Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/5/2022
The last fifteen years or so has seen a major shift in the way we consume information online.
While social media sites like MySpace and LiveJournal were hallmarks of the early 2000’s, and technically places we would go to interact with each other online, the combination of smartphones and newer social media platforms ushered in a new era during the latter half of that decade.
Online social spaces quickly transformed into places where we could scroll through everyone else’s fancy nights out, luxury weddings or travel adventures, right in the palms of our hands.
The onset of newer social media platforms also leveled the playing field and created a space where everyone could share their everyday lives with, well, anyone.
So, what is social media’s effect on our mental health? Well, as you’ve likely heard or might imagine, the news isn’t great.
Let’s talk about social media depression, its symptoms, and how you can seek treatment.
To understand social media depression, we need to first understand depression itself.
While feelings of sadness every now and again are a normal part of living life as a human, experiencing feelings of deep and persistent sadness for a period of two weeks or more can be a sign of major depressive disorder or clinical depression.
Sadness is not the only hallmark of depression, and in those who deal with the condition, it can be accompanied or replaced by feelings of low energy, hopelessness, guilt, irritability, anxiousness and self-harm — to name a few.
Overall, depression is a serious mood disorder that has the greatest negative impact on life expectancy out of all the mental health disorders. As such, depressive feelings have a major impact on a person’s quality of life.
If you find yourself experiencing the symptoms listed here for more than two weeks, it's important to get in touch with a mental health professional to have yourself evaluated.
Your provider will help determine the severity of your depression, which could range between mild depression, moderate depression and severe depression.
Social media depression is depression that is associated with the use of social media.
You may be scratching your head at this one due to how frequently the negative effects of social media have been discussed in the last few years. Intuitively, it might feel like the phrase “social media depression” should refer to depression caused by social media.
The truth is that while there have been a number of studies that have looked at the relationship between social media and depression, the general consensus is that there is only a strong correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms.
However, more research is needed to see if social media use actually causes depression, or if individuals who experience depressive symptoms are just more likely to use social media platforms.
So why would someone who is depressed be more likely to use social media?
Researchers think that it could be due to a number of factors, such as:
A person with depression may try to garner interactions on social media to increase their sense of self worth.
A person may be stuck in a cycle of feeling guilty about their level of social media use, while also believing they lack the control to stop or slow down, resulting in them using the platform anyway.
A depressed person might use social media as a replacement for face-to-face interactions.
One other interesting finding from a cross-sectional study is that when social media use increases, depression rates increase alongside it.
Correlations that have been made between the use of social media and depression include:
Reductions in bonding and increases in loneliness in individuals who engage in passive social media use rather than active communication.
Scrolling through others’ “highlight reels,” resulting in the feeling that others live more successful and fulfilled lives. This can lead to increased symptoms of depression over time.
High amounts of social media screen time that can lead to feelings of having wasted time.
Overall, while previous studies have not necessarily proven a causation link between social media and depression, researchers have identified social media use as a depression risk factor.
We’ve now established that while social media depression is a term used quite widely, there isn’t strong proof showing that social media use actually causes depression.
Therefore, when the risk for depression as it relates to social media use is evaluated in studies, the symptoms measured are what we know to be the symptoms of depression itself.
In addition to the list we included earlier, symptoms of depression can include:
Weight changes, including both weight loss and weight gain
Difficulty staying concentrated
Feelings of worthlessness
Issues with sleeping too much, too little or falling asleep
Loss of interest in activities one once enjoyed
While these individual symptoms may be felt by the average person from time to time, depressive disorder is characterized by experiencing these feelings in a deep way for a minimum of two weeks straight.
Just as the symptoms of social-media-associated depression follow those of depressive disorder, so do treatment options.
However, since studies have found a correlation between increased social media use and increased risk of depression, it may be worth reducing the minutes per day you spend on social media to see if you notice an improvement in your mood.
Here are some of the available treatments for depression:
Talk therapy. In talk therapy, your mental health provider will work with you to identify possible triggers for your depression, and provide you with coping techniques to better handle it.
Self-help. Caring for yourself can go a long way toward treatment of depression. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and exercise, and be sure to eat well and drink water. And don’t forget to get your social time in, but not necessarily on social media.
Medication. Medications like antidepressants can go a long way toward treating depression symptoms.
Brain stimulation therapy. Typically reserved for people with extreme depression, this method uses electricity or magnets to stimulate the brain.
Alternative therapy. Holistic treatments like acupuncture and hypnosis can be used to treat depression.
While there is a link between social media use and depression, science hasn’t quite yet drawn the conclusion that social media is actually causing depression.
If you use social media quite a bit, it may also be wise to limit your use to see if that helps alleviate your depressive symptoms.
Ultimately, regardless of what may be causing your depression, know that treatment options are available, and it’s never too soon (or late!) to start.