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. 

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

* indicates required


Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.


Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

Katherine’s website:

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on, and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

* indicates required



Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619.

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt