Using Social Media: Is it therapeutic?

Photo by from Pexels

Photo by from Pexels

There are many health benefits to social interaction and belonging. To learn more, see our article Four Surprising Benefits of Social Wellness. Many people, however, may not have the time in their hectic schedules and among many responsibilities to reap these benefits.  They also may not feel comfortable talking to their friends and families about some personal issues, nor feel like journaling is for them. One outlet they may instead turn to is social media.

Social media has both supported and led to the detriment of social interaction. On the one hand, there are many social wellness benefits of social media, including its ability to connect, educate, and help others. [1] Specifically, “results from hierarchical regression analyses indicated that individuals' use of communication apps was helpful for increasing social capital and that this effect of using communication apps was stronger among those of the millennial generation than among older users. Moreover, bonding and bridging social capital was found to reduce individuals' social isolation significantly.” [2] Even self-harm and suicide websites can be, “sources of empathy and understanding, as communities, and as a way of coping with social and psychological distress. These discourses gave users access to important, socially valued identities, such as being understood, belonging to a community and coping with their problems.” [3] Under these circumstances, social media can indeed be therapeutic for people seeking belonging and social support.

On the other hand, there are also many harmful effects of social media. The major drawbacks of social media use include sleep deprivation, mental health issues, and depression. Among teens, “adolescents who used social media more - both overall and at night - and those who were more emotionally invested in social media experienced poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression.” [4] These effects don’t only apply to younger people, though.

To see how screen time affects sleep of all ages, see our How Important is Sleep for Wellness? article.

Self-esteem, specifically, is affected because “recent correlational studies reveal that social media use is linked to body image and appearance concerns among both men and women.” [5] Much of this results in dissatisfaction with high standards of beauty proliferating on these platforms. And “the development of unhealthy weight control practices can result from body dissatisfaction, such as strict or chronic dieting, excessive exercise, and steroid use” [6] Nonetheless, these platforms are aware of these problems and taking active measures to curb unhealthy practices. For instance, over a year ago, “Instagram… banned hashtags such as ‘thinspiration’ and ‘proanorexia’ because Instagram views them as actively promoting self‐harm.” [7] Beyond self-esteem, though, social media use has also been associated with mental health issues.

Anxiety, depression, body dissatisfaction, and self-esteem can all be considered the mental health issues associated with social media use. One study found that “the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to suffer from mental illness. The most important concerns are decreased self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety, feelings of inferiority, declined focus in work, etc.” [8] Among teenagers, “adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely.” [9] Many other studies confirm this “statistically significant correlation between amount of social interaction and individual mental health.” [10] This data is striking because it seems to contradict the beneficial aspects discussed above.

The key is in realizing the way social media is used. For example, if used to actively engage and network with other people (social use), social media is healthy. However, if just passively scrolling, consuming news and entertaining (process use), social media becomes detrimental. Studies have “discovered the association between anxiety symptoms was stronger with process versus social smartphone use. Depression symptom severity was negatively associated with greater social smartphone use. Process smartphone use was more strongly associated with problematic smartphone use. Finally, process smartphone use accounted for relationships between anxiety severity and problematic smartphone use.” [11] In other words, it comes down to influence. Some spaces on social media are good influences for those seeking social support (which helps explain the data showing the positive benefits), but other websites have negative influences and can exasperate the feelings of isolation and depression people already have. This is the same in real life, where people can have positive and negative consequences on our wellbeing. While our best friend and immediate family can serve to boost our wellness, other friends, associates, coworkers, or bosses may serve as significant sources of stress or become models for deviant or unhealthy behaviors.” [12]

If social media is your go-to space for meeting your social wellness needs, then, be sure to maximize social use and minimize process use. How do you use social media?

Whether real life connecting or virtual, the specific steps in increasing social wellness may still allude you. I was confounded for years, which is why I’ve created an article about my own journey in social wellness: 4 Tips for Increasing your Social Wellness. Check it out if you think it could benefit you, too.


[1] Akram, W., and R. Kumar. "A Study on Positive and Negative Effects of Social Media on Society." International Journal of Computer Sciences and Engineering 5, no. 10 (2017): 351-54. p. 352.

[2] Cho, Jaehee. "Roles of Smartphone App Use in Improving Social Capital and Reducing Social Isolation." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 18, no. 6 (2015): 350-55. doi:10.1089/cyber.2014.0657. p. 350.

[3] Baker, Darren, and Sarah Fortune. "Understanding Self-Harm and Suicide Websites." Crisis 29, no. 3 (2008): 118-22. p. 118.

[4] Woods, Heather Cleland, and Holly Scott. "#Sleepyteens: Social Media Use in Adolescence Is Associated with Poor Sleep Quality, Anxiety, Depression and Low Self-esteem." Journal of Adolescence 51 (2016): 41-49. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008.P. 41. .

[5] Perception of Beauty. InTech, 2017. P.151.

[6] Ibid. P. 149.

[7] Ibid. P. 153.

[8] Tripathi, Manikant & Singh, Shiwangi & Ghimire, Soni & Shukla, Seema & Kumar, Shailendra. (2018). Effect of Social Media on Human Health. Virology & Immunology Journal. 2. 1-3. p. 2.

[9] Twenge, Jean M., Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, and Gabrielle N. Martin. "Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time." Clinical Psychological Science 6, no. 1 (2017): 3-17. doi:10.1177/2167702617723376.P. 3.

[10] Ono, Eisuke & Nozawa, Takayuki & Ogata, Taiki & Motohashi, Masanari & Higo, Naoki & Kobayashi, Tetsuro & Ishikawa, Kunihiro & Ara, Koji & Yano, Kazuo & Miyake, Yoshihiro. (2011). Relationship between social interaction and mental health. 2011 IEEE/SICE International Symposium on System Integration, SII 2011. 246-249. P. 248.

[11] Elhai, Jon D., Jason C. Levine, Robert D. Dvorak, and Brian J. Hall. "Non-social Features of Smartphone Use Are Most Related to Depression, Anxiety and Problematic Smartphone Use." Computers in Human Behavior 69 (2017): 75-82. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.023.p. 75.

[12] Uchino, Bert N. 2006. “Social Support and Health: A Review of Physiological Processes Potentially Underlying Links to Disease Outcomes.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 29 (4): 377–87. P. 383.