The Dark Side of Social Media: How the Internet Exacerbates Mental Health Issues

Beck Williams and LiLi Xiong

In 2022, one would likely be hard-pressed to find anyone who is not aware, to some extent, of the negative effects of social media and internet usage, rumored or proven. From the warnings of older generations that technology will “melt your brain” to scientific studies linking social media use and mental health issues, fears about the effects of such innovations are widespread. 

According to a September 2021 poll of United States internet users, almost twice as many respondents (39%) held a negative view of social media as those who responded positively (22%). Yet, according to Pew Research, 72% of American adults regularly use some form of social media. Though these contradicting statistics are confusing, they are not without precedent. Cigarettes, for example, continue to be a multi-billion dollar industry despite their well-documented status as a carcinogen. While scientific data on the effects of social media are less clear, the two industries are analogous in a variety of ways. Much like the cigarette industry, many social media companies have been aware of the negative effects of their products for some time, and use predatory tactics to keep their users coming back for more. While the waters are considerably murkier when it comes to social media, the basic facts remain the same: the industry has a problem, and they will continue to neglect to fix it without external pressure and responsible behavior from consumers.

While social media does not have a demonstrated effect on physical health, its issues are no less serious. According to the Mayo Clinic, 12- to 15-year-olds who use social media for three or more hours per day are at a heightened risk for a variety of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. A similar study in the United Kingdom showed a link between social media use and disrupted sleep, mental health issues, and poor academic performance. 

Even teen users of social media seem to recognize its problems. According to Pew Research, only 31% of teens report social media as having a positive effect on them and their peers. A University of Pennsylvania study affirms these findings, adding that those who reduced their social media use below their typical amounts for a set period of time saw reduced loneliness and depression during that time. These studies and a handful of others seem to identify a fairly straightforward problem, that of social media causing mental health problems, and a fairly straightforward solution: reduced social media use. The obvious question, then, is why more people don’t ditch social media altogether.

The answer to this question isn’t simple. One system that makes social media so appealing, but which also serves to make it harder to quit, is the algorithm. An algorithm, in its most basic sense, is a mathematical formula for manipulating data. In the context of social media, algorithms are used to sift through an ocean of content and deliver to each user that which is most relevant to his individual interests. This system allows social media users to easily access content which is interesting and engaging to them, as well as personalized advertising. However, it also contributes to an addictive quality that keeps social media users from leaving. Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke explains that experiencing engaging social media content causes a person’s brain to release dopamine, the primary chemical responsible for pleasure. When someone is exposed to a virtually endless feed of this kind of content, the dopamine rush becomes addictive as it becomes more difficult to replicate the sensation outside of the world of social media. This effect often snowballs, causing social media to take up more and more of one’s free time. The algorithms employed by companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are expressly designed to deliver enjoyable content, triggering the aforementioned dopamine rush and contributing to addiction.

Another similarly addictive element of social media is a sense, real or perceived, of social acceptance. According to Addiction Center, an online resource for information on substance abuse, receiving interaction on one’s own post can produce just as much if not more of a dopamine rush as interacting with others’. Receiving likes, comments, and shares on one’s post can trigger a similar sense of pleasure, while failing to do so can cause brief or long-term feelings of anxiety and depression. What’s more, social media companies often create incentives for posting often and receiving interactions, such as increasing a person or post’s presence within the algorithm. Altogether, the dopamine-inducing effects of social media use can result in an addiction comparable to that seen in users of some physical drugs.

While the most oft-cited reasons for the widespread use of social media seen in the United States tend to be negative (e.g. addiction), there is an argument to be made that its popularity stems, at least partially, from the myriad of positive effects of the technology. According to the Mayo Clinic, social media allows teens to build social networks and access valuable support they may not be able to find in the real world. Internet Matters, a nonprofit dedicated to helping parents keep their kids safe on the internet, says using social media responsibly can teach children and teens digital media literacy and safe ways to access the internet. While there are numerous demonstrable harmful effects of social media, it is important to acknowledge that such platforms are not entirely bad, and can provide a valuable service if used in a safe and responsible manner.

While it is easy to point out the issues with social media, it is harder to propose solutions. Unfortunately, it is not even clear who should take responsibility for addressing these issues, much less what they should do about them. While it is easy to pin governments or corporations with this responsibility, in truth, solving the problems caused by social media begins in the home. Parents must be thoughtful about when they give their children access to the internet. While there is no one right age for this, they must ensure that their children are emotionally mature enough to handle it. Parents must also be involved in educating their children on safe and responsible ways to use the internet and social media. Teens and adults must also self-regulate and make smart decisions about how to use their freedom on the internet. Finally, we as a culture must push social media companies to take responsibility and end predatory practices that can lead to harm. Ironically, one of the most effective ways to make this push is on social media itself. This point perhaps best illustrates the lack of black and white when it comes to this subject. Social media can be both a means for great progress and source of profound malice; it is up to us to decide which.