Is Social Media Bad for Your Mental Health?

In this digital era, where people are more interconnected than ever through advancement in technology and social media, research has revealed that we are also lonelier than ever before (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2018). Social media can sometimes incite negative emotions as well, such as anxiety, envy and depressive mood. For instance, the word ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out) is coined to describe the anxious feeling you get when you feel other people might be having a good time without you, which is exacerbated by social media. Researchers have found that being passive instead of active on social media may cause negative emotions.

Take a look at your Instagram following list. Do you personally know all the people you are following? A research conducted by Lup, Trub, and Rosenthal in 2015 revealed that the association between Instagram use and depressive symptoms is moderated by how many strangers one follows, that is, at higher levels of strangers followed, greater Instagram use was associated with higher depressive symptoms. On the contrary, at lower levels of strangers followed, greater Instagram use was associated with less depressive symptoms. Researchers suggested that the amount of strangers followed serves as a predictor of negative social comparison, which in turn moderates the depressive mood experienced, while using Instagram. It is suggested that when it comes to strangers, we place undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain the happiness they exhibit on social media, whereas for people we know personally, the effect is counterbalanced by knowing how they might actually feel.This is why we are more prone to make unhealthy social comparison with strangers.

Other researchers revealed that ‘active use’ versus ‘passive use’ of social media may affect our subjective well-being differently. Researchers discovered that loneliness is reduced when users engage actively, and loneliness is increased when only passive features, like retweeting postings, are used (Matook, Cummings & Bala, 2015). They described such passive behaviors as ‘social surveillance’, which suggests alienation, distancing, and isolation. Other researchers suggested that passive use without direct exchanges poses detrimental effects on our subjective well-being, which can be explained by envy (Verduyn et al., 2015). On the other hand, active use of social media, i.e. direct communication with other users by posting, and commenting, is associated with greater feelings of bonding social capital (Burke, Marlow, & Lento, 2010).

The takeaway from these researches is, if we are using social media, make sure we are using it right. Keep the number of strangers we are following in check, and limit our time engaging in ‘social surveillance’, like scrolling through feeds obsessively without actively interacting with others.


Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010). Social network activity and social well-being. Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’10.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2018). Loneliness in the Modern Age: An Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness (ETL). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 127–197.

Lup, K., Trub, L., & Rosenthal, L. (2015). Instagram #Instasad?: Exploring Associations Among Instagram Use, Depressive Symptoms, Negative Social Comparison, and Strangers Followed. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(5), 247–252.

Matook, S., Cummings, J., & Bala, H. (2015). Are You Feeling Lonely? The Impact of Relationship Characteristics and Online Social Network Features on Loneliness. Journal of Management Information Systems, 31(4), 278–310.

Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., Ybarra, O., Jonides, J., & Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480–488.