The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media


Lisa Huntsburg

November 14, 2022


How often are you using social media? This question may be difficult to answer.  Many of us reach for our mobile devices and hop on social media without even thinking about it. This pattern of behaviour can occur as soon as we wake up, with a quick scroll through social media to start our day. Here’s another question - could these routines be impacting our mental health?

The impact of social media on our mental health is currently a popular topic. This is likely due to its widespread use - in 2022, it was estimated that 58.4% of the world’s population (4.62 billion people!) are active social media users. So far, research has identified some concerning impacts of social media use on mental health:

  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Poor body image
  • Low mood
  • Increased stress
  • Increased isolation
  • Suicide


Why do we reach for social media?

If social media can harm our mental wellness, then why do we continue to use it? It turns out that social media can affect our brain chemistry. When we receive a notification on a social media platform, our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as a “feel-good” chemical signal that reinforces behaviours. We experience a similar release when we use substances, gamble, and engage in sex. 

Social media is built to manipulate the power of dopamine in a specific way to keep us engaged. This can be referred to as intermittent variable rewards. To understand this concept, it can be helpful to think of a slot machine. Although it would be nice, it would be less exciting if every time we inserted money into a slot machine, we won. The randomness of winning on a slot machine floods our brains with dopamine and the chance we could win keeps us going back for more. The same thing can happen with social media. We look at our mobile devices throughout the day and the randomness of receiving a notification reinforces the behaviour to check again through the release of dopamine.

BUT - social media is not all bad!

To reiterate, dopamine is one thing that keeps us coming back to social media, but this isn’t the perk. There can be great benefits to using social media, from connecting with our community, catching up with loved ones, learning new information or skills, engaging in peer support, taking part in hobbies and interests, meeting new people, or just seeking entertainment.


Image of a person looking at their phone

How do I know if my social media use is impacting my mental health?

Not everyone who uses social media experiences mental health effects in the same way. The following are some possible “red flags” to look out for when considering your own usage:

  • Am I noticing mood changes? In moments when we feel our mood shift, it may be helpful to pause and consider – what may have caused this? If this occurs while using (or shortly after using) social media, could it be related to the content I was engaging with?
  • Am I feeling distracted or struggling to complete tasks? Sometimes folks will reach for their mobile devices to distract from tasks that we consider boring or stressful. These tasks often do not impact our dopamine systems in the same way social media does. In these moments, social media provides instant gratification but may delay or worsen our feelings about the tasks we’re avoiding.
  • Am I sleeping well? Excessive use of screens can negatively impact our sleep and sleep hygiene. Is late-night doom scrolling leading to worry or racing thoughts that keep us up? Is social media use before bed contributing to later bedtimes? Poor sleep can contribute to mental health symptoms and make us feel less resilient when we face challenges during the day.
  • Are my online interactions negative or unkind?  Social media can expose us to people around the world. This is a great way to meet new folks with shared interests and backgrounds, but we also risk encountering trolls or cyberbullies. It’s important to question whether we are engaging with folks who treat us kindly, and how we feel during and after these interactions - are we feeling anxious or down about ourselves?
  • Am I engaging with content that is unsupportive of my mental health?Social media can be a useful source of news and information - but over-consumption of news or negative messages about things like body image or relationships can negatively impact our mental health. For example, research has shown that the consumption of bad news can lead to increased distress, anxiety and depression.
  • Am I comparing myself to others I see on social media? Some people base their careers on posting and creating content for social media platforms. Even friends and family members often try to post only what they want the world can see - which can make other people’s lives seem perfect or idealistic.Playing the comparison game can put a damper on our own self-esteem and moods important to remember that what we see online may not reflect reality, and it’s okay to unfollow or mute accounts that don’t make us feel good. 


How to use social media more mindfully

Applying principles of mindfulness to our social media use can help to ensure we’re prioritizing our mental wellness without foregoing social media altogether.  Mindful social media use is the practice of using social media intentionally instead of mindlessly reaching for our mobile devices. Here are some simple ways to support mindful use of social media:

  • Set limits. Check out the settings on your mobile device and consider how you might limit screen time or notifications for apps that you tend to overuse.
  • Be mindful of trigger warnings. Some social media platforms now label content with trigger warnings or “TW” to give users the opportunity to avoid content that may be particularly triggering to mental health symptoms.
  • Start and end your day differently. If you’ve gotten into the habit of scrolling as soon as you wake up and/or before you go to bed, try to break this habit. Instead, consider charging your phone on the other side of the room and moving your body or meditating to start and end your day.
  • Remove apps from your mobile device. Consider deleting applications that you find to have a negative impact on your mood or emotions, or those that you find yourself mindlessly opening on your phone. Try limiting use to a different device, like your laptop, or take a break altogether.
  • Ask for support. Talk to your friends, roommates or family members - if there are others who are also interested in using social media more mindfully, work together to stick to your goals. If you recognize your use of social media continues to impact your mental health, seeking professional support is another option. There are many therapists who specialize in technology overuse and mental health symptoms impacted by social media and can provide additional strategies or resources.

Social media is a double edged sword. It has the potential to provide positivity to our lives, but only if we are aware and conscious of our social media usage. As the presence of social media continues to grow, noticing “red flags” and practicing mindful social media use can be helpful when combating the negative effects that come from social media.