Human beings are social creatures. They thrive on their connections and relationships with others and these connections have a huge impact on their mental health and happiness. Being socially connected can help ease depression, anxiety, boost self-esteem, ward off loneliness, and even add years to life. Likewise, lacking these social connections can pose a serious risk to your mental and physical health. Nowadays, many people rely on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and YouTube to connect and find others. While this approach has also some unique benefits associated with it, it can never replace real-life connections and human-to-human interactions. In-person contact is what is required for the release of hormones that can alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression and its absence can lead to feelings of isolation. This paper is an attempt to discuss the very same problem and explores how the use of social media can lead to loneliness and exacerbates mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. The first two sections of the paper discuss the relationship between loneliness and social media. The third section of the paper discusses the relationship between social media and depression. The fourth section of the paper discusses the relationship between social media and self-esteem. The fifth section of the paper discusses the phenomenon of social media addiction and its implications.
Loneliness and Social Media
Social networking sites (SNS) have become an essential part of our lives, especially those of young adults. A survey conducted in 2018 showed that 78% of Americans had a Facebook account and 75% of them were regular users. Moreover, 78% of young adults used Instagram and 71% of them used Snapchat (Hunt et al., 2018). Widespread use of social media has prompted scholars to carry out studies aimed at determining the relationship between mental health and the use of social media. Many studies have established a positive correlation between social media usage and symptoms of depression and anxiety, both directly and indirectly. Similarly, a positive correlation has also been found between Facebook usage alone with low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness and higher usage of Instagram is associated with body image issues (Hunt et al., 2018). In another large-population-based study, it was revealed that screen time is associated with more depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. Another study that used experience sampling that Facebook usage can lead to decreased satisfaction with life over time. Similarly, a study dedicated to determining how social media or Facebook decreases life satisfaction revealed that this effect is mediated by social comparison or peer envy. These findings, supporting the relationship between peer envoy/social comparison and social media, have been supported by many other studies, too (Hunt et al., 2018). Therefore, there is considerable evidence to support the notion that social media use is associated with a reduction in life satisfaction, which, in turn, leads to anxiety and depression. However, it is also possible that people having lower self-esteem are more prone to seek social comparison through social media sites, and, similarly, people who are lonely and lack a meaningful social life are more vulnerable to resorting to the use of social media to connect with others (Hunt et al., 2018). To get a broader picture of these dynamics and reach a solid conclusion, Hunt et al. (2018) also conducted an experimental study, discussed below.
A total of 143 undergraduate students were recruited for this study from the University of Pennsylvania. Out of 143 participants, only 35 were men. The study was conducted over the course of two semesters, with 72 students participating from the fall semester and 71 students participating from the spring semester. All of the participants recruited were taking psychology classes and were also awarded credits for participating in the study. The criteria for the selection of participants was simple. Participants were required to have Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram on their phone, and own an iPhone. A variety of well-being constructs were used that were found to have been associated with social media usage in previous studies. The social constructs that were used include social support, fear of missing out, loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-acceptance. The participants were asked to email screenshots of their iPhone battery usage at specified increments to track social media usage. iPhone has an in-built system of tracking for how long each app has been remained open on the screen. Users are able to see their usage for the past 24 hours or 7 days on the battery screen. Participants were also taught how to access this screen to send the screenshot with every reminder (Hunt et al., 2018).
As already mentioned, this experimental study continued for two semesters, spring and fall. The participants were also divided into limited use groups and uncontrolled use groups. It is pertinent to mention here that members of the uncontrolled group were also directed to increase self-monitoring regarding their use of social media. The results showed that members of the limited use group showed a significant reduction in loneliness and depression over the course of three weeks compared to the other group. At the same time, both groups also showed a significant reduction in anxiety and fear of missing out, signaling that there are benefits of increased self-monitoring (Hunt et al., 2018). Based on their findings, Hunt et al. (2018) concluded that limiting the use of social media to only 30 minutes per day can reduce depression and anxiety and the reverse is also true.
Loneliness and Image-Based Social Media
As already mentioned in the introductory paragraph, social media usage should ostensibly help people in forming a connection with others, thereby reducing loneliness. Still, the problem of loneliness persists, even in societies where the use of social media is highest, such as the UK, US, etc. The statistics gathered from the survey of the Mental Health Foundation support this claim. According to the survey, 42% of British adults reported getting depressed due to loneliness, 45% reported feeling lonely at some point in their lives, and 48% believed that they are getting lonelier over time. Plus, to top it off, the same survey found that loneliness was more prevalent among people of the age group 18-34, which is associated with the highest social media usage (Pittman & Reich, 2016). Likewise, many notable American scholars have argued that the problem of loneliness in America is more serious than it was ever in whole American history despite that more Americans “devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history” (Pittman & Reich, 2016).
