Chapter 3: Social Media & Well-being

Is social media good for us? Is it bad for us? Can it be both?

Research findings suggest many complex ways the use of social media platforms can impact our mental and physical health and overall well-being.

Dimensions of Wellness and Well-being

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), wellness is defined as, “a dynamic state of physical, mental, and social well-being.” However, the term “wellness” has become so popular as a marketing buzzword that it has countless meanings to different publics. For clarity, in this chapter we have chosen to use the term well-being, defined by the APA as, “a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.”

Physical Health (and Body Image)

Social media may be associated with physical health improvements due to nutrition advice or “fitspiration” and to problems with physical health caused by learning of unhealthy behaviours. One striking link between social media and mental health lies along the line of body image and satisfaction. For our social media aficionados, think about how many images of people we see each day. What do these folks look like? Do they have “Instagram Face”? Are they standing with their “good side” towards you, their body flexed to highlight or hide parts of their body or wardrobe? Are you currently looking at them in front of a tourist attraction? Consider critically the seemingly perfect lives and bodies you see, comparing yourself to the images of these people, especially women, that may be artificially enhanced and/or heavily filtered.

Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, has conducted informal investigations of the app (Instagram) to see how it affected the relationship one has with their body. Approximately 32% of young women report feeling worse about their bodies after using Instagram. Moreover, the young women attribute Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” tying in the cyclical nature of depression and/or anxiety in relation to social media as shown by Hoge, Bickham and Cantor (2017). Some of the adverse effects are thought to be Instagram-specific, such as social comparison, which is when people assess their own value in relation to the attractiveness, wealth, and success of others.

The Facebook researchers state that social comparison is worse on Instagram than other platforms, asserting that TikTok is grounded in performance and Snapchat is “sheltered” by jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” Meanwhile, Instagram focuses heavily on the body and lifestyle. However, the research team concluded this in 2020. Their findings may not hold up to the current social media landscape, with the prevalence of Tik-Tok and the affordance of video filters to edit people’s bodies. For Instagram specifically, the researchers note that essential aspects of the platform, such as norms around sharing only the best moments and the pressure to look perfect, combined with an “addictive product” can send young folks “spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression.” The internal researchers further stated that the “Explore” page, curated by an algorithm can show harmful content.

In “The Paradox of Tik Tok Anti-Pro-Anorexia Videos” by scholars Logrieco, Marchili, Roversi, and Villani (2021), the shifting stances around anorexia depiction content on TikTok is paradoxically encouraging harmful behaviors. The “What I Eat in a Day” format is a common form of this. Moreover, the numerous “Glo-Up” challenges on the platform reinforce beauty standards (and generally come with weight-loss), while staying away from fostering unconditional self-acceptance. Like Instagram, there are beautification filters that slim and anglify the appearance of the face. What messages could people, especially people who do not fit Hollywood beauty stereotypes internalize?

Meanwhile, many youth consider TikTok a respite from more overtly image-conscious apps, such as Instagram. Although Tik-Tok was released in 2016, the height of its popularity came about in 2020 (and then, you know, the pandemic happened). Thus, research has yet to catch up to the trends we are seeing on this platform. However, that does not mean that we should not think critically about how this platform is used, what is happening on this app, or the media we consume from it. Of course, this should be true of all platforms we use when considering their impacts on human health.

Mental Health

Mental health includes anxiety and depression, as well as emotional regulation (plus much more). In the digital age, social media can play a powerful role in our stress, happiness, and mental health. Social media has the capability of being a powerful tool in our wellness. For instance, many “mindfulness” podcasts have social media accounts where they share health experts’ tips on mindful living. However, social media also has the potential to damage mental health and wellbeing, as well. As whistleblowers revealed in 2021, social media platforms may be aware of these impacts, yet do little to stop them.

Emotional regulation is a vital part of mental health. Specifically, it is a skill developed in childhood and adolescence by experiencing strong emotions and developing internal regulatory processes. Having this skill is a tool. The lack of and problems with emotional regulation are associated with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, conditions that individuals who “overuse” the internet report using the internet to avoid. Moreover, research has shown that depression symptoms predict internet usage to regulate mood. Thus our internet and social media use can be seen as a feedback loop, using the internet to avoid emotions, not emotionally regulating, experiencing emotional distress, then back to using the internet to avoid emotions once more.

Social media can be a mixed bag for our mental health and well-being. Hoge, Bickham, and Cantor (2017) state that, “although there is evidence that greater electronic media use is associated with depressive symptoms, there is also evidence that the social nature of digital communication may be harnessed in some situations to improve mood and to promote health-enhancing strategies.” They further state that much more research is needed to explore these possibilities.

In what ways can social media help us connect with others and positively contribute to our mental well-being?

