Is social media destroying our mental health?

Earlier this year I was interviewed for a piece in DigitalSpy about about social media and our mental health. Following the publication of research by the BBC today showing the rising issue of self-harm I thought I’d share the thoughts that I prepared for my interview. 

Would you say that there needs to be more awareness around the potential effect that social media can have on a person’s mental health? 

Yes definitely. A few of the impacts include:

Normalising harmful behaviours– social media can also normalise dangerous behaviours such as self-harm and even suicide. This is something that has been brought up as an ever increasing issue with a report from the BBC today stating that there ‘has been an “alarming” rise in the rates of self-harm in England.’

Continued exposure to messages of any sort makes them seem far more ordinary and as a result such behaviours become incorporated into the everyday elements of how people live their lives. They are accepted as opposed to being seen as something harmful. Research also shows that self-harming behaviours are contagious. In a real-world setting this may mean that they spread to two or three people but online this contagion can quickly spread to thousands of youngsters. 

The cumulative effect – on mental health. A bit like filling up a glass of water a drop at a time. Each drop may seem inconsequential but eventually the glass will overflow. This is the way in which social media can, for some, eat away their well-being. For example, self-esteem is lowered through comparison – seeing other people living happier more connected lives than us can make us feel socially isolated in contrast (Shensa et al., 2016). Another example is the way in which stress iteratively adds up. Stress from remaining constantly alert for new social media messages triggers our fight or flight system releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Over time this leads to chronic stress which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression. Similar stress levels can also be triggered by the constant need to project an unrealistic image within our social network. Always trying to look like we’re having fun, doing interesting things, travelling etc as a result, ‘our profiles reflect how we want to be perceived, rather than showing an honest picture of who we truly are’ which eats away at self-worth and causes identity diffusion.  

Addictive nature– we all know how hard it can be to put down our phones once we start scrolling through twitter, Instagram or any other platform. This becomes similar fodder as for addictive behaviour as drinking, smoking or over eating. 

Advice from non-experts– while it’s great that everyone now has a voice, the issue is that people who have no real expertise are dishing out advise to anyone who will listen. We are swayed by number of followers rather than proficiency of who is delivering a message. The biggest problem when it comes to this is psychological advice being doled out by people who (however well-meaning) are not trained. This can lead to people going down completely the wrong track with their thinking and behaviour which can cause or exacerbate a whole range of mental health issues. 

Would you say that there are any links to social media behaviour and a rise in any particular mental health issues?

Yes, the research shows that there are links to both anxiety and depression. One study carried out in 2017, which looked at over 12,000 young people found a statistically significant correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms. Another study conducted by psychologist Dr. Mark Becker, of Michigan State University, found a 70% increase in self- reported depressive symptoms among a group using social media and a 42% increase in social anxiety. 

Research has also found that when we focus time on building social media networks it can negatively impact our ‘real life relationships’ with our close family and friends. Our time is spent with virtual connections which tend to be more superficial in nature. As a result we begin to lose the social support available to us in real terms and that social connection is essential to living a fulfilled and emotionally resilient life. A number of studies have shown that these virtual connections can even result in long-term emotional and psychological problems. Dr. Steven Strogatz, a professor at Cornell for example worries that social media is creating a growing confusion between our weak ties (e.g. people who might be useful in referring us to a good restaurant) and our strong ties (close family and friends).  Strogatz says “The distinction between genuine friends and acquaintances is becoming blurred. Users are spending more time maintaining relationships with people they don’t really care about.” 

In addition to all that’s been mentioned above other issues linked to social media include: use of devises close to bedtime resulting in poorer sleep quality (which impacts mental health), negative impact of body image creating poor self-esteem and anxiety and of course vicious bullying enabled by anonymity and a lack of social accountability. 

One study sums up the current situation up well by saying that ‘despite the positive benefit of rapid information sharing, social media can and does lead to increased issues with mental health’. With most large-scale empirical work in this area suggesting associations between social media use and increased symptoms of depression and anxietyand decline in subjective well-being (e.g. Andreassen et al., 2016; Block et al., 2014; Kross et al., 2013; L. Y. Lin et al., 2016; Woods & Scott, 2016). It’s unrealistic to suggest that we don’t use social media or that there are no benefits. We should however be mindful of how much time we (and our kids) spend on it, how we (and our kids) use it and make sure that we (and our kids) still invest time to building our real-life relationships.


Fast fame…

In March I was interviewed for a piece in DigitalSpy about reality TV and how it impacts contestants. Following the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show this week I thought I’d share the thoughts that I prepared for my interview (link for the article is at the end). 