The advances in technology have made it possible for anyone having a phone and internet connection to send messages, make video calls, send audios, pictures, and even stream high definition video. Social media appeals to some of the basic needs of human needs, such as the need to belong and the need for self-representation (Pittman & Reich, 2016). Studies have suggested that lonely people are more likely to spend more time on social media to compensate for the absence of real-life relationships. Social media platforms have variegated forms of interaction, each of which, in its own way, help to combat loneliness and increase satisfaction with life. But each of them also has some shortcomings that can have the opposite effect, increasing feelings of loneliness and decreasing satisfaction with life (Pittman & Reich, 2016). To determine which social media platforms can play more role than others in decreasing or increasing loneliness Pittman & Reich (2016) conducted an important study.
The main aim of this study was to compare how image-based and text-based social networking sites can impact loneliness among their users. For this purpose, two image-based social media platforms, Facebook and Snapchat, and two text-based social media platforms, Twitter and Yik Yak, and their impact on loneliness were studied. The next paragraph entails a brief overview of how each of these platforms works.
Facebook was launched in 2004 allows users to share text, photos, and videos with one another. As of March 2014, there were almost 1.4 billion monthly active users of Facebook, and 936 million users use Facebook daily. Twitter, which was launched shortly after Facebook, is also a popular social media platform, which allows users to share 140-character “tweets,” which may be accompanied by a link to another website, or a photo/video. Snapchat, launched in 2011, allows users to send each other photos or videos that remain visible for only a few seconds (typically, from three to thirty seconds). Lastly, Yik Yak was released in 2013 and allows its users to create, view, and up- or down-vote ‘yaks.’ It is obvious from the description of these platforms that Facebook and Snapchat are image-based and the other two, Twitter and Yik Yak, are text-based (Pittman & Reich, 2016).
The authors hypothesized that while text-based would be ineffective in reducing loneliness due to the little intimacy they offer, image-based platforms would help reduce loneliness and increase satisfaction with life, owing to the enhanced intimacy they offer to their users. 253 participants were involved in the study and the authors used a mixed-design survey to test their hypothesis. Therefore, the study produced both qualitative and quantitative results, and both kinds of results were perfectly in line with the hypothesis, with quantitative results suggesting that image-based social media platforms may decrease loneliness and increase happiness and satisfaction with life. Likewise, qualitative results suggested that observed effects can be attributed to the enhanced intimacy that image-based social media platforms offer (Pittman & Reich, 2016).
Social Media and Depression
Several studies have made a direct connection between computer-mediated connection and symptoms of depression. There are many explanations why an obsessive social media user may tend to become depressed, as there are many factors that can lead to an already depressed individual resorting to the use of social media sites or increasing his/her of social media. Previous research has found that social media affects social relationships and hampers participation in community life (Pantic, 2014). The more a person spends time online, the lesser the time he will find to spend with his family, and can also reduce his social circle, which can further lead to feelings of loneliness and depression (Pantic, 2014). This research was then supported by other studies, too, which found that computer users can harm a child’s normal social development (Pantic, 2014).
These research studies were conducted at a time when many social media platforms were not available. With the introduction of new social media platforms, the time that adults and children are spending on social media has also increased. This has further exacerbated the problem of lack of interpersonal connection in family and wider society. As repeatedly mentioned, social media exposes a large number of people, but the interactions with these people are rarely intimate and cannot replace real-life relationships (Pantic, 2014). Pantic (2014), using the Beck Depression Inventory, found that there is a significant positive correlation between social media usage and depressive symptoms in high school students. At the same time, no such relation was reported between television and depressive symptoms. Similarly, a person’s subjective well-being and satisfaction with life can also be undermined as a result of the use of social media. Both of these contribute to the development of depressive signs and symptoms. Therefore, there is a direct link between social media use and depressive symptoms, along with reduced social circle and real-life communication opportunities (Pantic, 2014).
One of the reasons why social media use can contribute to depressive signs and symptoms is the fact that computer-mediated communication has a high potential of imparting a wrong impression of another person’s personality and traits. This may lead to inaccurate assumptions about other people’s intelligence, physical appearance, educational level, values, and other characteristics of online friends. A study conducted on 425 students, who use Facebook, from the University of Utah revealed that students who used Facebook more reported having feelings as if others are more successful and happier and that life is not fair (Pantic, 2014). Perceiving others as happy does not necessarily lead to depression, but people who already have certain depressive predispositions and psychiatric comorbidities may see their symptoms worsening. However, there is no conclusive evidence available that the use of social media can lead to depression or even a single symptom of depression (Pantic, 2014). Some authors have also suggested that the use of social media for communicating with friends and family may actually reduce depression. It has also been observed that when social media is used for strengthening ties with friends and family members, the resulting social support has a beneficial impact on mental health. On the other, the extensive use of social media outside the circle of family and friends may contribute to a decline of real-life relationships, which can result in loneliness and depression (Pantic, 2014).
