million U.S. adults had depressive symptoms in 2020 — over 8 percent of the population.
Feelings such as sadness, anxiety and hopelessness, commonly associated with depression, can occur in other situations such as missing out on a major opportunity, ending a relationship or losing a loved one.
However, there is a difference between being sad and having a depressive disorder.
Depressive symptoms are typically experienced daily and last for two weeks or longer.
Our guide to depression types, symptoms and more gives more information on everything you need to know about depression.
Currently, around 72 percent of Americans are on social media platforms.
But despite how many of us are on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, multiple studies have shown a link between these popular sites and increased risk for depression.
A 2018 study found that checking Facebook late at night made people more likely to feel depressed.
Another 2018 study of 143 undergraduate students found that when people used social media less often, the less depressed and lonely they felt.
And a cross-sectional study of over 1,700 U.S. adult social media users found that using social media for an average of one hour per day resulted in an increase of depression symptoms, and that the more time per day spent using social media, the greater someone's odds of a depressed mood become.
The use of social media platforms also seems to negatively impact health in adolescents in more ways than just increasing depressive symptoms.
A study of adolescents under the age of 17 found that the teens who used social media more overall, as well as at night, experienced lower self-esteem, worse sleep and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
There has also been some evidence that social interaction online communication through social media platforms can influence people’s mental health in either a negative or positive direction.
A 2016 review of 70 studies on mental illness and social media sites found that positive interactions, social support and social relationships and connection were consistently related to lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Conversely, negative interactions on social networking sites were related to higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Particular social media sites can also cause more symptoms of depression in certain age groups.
A recent survey of 5,395 adults with minimal depressive symptoms found that social media use led to increased depressive symptoms, with certain social media platforms affecting more people than others.
For example, those younger than 35 experienced depression when using Facebook, while people over the age of 35 experienced depressive symptoms after using TikTok and Snapchat.
Some people can also develop addictions to social networking sites from the time they spend on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
While there’s no official diagnosis of “social media addiction,” excessive use of social media is very common today, with an estimate of up to 10 percent of Americans meeting proposed criteria for a social media addiction.
Like other behavioral addictions, using social media influences your brain. According to a study by Harvard University, the use of social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance.
But can social media actually cause depression? Or is there just a correlation between a depressed mood and social media sites?
With multiple studies showing increases in depressive symptoms and anxiety, as well as lower self-esteem, with social media use, there is certainly a connection between social media and depression.
This may be because increased social media use can lead to increased FOMO — the fear of missing out.
When social media users see posts of lives that seem perfect, they may compare themselves to others. This can make people feel like they don’t measure up.
Social media can also give users a case of FOMO if they were invited on a trip but couldn’t go for some reason, or if they see an event they weren’t invited to at all. Social media users might feel hurt and left out and question their friendships or their self-worth.
Social media use can also lead to bullying, especially in younger people, which can increase the risk of developing depression. Social media bullying — or “cyberbullying” — has been connected to increased depression in adults as well.
More people may also engage in “doomscrolling,” the habit of binging bad news on social media sites.
A 2018 study found that one in five Americans get their news from social media rather than traditional print media, radio, TV, or even news websites and other digital media.
For people who have higher rates of time per day spent on social media, this means frequent exposure to news, including bad news.
This habit of doomscrolling can negatively affect one’s mental health, leading to the development of or increase in anxiety or a depressed mood.
A 2018 study found that those who logged onto Facebook before bedtime rated their happiness level 9 percent lower than those with better sleep hygiene did.
In general, consuming negative news can be connected to increased stress, anxiety and sadness. In the extreme, it can cause psychological distress.
Although the cause may be social media, the treatment options for depression are still the same. A range of safe, effective treatments are available for any type of depression.
Common treatments for depression include medication, psychotherapy, lifestyle and habit changes or some combination of the three.
While medication and therapy are often the first two recommended treatments for depression symptoms, certain lifestyle changes could prove very helpful when it comes to reducing the odds of depression caused by social media.
If social media consumption is a normal part of your day, taking a step back could benefit your mental health, especially if you’re feeling depressive symptoms after looking at Facebook or Instagram.
A study found that even taking a one-week break from social media could lead to significant improvements in anxiety, depression and overall well-being.
You don’t have to go cold turkey on social media to reduce your odds of depression. Set a timer when you’re on social media sites or apps to limit your minutes per day.. You can also install an app on your phone or computer that tracks how long you’ve spent on a social networking site.
Using social media apps first thing in the morning could potentially set a negative tone for the rest of your day. And — as research has found — using these apps at night could disrupt your sleep.
Try leaving your phone in another room or a drawer when you go to bed and use an old-school alarm clock.
Instead of reaching for your phone first thing when you wake up or before going to sleep, start a morning or evening ritual that can get you ready for the day or relaxed before bed.
Depression can often be treated via psychotherapy, often in combination with antidepressants. Several different types of therapy are used to treat depression, including interpersonal therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
As part of psychotherapy, you’ll talk with a qualified mental health care professional to identify and overcome the factors that may be contributing to your depression. Psychotherapy may help you to:
Work out how to solve problems and manage difficulties.
Identify beliefs, behaviors and thought processes that are contributing to your symptoms and work on replacing them with new ones.
Improve your feelings of satisfaction and take control of your depression symptoms.
Create healthy behaviors for dealing with setbacks, difficulties and distress.
Set achievable, realistic goals that you can work towards.
Most antidepressants work by changing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain that control your mood, appetite, sleep habits and other behaviors.
Several different types of antidepressants are available. Common antidepressants used to treat major depressive disorder and other forms of depression include:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).SSRIs are typically used as first-line medications for treating depression. SSRIs tend to be safer and less likely to cause side effects than older antidepressants. Common SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac®), sertraline (Zoloft®), paroxetine (Paxil®) and escitalopram (Lexapro®).
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). A relatively newer class of antidepressants, SNRIs are used to treat depression and other conditions, such as certain anxiety disorders. Common SNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta®) and venlafaxine (Effexor®).
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).Tricyclic antidepressants are an older type of antidepressant. TCAs aren’t typically used as a first-line treatment for depression but may be used if other antidepressants aren’t effective. Some TCAs are more likely to cause side effects and drug interactions compared to SSRIs and SNRIs. Examples of TCAs include Elavil® (amitriptyline) and Sinequan® (doxepin).
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). MAOIs are another older class of antidepressants. Although still in use today, they are less widely used than newer antidepressants due to their side effects and risk of interactions with other medications.
Atypical antidepressants. Certain antidepressants are referred to as atypical, as they don’t fit into any of the specific categories listed above. A common atypical antidepressant is bupropion (Wellbutrin XL®), a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI).
Most antidepressants require several weeks to start working properly. It may take a few weeks to see improvements in reducing the odds of mood. Sometimes, you may need to try several antidepressants before you find the medication that’s best for you.
For some people, there may be a causal relationship between social media and depression. But you’re struggling with social media depression, know that it’s treatable.
From medications to therapy and lifestyle changes, there are steps you can take to treat depressive symptoms and work towards recovery.
If you’re worried that you might have depression, consult with a licensed health provider to discuss your symptoms and find the right treatment option for you.
Start your mental wellness journey today.