OPINION: Don’t scapegoat social media alone for poor mental health

A drawing of a relaxed person checking social media on their phone.
(Clare Martin • The Student Life)

In May 2020, the tiny forms of social contact I retained during schooling in the coronavirus pandemic slowly disappeared, as classes, clubs and jobs ended. Like most, I turned to social media to cope. 

Contrary to the common belief that social media use inevitably harms mental well-being, my increase in social media use didn’t come with ill effects. Instagram, Discord and Facebook Messenger were my only avenues to connect with friends I hadn’t seen for months. 

The scaremongering about social media as the leading catalyst to poor mental health comes from misunderstandings that ultimately harm rather than help. Conversations surrounding social media should center around responsible usage, not deletion. 

Social media’s impact on mental health is not as conclusive as some may believe. Studies that examine correlations between mental health and social media have produced weak or inconclusive data. For example, one national survey found a correlation between depressive symptoms and social media usage with an R-squared value of 0.06, when controlling for variation in in-person social interactions. That number means 94 percent of the observed variation in depressive symptoms could not be explained by social media exposure. 

Furthermore, Brigham Young University researchers found that over an eight-year period there was no relationship between time spent using social media and depression or anxiety. A study of 430,000 10- to 15-year-olds by Oxford University researchers similarly found an insignificant relationship between technology use and mental health.

Social media’s relationship to mental health has to be viewed with nuance. While cyberbullying obviously harms people’s mental well-being, social media use among older students was found to help maintain relationships.  

Another study concluded that shy and depressed individuals’ well-being benefited from online relationships. Harvard University researchers found that routine usage of social media led to improvement in social well-being, positive mental health and self-rated health. General condemnations of social media ignore its potential for good. 

On an individual level there are right and wrong ways to use social media. FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a real phenomenon that can be experienced from Instagram or Snapchat scrolling sessions, and sole emotional reliance on social media is not healthy. But there are better ways to deal with unhealthy social media mindsets than complete deactivation. 

One proven method to fight social media FOMO is simple and effective: gratitude. The science backs it up. Research on simple gratitude exercises found that giving thanks daily makes people more optimistic long-term. Keep a gratitude journal, or send affirmations to friends and family (for example, through social media). Writing thank you notes, practicing meditation or even silently thanking people are also all ways to practice gratitude. 

Sleep should also be heavily prioritized because of its strong association with mental health. Counterintuitively, planned social media time throughout the day can prevent what some call revenge bedtime procrastination, or sacrificing sleep for leisure at night because of a lack of free time during the day. Technology can help: Both iOS and Android have apps, modes or controls that people can use to restrict their social media usage at night. 

Across the board, mental health must always be prioritized. Hundreds of factors, like a lack of healthcare access, discrimination, toxic masculinity and parental trauma, can harm a person’s mental health. Social media shouldn’t automatically be included on that list of stressors.

Kenny Le PZ ’25 is from Anaheim, California. He’s a stressed freshman who wants to work in public policy. 

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