Reality TV shows such as Love Island and Big Brother can create overnight celebrities – what kind of impact could this have on an individual’s mental wellbeing? 

Research shows that even fame that occurs via organic growth can be hard to deal with. For example, one study in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology looked at well-known American celebrities finding that many stars find ‘themselves ill-equipped for and struggling with the deluge of attention that comes with fame.’  It’s an unfamiliar world where all eyes are suddenly on that person. This is for people pursuing a career in acting or music for example, not necessarily in it for the fame itself. When people enter reality TV a large part, if not their only driver is fame, but that doesn’t mean they know what to expect if and when they get it. 

The sudden fame can feel confusing like they’ve literally lost ownership of their own life. More mainstream celebrities report feeling like they are no longer a person but instead become a ‘thing’, an object that people can comment on and obsess over without any consideration of the person beneath. Suddenly they cannot just go anywhere and do anything without being recognised which may at first feel exciting but can quickly feel extremely threatening.  Ultimately this can result in a hyper vigilance of people who want to befriend them and a mistrust of others intentions. In turn leading to isolation not just from a ‘normal’ social network but from anyone who may be able to understand what they are going through. 

There’s been talk of feelings of a ‘come down’ after the show, can you offer any insight into what this might mean and why it could be experienced by contestants?

Being on a reality TV show involves close knit interaction with other people over an extended period, a high level of competition and an awareness that you’re constantly being ‘observed’ or performing. All of these things trigger various mechanisms within the brain releasing a flood of different neurochemicals. For example, one neurochemical, oxytocin is released when we’re in social groups such as the groups ‘created’ on reality TV. Oxytocin is linked to human bonding and makes us feel really good. Another neurochemical, adrenaline, is released in response to constant pressure and competition such as that found on reality TV. A surge of adrenaline makes us feel alive, it’s literally exhilarating. 

When the show ends these neurochemicals stop being released and contestants will feel like being taken off a drug that makes them feel good. A bit like sobering up after a fun drunken night out. Added to which they will most likely have feelings of sudden isolation. They have left an intense social setting where they are with people 24/7, experiencing exactly the same things as them to being alone or with people who haven’t been through the same thing and cannot empathise with that experience. This will at times feel daunting and very lonely. 

On top of all of this, contestants have gone from having a clear goal to focus on – winning or staying in until the end, to nothing. They leave the show and there is nothing concrete to look forward to. They suddenly lack purpose which makes anyone feel at a great loss and can generate feelings of anxiety and even depression. 

Social media trolling seems to be a real issue, particularly when viewers form an opinion based on what they have seen on television – how could this affect someone that’s suddenly receiving an influx of negative comments? 

Firstly, the television show itself removes the context around conversations. It’s easy to see how something can be warped in completely the wrong way without the entire circumstance being clear.

An article written called ‘Perspectives on Context’ written by Professor Paul Bate gives illustrations of how take things out of context plays out. 

‘In the National Post in 2008, details of a murder were published :

“a man fatally shot his wife in the chest and got away with it”.

Our reaction is an immediate sense of outrage at the ills of modern society.

However, the reality is that the accused was an elderly man diagnosed with a terminal illness, married for many years to a woman who had developed Alzheimer’s disease. He was fearful she would suffer unduly without his care. Knowing, too, that his own death was imminent, he chose to end her life.

Or another simple example

If a man in the street starts yelling “move” it’s rude, but it’s what you would want someone to be shouting if someone was yielding a gun or a building near you was about to collapse. 

Within a TV editing suite many things can be taken out of context for the purposes of exciting viewing but to the detriment of contestants. 

Secondly social media itself doesn’t provide context or meaning and allows people to make comments that we just wouldn’t face to face in ‘real’ social settings – for fear of upsetting someone and having to deal with the consequences. In addition, in ‘real’ life only one or two people are able to speak to us at one point of time, then the conversation moves on building on what has come before or how responses have been made. On social media everyone can pile in at once, without any regard for any of the other comments made and not allowing ‘the person’ themselves to respond. In short, social media removes the natural barriers a) allowing raw cruelty without any social consequences for the commentator b) an unnatural number of responses which in ‘real life’ just wouldn’t be possible c) no context allowing perceptions to be skewed and d) allows no natural retort or defence to alter the course of the conversation. This can have a massively negative impact on an individual. 

