What Is Social Media Depression?

Platforms that fuel the drive to compare
ourselves with others are taking their toll.

Written by
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC &
Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.

social media depression

Social media depression:

In the past decade, since the advent of social media, there’s been an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicidality among teenagers and young adults.1 There is now enough of a link established between social media use and depression and anxiety that even Facebook conducts extensive research on the topic.2 (Which we’ll dive into in this article.) Adolescents and young adults are the most active users of social media.3 And with more than 3 billion people on social media worldwide, learning healthy social media habits is crucial.4 Social media users, parents, therapists and educators should read on to learn:

In This Article

What’s the Social Media-Depression Link?

The social media-depression link isn’t a simple dose-effect relationship. Understanding their connection requires a more nuanced look at how people use social media.

Social media feeds one of our basic human drives: social comparison.

Social comparison theory was first published by Leon Festinger in the 1950’s and is considered one of the most fruitful theories in psychology.5

It states that human beings have a drive to evaluate their own opinions and abilities.

When a person has no objective benchmark, they will compare themselves to others.

People only compare themselves to relevant targets, which are other people of similar demographics or background.

For example, teenagers don’t compare themselves with grandparents. They compare themselves with other teenagers.

The tendency for people to befriend others of similar demographics or background, in real life and on social media, is also hardwired.6

Compounding this effect are social media platforms that make recommendations based on users’ known interests and demonstrated likes.

In this way, social media provides users with instant access to relevant targets for social comparison.

How people feel after making social comparisons affects their motivations.

Sometimes comparing yourself with someone you believe is better off can motivate you to do better.

Other times it can cause you to feel envy which, in turn, can affect your anxiety and depression levels.7

Social media depression occurs most when people see their friends got more reactions than they did on social media.

Which Social Media Content Causes the
Most Social Comparisons?

Certain kinds of social media content can trigger those who are predisposed to making more frequent social comparisons. If the results of such comparisons are unfavorable, this can increase feelings of anxiety or depression.

Facebook conducts extensive research to understand the kinds of online experiences that worsen social comparisons.

In a mass survey, Facebook asked 37,729 users from 18 countries to recount an occurrence in the past two weeks in which they felt worse via comparison on Facebook.8  They also asked about the intensity and duration of the episode and whether the user wished they hadn’t seen the post.

Rather than rely solely on self-reporting, as most previous studies have done, they used log data of respondents’ activities during the prior month, such as the number of posts they viewed and the amount of time they spent looking at profiles of demographically similar people.

What they found is that viewing more social content—as opposed to news or commercial content—increased the frequency of social comparison.

Seeing friends’ social content with high levels of feedback—such as Likes, comments, or Reactions—was associated with some of the highest levels of social comparison in the study.

Specifically, social comparison frequency increased with the proportion of posts people saw in their News Feeds that received 20 or more pieces of one-click feedback. (Likes or Reactions), or received 20 or more comments.

Interestingly, people who saw more positive and less negative content from friends felt more social comparison. This suggests that when friends share negative experiences in their lives, the impact of social comparison may be tempered.

People who reported more frequent social comparison also spent proportionally more time viewing their friends’ profiles and a greater proportion of that time viewing their own profiles.

And people who saw more content from people within one year of their age, on News Feed, profiles, or stories, reported more frequent social comparison. This corresponds with social comparison theory which states that individuals only make social comparisons with relevant targets i.e., demographically similar people.

Socal media depression results after seeing friends’ social content with high levels of feedback than your own.

Who's Most Vulnerable to Making Social Comparisons?

Studies have found that social comparison—which can lead to social media depression— is an occasional occurrence for most people, but a small fraction of people experience it chronically. Read on to learn who they are.

Teens, young adults and people with less than a high school education – The Facebook study, in line with previous research, found that social comparison was highest among teens and young adults and decreased with age. In another study, data from a nationally representative sample of American adults showed that people who are age 18-29, as well as people with less than a high school education, are more likely to have an emotional connection to social media use, which is associated with negative health outcomes for social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health.9

People with a high social media friend count – Those social media users with high friend counts have more opportunities for social comparison. Researchers theorize that people who are prone to social comparison might spend more time on social media collecting more friends.

