North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

The good, the bad, and the unknown: the psychology of social media

Posted on: November 1, 2023
Person sat with laptop and scattered social media messages overlayed onto the image

Much has been said about the impact of social media on the human brain – and most of it’s far from reassuring.

Social media use has been blamed for fuelling internet addiction, causing spiralling rates of anxiety and depression, and creating a shallow, social comparison-obsessed culture where teens and young adults – in particular – desperately chase affirmation, validation, acceptance and gratification only to receive the opposite. They are the first generation to grow up in a world of smartphones, Internet-based social interaction, and an inescapable culture of constant sharing.

But, is it all bad news? And what can be done to address or mitigate the harmful effects already in motion?

Social media and our everyday lives

To fully understand the impact social networking sites have on our individual and collective psyche – whether positive, negative or neutral – we need to clarify the context and scale of their use.

Whatever they’re used for – image sharing on Instagram, reels on TikTok, WhatsApp and Snapchat for messaging, LinkedIn for networking, YouTube for streaming, and so on – social networks are prolific in daily life.

The latest statistics estimate social media users will rise to 4.89 billion this year, an increase of 79.1% over the last five years alone. More than nine in 10 of us use our devices to access social media sites, clearly demonstrating the sheer scale of their popularity. So, what does all of this mean for our brains – from attention spans to wellbeing?

What are the benefits of social media?

There are many positives that come with social media usage. Never before has it been so quick and easy to maintain social connections with people from across the world. Users can find like-minded communities, share hobbies and explore interests and identities. It’s proven a particular social lifeline for people who are otherwise unable to meet others, for example those who face exclusion on any number of grounds or are housebound due to disability or chronic illness. Social media enables us to share knowledge and expertise, making education and a wealth of resources accessible to all. Many platforms are hives of discussion, creativity and innovation, as well as providing ways for individuals and businesses to grow their online platforms in new and interesting ways.

The role of psychology in social media design and development

We’ve all felt that little dopamine boost that comes with a like, notification or comment. Well, that’s no accident – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Tech types in Silicon Valley are keenly aware of the role psychology plays in user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, using it to their advantage to ensure social media platforms are as addictive as possible. Colour palettes, icon design, notification sounds – every minute element of a platform has been designed to captivate and retain our attention. Tech CEOS and developers consult psychologists to ensure maximum engagement, relying on their knowledge of how our brains function to exploit and manipulate our behaviour.

This psychological basis is not necessarily negative; after all, many social media users do not struggle with boundaries and adverse effects. However, research suggests that, at best, social media affects and shortens attention spans and contributes to increasing rates of social media addiction, at worst, it causes widespread mental health issues with highly damaging consequences.

Social media and mental health

It’s commonly reported that app developers and leaders of social media and tech companies don’t let their own children use the apps, or in some instances, have smartphones. The alleged reason? Because only they fully understand the impacts they can have on the thoughts and behaviours of young people.

Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, studies the effects of social media on the wellbeing of teens and young adults. She states that heavy users of social media (upwards of five hours’ a day) are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users and that Instagram has been linked to body image issues (particularly for high school-age girls).

Social media has been identified as one of the key predictors of poor mental health in adolescents. Its other negative effects on mental health are widely reported, and include:

  • feelings of isolation, anxiety and depressive symptoms
  • poor life satisfaction
  • FOMO (fear of missing out) if not using social media, as well as the false concept that everyone is happier, more popular and more successful – largely from viewing the ‘highlight reel’ of curated feeds
  • damage to real-life, face-to-face social relationships
  • increases in instances of low self-esteem linked to online social self-presentation
  • issues with sleeping and inabilities to ‘switch off’
  • selfie culture that heightens awareness of physical appearance, self-perceived ‘flaws’ and comparison with others that has been linked to increased body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
  • greater prevalence of cyberbullying.

What can be done to address the ill effects of social media? The Mayo Clinic suggest the following actions for supporting teens and young adults with social media use.

  • Set reasonable limits. Social media is detrimental when it disrupts regular activities, schoolwork, mealtimes and sleep. It’s a good idea to avoid social media use before bed and to not keep smartphones in teens’ bedrooms at night. Many are calling on the platforms themselves to raise the minimum age to register an account from 13 to 16-18.
  • Agree on ground rules. As well as what is safe and appropriate to share or not share, discouraging young adults from engaging in gossiping, bullying and similar behaviours – and to tell you if they receive any from others – is valuable.
  • Monitor accounts. Regularly checking and mediating social media accounts, for example once or twice a week, is a useful way to remain aware of anything concerning.
  • Encourage face-to-face interaction with friends. Breaks from social media and opportunities for real-life contact that doesn’t take place via a screen are helpful – and particularly important for those prone to social anxiety disorder.
  • Talk about social media. Have open discussions about using social and digital media, social media habits, and how unrealistic, false or harmful content can be.

Speaking about feelings and mental health, and seeking professional medical help from healthcare professionals where necessary, is highly beneficial for many struggling with poor mental health.

Help others to balance use of social media with psychological wellbeing

Understand the effects of social media on our development and wellbeing – together with in-depth knowledge of broader human behaviour – with North Wales Management School’s online MSc Psychology programme.

Whether you work in the field of psychology or are keen to employ psychological insights in other work environments, we’ll support you to gain the skills and expertise to take your career to the next level. You’ll study core and contemporary areas of psychology such as clinical psychology, forensic psychology, neuroscience and educational psychology, as well as clinical and psychometric assessments, emerging technologies and research approaches.