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"Untangling the Effects of Social Media When Discussing Mental Health" - Sophie Nathenson, Ph.D. | January 2022

Oregon Tech

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Over a decade ago, the film The Social Network hit theaters, dramatizing the true story of how Facebook rose to social significance. In 2020, the popular documentary The Social Dilemma was released. This film highlights how the inner workings of social networking sites influence not only our behavior but also our psychology—in both covert and overt ways. Various news venues have discussed and debated how social media could pose a threat to public health.

A recent study has compared social media to addictive illicit drugs due to its perceived addictive qualities and the extent to which “social comparison” can lead to negative emotions and poor self-esteem (Coyne et al., 2020). When topics are both controversial and commonly integrated into our social lives, it is helpful to use a sociological lens and critical-thinking skills when examining them. In analyzing sociological research, key concepts to understand include distinctions between correlation versus causation, differences between cross-sectional versus longitudinal studies, and variation between persons versus within persons.

So, what is the real relationship between social media and our mental health?

How are the type of research study and the results of the study related?

What is the relationship between time spent on social media and psychological health outcomes such as depression and anxiety?

When examining questions like these, social scientists try to distinguish correlation from causation. If more depressed and anxious people also spend more time checking social media accounts, the variables are correlated. A cross-sectional study can reveal this relationship. In a cross-sectional study, participants are studied (surveyed, interviewed, or observed, for example) at one point in time. For example, a cross-sectional study on exposure to social media images found that those who viewed social media images reported more anxiety, depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction (Sherlock & Wagstaff, 2019).

If we want to know if social media is causing mental health issues, we need to examine longitudinal studies. Longitudinal studies track changes over a period of time. Researchers have discovered that for adolescents, social media use, rates of depression, and rates of anxiety all increase over time.

Does this mean that increased social media use leads to increased anxiety and depression? To answer that question, we need to understand the analysis between persons versus within persons. When looking between persons, we examine differences between groups, such as comparing those who use social media to those who do not. For example, social media users report increased rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, jealousy, narcissism, objectification, and poor self-esteem (Chohan & D’Souza, 2020).

If we are looking within persons, we are studying the change in behavior in a specific individual over time and how that relates to changes in a specific outcome. A study using both longitudinal methods and studying within-persons found that in a group of 500 adolescents over an 8-year period, changes in social media use did not result in changes in depression and anxiety (Coyne et al., 2020).

Social media has a prominent place in the social norms of American culture. There are growing concerns about the psychological impact of social media, particularly among young people. Research shows that for individuals already experiencing depression or anxiety, social media can exacerbate those symptoms, and the social comparison fostered through social media can negatively impact self-esteem (Syvertsen, 2017). There is also evidence that in and of itself, social media does not necessarily cause depression and anxiety in healthy persons.

There are societal-level factors driving both social media use and poor mental health outcomes. To address mental health from a sociological perspective, understanding the underlying health conditions in our society is key to learning how to integrate technology in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our collective wellbeing.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some societal-level factors that may have influenced the simultaneous rise in social media use and depression/anxiety in young people?
  2. How does the method of sociological research affect how we determine correlation vs causation?
  3. What is one policy implication for the research that shows for certain vulnerable populations, social media can worsen mental health conditions?


Coyne, S. M., Rogers, A. A., Zurcher, J. D., Stockdale, L., & Booth, M. (2020). Does time spent using social media impact mental health?: An eight year longitudinal study. Computers in Human Behavior, 104, 106160.

Chohan, U. W., & D’Souza, A. (2020). The joys & ills of social media: A review. Available at SSRN 3517813.

Syvertsen, T. (2017). “Caught in the Net”: Online and social media disappointment and detox. In Media Resistance (pp. 77–97). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Sherlock, M., & Wagstaff, D. L. (2019). Exploring the relationship between frequency of Instagram use, exposure to idealized images, and psychological well-being in women. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(4), 482.

About the Author

Sophie Nathenson is Associate Professor of Medical Sociology and Population Health at Oregon Tech and is based in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Nathenson received her Ph.D. and MS in Sociology and Population Health from the University of Utah, and an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Tulsa. She is the founding director and designer of the Population Health Management Bachelor’s Program and the Population Health Management Research Center. She publishes on wellness, integrative health, and innovation. In addition to her academic work, Dr. Nathenson is the owner of Widespread Wellness Consulting where she mentors professionals seeking revitalization in their work lives and projects. She is active in the Pacific Sociological Association and the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology.

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