Social Media and Self-Esteem
To simply put, self-esteem can be defined as how one perceives itself and to what degree one prizes himself. Self-esteem is very crucial for maintaining a healthy life and to improve the overall quality of life. Low self-esteem has been implicated in the etiology of many mental illnesses, such as depression, eating disorders, and addiction. Different studies have revealed different results regarding the relationship between social media use and self-esteem. One of the possible explanations for the relationship between social media and low self-esteem is that some platforms, where principal user activity is self-presentation, promote narcissistic behavior (Vogel et al., 2014).
The study conducted on 100 Facebook users of York University determined the connection between self-esteem and narcissistic personality self-reports. It was observed that individuals who had low self-esteem were more inclined to engage in self-promoting behavior online. On the other hand, some authors have also hinted that Facebook users can also help one to develop high self-esteem. In a study where participants were exposed to three different settings, exposure to a mirror, exposure to one’s own Facebook profile, and a controlled setting, and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale was used to measure the self-esteem of participants in each setting, results showed the positive effects of Facebook on self-esteem. The results also reinforced the Hyperpersonal Model, which suggests that self-promotion has positive effects on self-esteem (Vogel et al., 2014).
Therefore, the overall relationship between social networking sites and self-esteem is very complex. Some behaviors that social media promotes such as self-evaluation on daily basis, comparing yourself with others, gaining an inaccurate picture of other’s capabilities/intelligence/behaviors, jealousy, narcissism – all of them have the potential to impact the person’s self-esteem both negatively and positively. Despite many pieces of research dedicated to this field, any sound conclusion remains elusive (Vogel et al., 2014).
Online Social Network Addiction
Addiction to online social networking, along with addiction to the Internet in general, is one of the most frequently debated phenomena. The addictive nature of the social networking sites is apparent from the fact that their users tend to be preoccupied with what is going on these sites and in doing so, they become neglectful of immediate happenings, such as friends and family. Additionally, some studies have also suggested that if social media users are immediately stripped of access to social networking sites, they show symptoms similar to what is observed during drug/alcohol/nicotine abstinence syndrome (Hawi & Samaha, 2017).
The potential of social networking sites as an addiction disorder has been discussed in many publications. In 2012, some researchers came up with their so-called Facebook Addiction Scale, based on 18 items in total. The testing features of this scale include salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse. This scale was used on a sample of almost 423 students, along with some other questionnaires related social behaviors of participants. The test showed that students had relatively high reliability and the term Facebook addiction proved to be applicable to participants (Hawi & Samaha, 2017).
More recently, some researchers also developed The Internet Addiction Questionnaire to determine the extent of internet addiction in the student population. The students were also tested for sleep quality using the Pittsburgh Sleep Index. The study revealed that Facebook dependence can possibly be implicated in a poor quality of sleep. Though evidence regarding the extent of the relationship between Facebook use and impaired everyday functioning remains inconclusive for normal users, it is clear that chronic Facebook use can lead to problems in normal everyday functioning. Nevertheless, neither Internet addiction nor social networking addiction has been made into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is, however, pertinent to mention here that so-called internet addiction and social networking addiction often co-exists with other mental health problems. Therefore, it also remains unclear whether it is the component of other mental illnesses or an independent mental illness. This implies that more research is needed in this regard to get a complete picture of social networking addiction (Hawi & Samaha, 2017).
This paper discussed the relationship between social media and the different aspects of mental health. The first section of the paper discussed the relationship between social media and loneliness. It was seen that since social media cannot replace real-life relationships, it often leads to loneliness. It was also seen that excessive use of social media renders the user with less time available for family and friends leading to loneliness, which, in turn, is associated with depressive signs and symptoms. The second section of the paper also discussed the relationship between social media and loneliness, albeit in terms of comparison between image-based and text-based social networking sites. It was seen that image-based social networking sites can actually reduce loneliness due to the enhanced intimacy they offer. The third section of the paper discussed the relationship between social media and depression. It was seen that social media can lead to depression, owing to the fact that it prompts users to engage in self-comparison behaviors. It was also seen that if social media is used for enhancing relationships between family and friends, it can reduce depressive signs and symptoms. The fourth section of the paper discussed the relationship between self-esteem and social media use. It was seen that social media can both help improve and deteriorate the self-esteem of a user and current literature presents no conclusive evidence in this regard. The fifth section of the paper explored the possibility of the presence of social networking addiction. It was seen that social media can lead to impaired normal daily functioning in chronic users, at least.