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Teenager in a Toxic World

The number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67% between 2010 and 2017. At the same time the number of US teens who experienced symptoms of depression rose 33%.  Researchers have found that this rise is directly proportional to an increase in smart phone usage and thereby social media.

I became interested in psychology when trying to find the solution to my own issues as a teenager. Being a troubled teen is nothing new. What is worryingly ‘new’ is the impact that our world is having on this susceptible group. This scares, no terrifies me – I have two daughters, one about to enter her teenage years plus a nephew and niece knocking on the door of adolescence.

Taking social media specifically, how and why is it having such a massive impact? A simple framework to remind us how to protect our mental health is the 5 a day. Below I’ve explained how social media undermines each of these factors and written some brief suggestions for parents of teens (although the same applies to adults – for more click here).

Connecting with Others– is essential to our emotional well-being. You could say it’s as important as the air we breath is to our physical being. Without connection, we live continually in survival mode (i.e. stressed out). Our brain evolved to depend on others and to belong to a group.

Social media allows us to connect – to message, to re-connect with old friends, to make new ones, to share worries, but not at the level our brain requires. Take for example the neurotransmitter Oxytocin which plays a critical role in bonding with others, underlies trust and regulates social interaction. Oxytocin also acts as an ‘antidote to depressive feelings’. This is so important in teenagers that their brain actually increases the volume of receptors for Oxytocin. But social media doesn’t stimulate the release of Oxytocin in the way that face-to-face interaction does, hence leaving an immediate void.

Added to this adolescence provides the platform to develop emotional intelligence. Each interaction provides a tiny subconscious lesson which enables the brain to fine tune understanding through trial and error. Without this the brain just doesn’t learn. As a result, it becomes more difficult to connect with people in the real world. The knock-on effect of this that it limits a teens ability to communicate issues, worries and concerns which is essential to prevent anxieties spiralling out of control.


– Encourage them to invite their friends round to your house and  to leave their phones in the kitchen.

– Socialise as a family, perhaps invite friends with similar age teens. Then encourage everyone to put their phones down including the adults.

Giving Back. Social media provides a barrier to giving back. While a teen may encourage another friend to ‘follow’ someone or make comments like ‘you are my bestie’ this doesn’t stimulate the bits of the brain that giving a hug or listening to a friend pouring out their heart does. Giving back has the most positive impact on the brain when it’s done in real life.


– Encourage your teen to think of ways that they can give back. It may be as simple as being kind to or helping a sibling with homework.

Learning and Curiosity. It’s easy to get lost for hours scrolling through Instagram images or a twitter feed but that doesn’t teach us much other than who said what to whom and what Kim Kardashian is wearing. Learning, being curious and digging deeper are just not encouraged by social media. It is by its very nature meant to be quick and surface level, not reflective and deep.


– Help your teen find the things that they love in ‘real life’ and encourage them to investigate (curiosity) opportunities to do those things, then help make that possible.

Being Mindful in brain terms means disengaging from the busy chatter in the emotional, reactive part of our brain. However social media actually stimulates the fast thinking bit of the brain having the opposite effect to being mindful. Without carrying out mindful activities (e.g. singing, colouring, walking outside) we cannot develop the ability of the more advanced areas of our brain to manage our emotions. This provides another mechanism by which anxiety and mental ill health can take hold.


– Help them to understand what being mindful means and explore the what works for them . For example, my eldest daughter likes colouring but cannot stand listening to the ‘mindfulness app’ where as my youngest wants to listen to ‘the man’ (i.e. Headspace) most bed times.

Physical activity is something else our physiology has evolved to thrive on. Being active rids our bodies and brains of harmful chemicals such as the stress hormone cortisol. It’s hard however to be active and use social media at the same time. Good in that getting active limits our phone use, bad in that more social media means more chemical toxins build up in the brain.


– Get them outside doing something physically active. Encourage them to try different things until they find something they love.

In short – social media is bad for mental health and particularly harmful to teenagers. The easiest antidote is to think through how our brain and body evolved to live and encourage anything that fits with that e.g. being outside, spending hours sitting and chatting to friends, exploring……I’d love to hear your thoughts.


There are many other exacerbating factors when it comes to social media, including but not limited to:

  • negative images normalising behaviours such as anxiety, self-harm and suicide
  • real life social norms being removed allowing people to be bullied and trolled
  • the addictive nature of social media drawing away from ‘real life’
  • the number of likes and followers becoming an obsessional measurement of who we are

My book Defining You which is about understanding yourself better (to improve both mental health and performance) via a range of psychological tools, is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as Elsewhere it’s available on, and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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