Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If social media is the first thing you look at on your phone upon waking up, you’re not alone. About 72 percent of Americans are on at least one social media platform. But after looking at photos of parties, vacations and other moments, you might become more anxious. Does social media cause anxiety? Is social media anxiety a condition?
We’ll explore the relationship between social media and anxiety and whether social media causes anxiety.
First, an overview of anxiety before going into detail on the topic of social media causing anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are mental disorders that affect the way you think, feel and behave.
While anxiety in stressful situations is normal, people with anxiety disorders experience persistent and oftentimes severe anxiety that can occur in other situations.
Anxiety disorders are very common, affecting over 40 million American adults every year.
The most common types of anxiety disorders are:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can cause excessive or persistent feelings of anxiety or worry. GAD affects 6.8 million adults in the United States. People with generalized anxiety disorder may have excessive anxiety about their health, work, social interactions and daily life.
Social anxiety disorder. Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder can cause intense fear or anxiety of being judged, viewed negatively or rejected in social situations. Social anxiety disorder is very common, affecting 15 million U.S. adults. People with social anxiety disorder may experience sweating, trembling, racing heart, trouble making eye contact or being around people they don’t know and feeling self-conscious.
Panic disorder.Panic disorder can cause people to experience sudden, recurrent panic attacks, either randomly or after being exposed to a trigger. Panic attacks may involve a pounding or accelerated heartbeat, trembling, sweating, feelings of being out of control and other symptoms. Around 6 million people are affected by panic disorder and women are twice as likely as men to be affected.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).OCD is a disorder where someone experiences uncontrollable, recurring thoughts and behaviors (obsessions and compulsions). People with OCD may check certain things, wash their hands, clean their home or perform other “rituals” repetitively to provide relief from obsessive thoughts. Like other anxiety disorders, OCD can interfere with a person’s social or professional life and affect their relationships.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When someone has been through a scary or dangerous event, they may develop this condition. They continue to experience trauma symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of stress long after the event. Like many other anxiety disorders, women are more likely to be affected by PTSD than men.
Anxiety symptoms vary based on the type of anxiety disorder someone has. However, there are some common symptoms of anxiety such as:
Difficulty concentrating on anything other than current worries or concerns
Feeling nervous and restless
Tiredness or feeling weak
Gastrointestinal issues, such as stomachaches, cramps, diarrhea and/or constipation
Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
Avoiding people, objects or situations that may cause anxiety
Our overview of anxiety disorders explains more about what causes anxiety, who is at risk for developing anxiety and more.
How social media affects you depends on a variety of factors.
However, social media causing anxiety is a high probability.
A study of adolescents all under the age of 17 found that the teens who used social networking sites more overall as well as at night experienced lower self-esteem, poor sleep and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder such as social anxiety disorder, symptoms could be worsened.
A 2018 study suggests that social media use could result in a fear of missing out (FOMO).
This fear of missing out on certain events or activities can lead to comparison and turn into social anxiety symptoms if you feel like you don’t fit in.
According to a 2020 study, longer use of social networking sites may also be associated with increased symptoms of social anxiety and may be more significant if you passively use the platform.
So if you only use social media to see what others post, you may be more likely to develop social anxiety symptoms.
Another small study on 75 Facebook users also found greater social anxiety symptoms were associated with spending more time on the social media site.
Research also suggests that once on social networking sites, other stressors that increase anxiety and depressive symptoms may occur.
For example, a study found that those with generalized anxiety disorder were more likely to make upward comparisons while on social media — comparing themselves unfavorably with others — which can make them even more anxious than before.
The amount of time spent using social networking sites can also affect anxiety levels.
A 2016 study found that more time spent using social media was significantly associated with greater symptoms of anxiety in young adults (ages 18 to 22).
Another survey of over 1,700 young adults aged 19 to 32 years found that social media use was frequently associated with elevated depression symptoms, which can co-exist with anxiety.
So, how does social media cause anxiety exactly?
There are ways social networking sites influence how you think, feel and behave.
Rewarding social stimuli — positive recognition by our peers or messages from loved ones — releases dopamine, the body’s “feel good” hormone.
Social media can give us an unlimited amount of social stimuli, both positive and negative.
When we receive a “like”, positive comment or new followers on social media, we can also receive a boost of dopamine. However, when social networking sites don’t provide us with positive social stimuli, we’re not getting as much dopamine from one source.
But we don’t know whether or not we’ll get a dopamine boost when we check social media, prompting us to check more often.
Similar to a slot machine at a casino, social media uses a reward pattern designed to keep you as engaged as possible — the more often you try the slot machine or check social networking sites, the more likely you’ll get a reward.
Since these “rewards” are delivered to us randomly and checking social media is free, we check more often, a feature of our brain known as reward prediction error.
Unexpected rewards increase dopamine and become positive feedback signals associated with the behavior that came before it. For example, we receive a “like” on a photo and also receive a dopamine boost as well as a cue to check social media for more dopamine.
If we don’t receive the “like”, dopamine activity drops and weakens the positive association we had with the activity of checking social media.
As social networking sites have changed over the years, there are more ways to receive positive social stimuli and dopamine boosts. And therefore, more ways social media causes anxiety.
Although social media may exacerbate anxiety symptoms, treating anxiety disorders is still very possible.
Most anxiety disorders improve over time when properly treated. A typical treatment may involve medication, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes, such as stress management techniques and the use of anxiety prevention habits.
Lifestyle changes are one way to treat anxiety symptoms so limiting the amount of time spent on social networking sites could help improve your symptoms.
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 more anxious after looking at Facebook or Instagram.
A small study involving 154 participants 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 even have to go completely cold turkey. Simply setting a timer or installing an app to track how long you spend on certain social networking sites can help you cut back.
Many anxiety disorders can be treated through psychotherapy, or “talk therapy.” Two common forms of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves learning different methods of thinking and reacting to sources of anxiety.
Exposure therapy involves being exposed to situations or objects which may trigger or worsen anxiety in a safe environment. It’s often combined with relaxation techniques to reduce stress and allow people to overcome their underlying fears.
Therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for anxiety. A mental health professional will work with you to provide the most suitable and effective option for your symptoms and needs.
Using social networking sites first thing in the morning or right before bed could potentially set a negative tone for the rest of your day and 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.
Although medication doesn’t cure anxiety, it’s often used to help manage anxiety and keep anxiety symptoms under control.
If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider may recommend using one or several medications.
Some examples of medications used to treat anxiety disorders include:
You can learn more medications for anxiety in our complete guide.
Relaxing has been proven to help with anxiety.
Try yoga, meditation or visualization techniques to relax, especially when you’re feeling overly stressed, anxious or worried about something.
While it may be everywhere, social media anxiety doesn’t have to be a condition you struggle with.
You can seek help from a mental health professional to talk about the effects social media has on you.
Start your mental wellness journey today.