People who spend a greater proportion of time looking at profiles (particularly, their own) – Studies have shown that people with a predisposition to social comparison seek out social information against which to compare themselves. In the Facebook study, people who reported more frequent social comparison spent proportionally more time viewing profiles and spent a greater proportion of that time viewing their own profiles.

People who spend more time on social media – Spending more time on social media often correlates with having larger friend networks. By “friend network” researchers mean friends, friends-of-friends, or people followed rather than news media, businesses, or other organizations. Users with larger friend networks will see proportionally more social content (as opposed to news or commercial content) and might be more likely to report more frequent social comparison.

People who score high on a social media addiction scale – A study of 500 college students at Texas State University found that participants with higher scores on the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale were significantly more likely to meet the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).10

The Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale

The Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale is widely used in psychological research. It consists of the following six statements that respondents rate from 1 to 5. One stands for "very rarely", 2 means "rarely", 3 means "sometimes", 4 means "often", and 5 means "very often". A score of 4 or 5 on at least four of the statements could be an indicator of social media addiction.

1. You spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning how to use it.

2. You feel an urge to use social media more and more.

3. You use social media in order to forget about personal problems.

4. You have tried to cut down on the use of social media without success

5. You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using social media.

6. You use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.

Learn How Persuasive Design Is Used to Create Habit Forming Digital Media

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How Depressed People Behave on Social Media

Though a link has been established between social media and depression, the causal direction of the relationship hasn’t. Meaning, researchers don’t know if heavy consumption of social content leads some users to become depressed or if depressed people tend to consume a lot of social content, or if the relationship is bi-directional. To that end, the following are social media behaviors reported by people who met the criteria for major depressive disorder (MDD) in one study of 500 college students at Texas State University.10

  1. Individuals with MDD were significantly more likely to focus both on others they deemed “better than me” and on others they deemed “worse than me”. 
  2. People with MDD were significantly more likely to comment on positive posts, and marginally more likely to “like” or react to others’ posts. 
  3. There were no differences between those with and without MDD in the amount of posting under the influence of alcohol. But there was a significantly greater frequency of posting while smoking marijuana among people with MDD and a marginally higher likelihood of people with MDD posting while high. 
  4. Individuals with MDD had significantly fewer followers on Instagram and were following fewer accounts on Twitter. 
  5. Individuals with MDD were less likely to post photos of themselves with others. 
  6. A greater proportion of those with MDD indicated they used social media to share memes/gifs and because someone contacted them via social media.  

The Math Behind Why Your Friends Have More Followers

The Friendship Paradox

The fact is most people have fewer friends—on social media and in real life—than their friends have. Researchers call this the “friendship paradox”.11

The friendship paradox happens because people with larger networks are more likely to appear in the friend networks of everyone else.

Conversely, you’re less likely to be friends with someone who has few friends.

This is known as a sampling bias.

And the data show that if people compare themselves with their friends, it’s likely that most of them will feel relatively inadequate. (On the flip slide, people who are better socially connected contract infections earlier, so it’s not all a bed of roses for them, either.)

The Like Paradox

It follows that the same people who have more friends than you on social media also receive more Likes than you because they have more friends to give those Likes. Researchers call this the “Like paradox.”12

Ranking algorithms often prioritize posts that have more Likes and other feedback since, according to Facebook, feedback is one signal that a post is desirable to users.13

When the friendship paradox, the Like paradox and social media algorithms are combined, users are more likely to see their friends’ posts with the highest feedback in their feeds.

If you compare the feedback you receive on your posts to the feedback your friends receive, you may overestimate your friends’ popularity and feel worse by comparison.

Is My Child Addicted to the Internet?