Social Health

Access to technology was a lifeline for many at the start of the pandemic. We limited our in-person social contact as many businesses, schools, restaurants, and workplaces shut down or reduced capacity for the initial quarantines. According to Pew Research Center (2021), the internet has been personally important to  90% of adults, with 58% saying the internet has been essential. People relied on the internet and digital world to connect with others, whether family, friend, or for school and many of those trends are persisting (or partially persisting) coming out of the pandemic.

Pew Research Center (2021) reports that about 81% of Americans have utilized video calls since the onset of the pandemic and many researchers have found sharp increases in social media use since the pandemic began. Social media have become vital connection points to work, school, and social networks—our connections to nearly all other people when in-person contact was scarce. However, these findings are complicated by the digital divide, as affordability and connection issues are frequent barriers to internet access and, thus, to connection with other people.

We must also consider links between social media and social anxiety, or fear of embarrassment or humiliation, leading to the avoidance of social situations. The social media landscape is a wonderful way for us to connect to other human beings. On the other hand, it can lead to distress, as well. According to Hoge, Bickham, and Cantor (2017), the preference to communicate over text/IM/email over face to face increases the risk of social anxiety in folks who are more prone to develop it. Over time, choosing to substitute digital media for interpersonal communication to avoid feared situations (that can trigger anxiety) may become cyclically reinforced. This is yet another cycle. An individual prefers digital communication and displaces face-to face interactions, which may worsen the symptoms and severity of  social anxiety, leading to the individual using the internet and social media again as an emotional outlet.

Social media has the potential to initiate and sustain relationships. Given the potential benefits of social media, perhaps we should consider how to navigate it intentionally to protect ourselves and well being. After all, these technologies will be with us indefinitely. Knowing that, how can we protect ourselves and our mental well-being? Technology and people can mutually shape each other (Ellison, Pyle, & Vitak, 2022), but in order to do so, we have to rethink our relationship to social media and realize how our behaviours can actively and positively contribute to the virtual landscape.

Managing social media’s impacts on our wellness

NPR Lifekit episode of rethinking our relationship with social media


NPR’s Lifekit gives us some considerations to keep in mind when defining or rethinking our relationship to social media. Keep these in mind:

  • Social media is designed to encourage repetitive behaviours and compulsions, but social media is not physically “addictive” in the same way as drugs and alcohol.
    • Features like pull to refresh, endless scroll, autoplay and the algorithms are intentional choices made to keep us on the apps by showing us more of what we might like.
    • Push notifications, “made for you” pages, and “Click to See Image” functions are all tactics to capture our attention.
    • Remember: “Technology and people can mutually shape each other” (Ellison, Pyle, & Vitak, 2022). How might the above features keep us on platforms?
  • Think of your relationship with social media as a meaningful one with the capacity to show certain aspects about ourselves. Ask yourself three questions:
    • What does a healthy relationship look like to me?
    • What needs am I trying to meet right now?
    • How do I feel (physically, emotionally) after an hour online?
  • Be an active participant in your relationship; declutter and reorganize.
    • Go through your “following” list on social media and clean it out; only keep what is bringing joy and/or value into your life.
    • Block, mute, and other functions let you restrict the kind of content you don’t want to see, which further fine tunes your algorithm to you.

A Secondary Wellness Issue: Time Management

Social media is a great tool for promoting a business without breaking the bank, but it can become a nuisance if not used carefully. Using social media tends to be a time-consuming task and communicators must resist the urge to constantly monitor the technology. Without an effective plan, communicators will end up wasting time and won’t be able to achieve organizational goals.

A major reason why organizations fail to use social media to their advantage is that they try to be on every social network. This is neither possible nor a good idea. Regardless of whether a professional communicator is working independently or as part of a team, they must choose social media that fit the organization’s goals. This saves time by focusing on social accounts that can best generate the desired results.

Another challenge for social media communicators is to stay focused on work when logging into social media accounts for job-related tasks. Distractions abound! The best strategy to tackle this issue and manage time is to set time limits for every task. For instance, if tweeting, specify the time needed for the task. With the time limit approaching, priorities become clearer and the impulse to indulge in distractions is minimized.

For personal use, tracking one’s screen time and self-imposing daily limits can be extremely healthy, as can limiting the number of social media apps one uses. For the best professional and personal results when using social media, self-discipline is key.

Related Content

The thousands of vulnerable people harmed by Facebook and Instagram are lost in Meta’s “average user” data

Adapted from Joseph Bak-Coleman, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public, University of Washington


Mark Zuckerberg’s company says the kids are all right, but the data it presents is only about how the average social media user is doing.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Fall 2021 was filled with a steady stream of media coverage arguing that Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram impacts users’ mental health and well-being, radicalizes and polarizes users, and spreads misinformation.

Are these technologies—embraced by billions—killing people and eroding democracy? Or is this just a moral panic?

According to Meta’s PR team and a handful of contrarian academics and journalists, there is evidence that social media does not cause harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite apparently conflicting studies, imperfect access to data, and the difficulty of establishing causality to support this position.

Some of these researchers have surveyed social media users and found that social media use appears to have, at most, minor negative consequences on individuals. These results seem inconsistent with years of journalistic reporting, Meta’s leaked internal data, common sense intuition, and people’s lived experiences.

Teens struggle with self-esteem and suggesting that browsing Instagram could make that worse doesn’t seem far fetched. Similarly, imagining so many people refusing to get vaccinated, becoming hyper-partisan or succumbing to conspiracy theories in the days before social media is more difficult than it is today.

So who is right? As a researcher who studies collective behavior, I see no conflict between the research (methodological quibbles aside), leaks, and people’s intuition. Social media can have catastrophic effects, even if the average user only experiences minimal consequences.

Averaging’s blind spot

To see how this works, consider a world in which Instagram has a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer effect on the well-being of users. A majority, those already doing well to begin with, find Instagram provides social affirmation and helps them stay connected to friends. A minority, those who are struggling with depression and loneliness, see these posts and wind up feeling worse.

If you average them together in a study, you might not see much of a change over time. This could explain why findings from surveys and panels are able to claim minimal impact on average. More generally, small groups in a larger sample have a hard time changing the average.

Yet if we zoom in on the most at-risk people, many of them may have moved from occasionally sad to mildly depressed or from mildly depressed to dangerously so. This is precisely what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen reported in her congressional testimony: Instagram creates a downward spiraling feedback loop among the most vulnerable teens.

A teen watches an Instagram post of a young woman applying makeup

Large-scale population studies can miss effects experienced by a subset of people, such as vulnerable teen girls on Instagram.
AP Photo/Haven Daley
The inability of this type of research to capture the smaller, but still significant numbers of people at risk—the tail of the distributionis made worse by the need to measure a range of human experiences in discrete increments. When people rate their well-being from a low point of one to a high point of five, “one” can mean anything from breaking up with a partner who they weren’t that into in the first place to urgently needing crisis intervention to stay alive. These nuances are buried in the context of population averages.

A history of averaging out harm

The tendency to ignore harm on the margins isn’t unique to mental health or even the consequences of social media. Allowing the bulk of experience to obscure the fate of smaller groups is a common mistake, and I’d argue that these are often the people society should be most concerned about.

It can also be a pernicious tactic. Tobacco companies and scientists alike once argued that premature death among some smokers was not a serious concern because most people who have smoked a cigarette do not die of lung cancer.

Pharmaceutical companies have defended their aggressive marketing tactics by claiming that the vast majority of people treated with opioids get relief from pain without dying of an overdose. In doing so, they’ve swapped the vulnerable for the average and steered the conversation toward benefits, often measured in a way that obscures the very real damage to a minority—but still substantial—group of people.

The lack of harm to many is not inconsistent with severe harm caused to a few. With most of the world now using some form of social media, I believe listening to the voices of concerned parents and struggling teenagers when they point to Instagram as a source of distress is important. Similarly, acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic was prolonged because misinformation on social media has made some people afraid to take a safe and effective vaccine is important. These lived experiences are important pieces of evidence about the harm caused by social media.

Does Meta have the answer?

Establishing causality from observational data is challenging, so challenging that progress on this front garnered the 2021 Nobel in economics. And social scientists are not well positioned to run randomized controlled trials to definitively establish causality, particularly for social media platform design choices, such as altering how content is filtered and displayed.

But Meta is. The company has petabytes of data on human behaviour, many social scientists on its payroll, and the ability to run randomized control trials in parallel with millions of users. They run such experiments all the time to understand how best to capture users’ attention, down to every button’s colour, shape, and size.

Meta could come forward with irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to the vulnerable, if it exists. Has the company chosen not to run such experiments or has it run them and decided not to share the results?

Either way, Meta’s decision to instead release and emphasize data about average effects is telling.The Conversation

Joseph Bak-Coleman, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media Attribution

s21_099_p1gpp © Kyra Tidball is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license


Ellison, N.B., Pyle, C., & Vitak, J. (2022). Scholarship on well-being and social media: A sociotechnical perspective. Current Opinion in Psychology, 46(101340), 1-6.

Hoge, E., Bickham, D., & Cantor, J. (2017). Digital media, anxiety, and depression in children. Pediatrics, 149(s2), S76-S80.

Logrieco, G., Marchili, M.R., Roversi, M., & Villani, A. (2021). The paradox of Tik Tok anti-pro-anorexia videos: How social media can promote non-suicidal self-injury and anorexia. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(3):1041.

McClain, C., Vogels, E.A., Perrin, A., Sechopoulos, S., & Rainie, L. (2021). The internet and the pandemic. Pew Research Center.


This chapter was partially adapted from Humans R Social Media by Diana Daly, with contributions from Alexandria Fripp, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

This chapter was partially adapted from Intro to Social Media by Cheryl Lawson, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Social Media & Reputation Management Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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