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Why Everything on Social Media is Far from Authentic

  • There’s a Positivity Bias on Social Media – A bias towards posting positive emotions and successes instead of personal struggles and failures has been observed in many studies.14
  • People Systematically Underestimate Other People’s Negative Emotions – In four different studies, researchers found that people make systematic errors in perceiving others’ emotional lives, underestimating the extent to which other people suffer negative emotional experiences and sometimes overestimating the extent of others’ positive emotions.15

Five Healthy Habits to Develop Around Social Media

  • Compare yourself to your past self instead – When we make social comparisons, no matter how similar the background of the other person, we’re not comparing apples to apples. Every individual has their own set of life circumstances. When the urge to make social comparisons strikes, reflect instead on your own growth. How have past setbacks made you stronger and wiser today? Reflecting on your own growth is comparing the same individual at different points in time instead of comparing two different individuals at the same point in time.
  • Start a gratitude list – Rather than ruminate on the things you don’t have, reflect on the ones you do. To combat how badly social media can impact relationships, studies have found that being grateful can help you sleep better, lower stress and improve interpersonal relationships.16 One study found that mental health patients who participated in gratitude writing reported significantly better mental health for up to 12 weeks after the conclusion of the writing intervention compared with those in the study who did not participate in the gratitude writing exercise.17
  • Be intentional about how you use social media – Studies show that mindless scrolling, or what researchers call “passive” social media use, is correlated with episodes of social comparison and depression.18 Use social media to connect with select loved ones or to research something you need. And set time limits on your use. There are many digital tools that can help you do that.
  • Catch up with others by phone or in person – If catching up with others is important to you, call them. When possible, set up an in-person meeting. If you’re not willing to do these things, reflect on why it is you only want to “keep up” with someone by viewing their social media activity.
  • Unfollow or mute people who aren’t working for you – If there’s someone on social media you can’t help comparing yourself with, unfollow that person. If that’s not socially acceptable, mute their activity from your feed. They won’t know and you’ll be healthier for it.

Need Help? Reach out.

dTEC specializes in online addiction
and digital media overuse treatment and education.
Our experienced and knowledgeable therapists can help.

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2. Lin, Liu Yi et al. “Association Between Social Media Use And Depression Among U.S. Young Adults.” Depression and anxiety vol. 33,4 (2016): 323-31. doi:10.1002/da.22466

3. Anderson, Monica, and Jingjing Jiang. “Teens’ Social Media Habits and Experiences.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 28 Nov. 2018.

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6. Bahns, A. J., Crandall, C. S., Gillath, O., & Preacher, K. J. (2017). Similarity in relationships as niche construction: Choice, stability, and influence within dyads in a free choice environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(2), 329–355. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000088

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10. Robinson, A, Bonnette, A, Howard, K, et al. Social comparisons, social media addiction, and social interaction: An examination of specific social media behaviors related to major depressive disorder in a millennial population. J Appl Behav Res. 2019; 24:e12158. https://doi.org/10.1111/jabr.12158

11. Feld, Scott L. “Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 96, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1464–77. Crossref, doi.org/10.1086/229693.

12. Scissors, Lauren, et al. “What’s in a Like? Attitudes and Behaviors Around Receiving Likes on Facebook.” Facebook Research, ACM, 27 Feb. 2016.

13. “How News Feed Works.” Facebook Help Center, www.facebook.com/help/166738576721085. Accessed 15 Jul. 2021.

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16. Tala, Álvaro. “Gracias por todo: Una revisión sobre la gratitud desde la neurobiología a la clínica” [Thanks for everything: a review on gratitude from neurobiology to clinic]. Revista medica de Chile vol. 147,6 (2019): 755-761. doi:10.4067/S0034-98872019000600755

17. Wong, Y. Joel, et al. “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial.” Psychotherapy research : journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research vol. 28,2 (2018): 192-202. doi:10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332

18. Burnell, K., George, M. J., Vollet, J. W., Ehrenreich, S. E., & Underwood, M. K. (2019). Passive social networking site use and well-being: The mediating roles of social comparison and the fear of missing out. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 13(3), Article 5. https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2019-3-5