You know you love it: that thrill you get when you hit 11 likes on Instagram (yay you!), that little red notification flag that says someone looked at your LinkedIn profile or that feeling of triumph when you get good feedback on a Facebook post. With highs like these, it’s hard to imagine how social media could possibly be bad.
Still, behind all the online love that comes with each emoji and tweet, there’s also a darker side: social media can actually cause depression. We asked real collegiettes to share their stories and experts to share their advice to find out how social media could be bumming you out—and how to stop it. We’ve broken down each potential social-media-induced problem and paired it with its solution.
Social media are addictive
Let’s face the facts: you might be addicted to Facebook. Sure, we probably all say it the same hyperbolic way we say we’re addicted to Netflix or Nutella (because why wouldn’t you be?), but the truth is that it’s way harder to resist the social media urge than it should be. It turns out that online interactions actually affect us in similar ways to cigarettes, drugs and sugary cupcakes by activating the reward centers in our brains.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula (aka Dr. Ramani), a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, says people report reward feelings whenever they get a Facebook notification, Instagram like, text, what have you. “Whatever is rewarding to you—when that thing goes away, you crave it,” she says. “And when you don’t get it, you start to feel depressed. That’s the nature of any reward system. Social media is no different.” In extreme cases, Dr. Ramani says, the negative effects of social media can cause depression.
Dale Lavine, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of our Real Live College Guys, says he’s experienced this high-low before. “I’m really particular about Facebook posts—if it doesn’t get a few ‘likes’ within a certain frame of time, I’ll flat-out delete it,” he explains. “On the other hand, I feel super satisfied when I get a lot of attention on a status or a tweet or picture on Instagram. And when I do actually get emails or text messages or social updates, my heart starts to race a little and I get a little adrenaline boost. I feel conditioned to act this way.”
Emily, a senior at Skidmore College, has had similar experiences. “Someone once told me that the red Facebook notification gives you a momentary high,” she says. “I believe it. My mood always picks up when I see it, but whenever I open Facebook and see that nothing new is there, I feel like I should post something or do something else that my friends will notice.”
However, Dr. Ramani says that this gets worse when we do post but don’t receive positive feedback. She suggests that not getting enough attention on a post makes us doubt ourselves, which is never good for our self-esteem.
So, remember that time you posted a stunning sunset shot and only got a couple of likes? Turns out that not only gave you a hit to your confidence, but also put you in a mild kind of withdrawal from that online approval.
Before you freak out, know that there’s a way to combat this crazy withdrawal! Fortunately, you don’t have to swear off Facebook for good. Dr. Ramani suggests looking at how much time you’re spending on social media each day. But it’s not just when you’re on your laptop; make sure to factor in the time you log on your social media apps on your phone. “Anything more than two hours [in one day] is too much time,” she says.
“I would say every day people should have a shut-down period of time; it could be when they reconnect with their roommates, when they get together with their boyfriend, it could be time alone,” Dr. Ramani suggests. During that time, turn your phone off and put your laptop away so you can actually be present in the conversation (or enjoy uninterrupted alone time; no need to multitask in your down time!). That way, you’ll start to curb your cravings for notifications. You could also use an app like Self Control (for Macs) or Cold Turkey (for PCs), which block you from distracting sites like Facebook.
Or, you could take a page out of Sammie Levin’s book and delete your Facebook and Twitter apps from your phone. Sammie, a junior at the University of Michigan and the Her Campus Health Editor, found that she cut her social media time significantly when she no longer had the Facebook app on her phone.
“I got my phone replaced earlier this year and my Facebook application didn’t transfer, so I didn’t have it installed on there for a while out of laziness,” she says. “I realized that I ended up going on Facebook so much less frequently than when I did have it on my phone because I am not on my computer as often as I have access to my phone, so I no longer had the opportunity to instinctively check my Facebook or scroll through feeds while I was on the go or in class. Not surprisingly, I didn’t miss out on anything from not having constant access, and I was much more productive.”
Social media inspire comparison
Have you ever wasted a perfectly lovely Sunday night Facebook stalking someone (rhetorical question, because who hasn’t?)? You know who we mean: stalking that super-preppy and ultra-perfect girl from high school, that classmate who just got back from the best spring break ever or even—gasp!—your ex-boyfriend. While it feels impossible not to peek around other people’s pages, this can cause majorly unhealthy (and unneeded) stress, since you just can’t help but compare yourself and your experiences.
Katie, a junior at the University of Michigan, says social media definitely impacts her stress levels for this reason. “Right now, I’m in the process of applying to internships for the summer,” she explains. “When I skim through Facebook or Twitter and read that other students already have summer plans and fancy internships lined up, it makes me feel that I’m behind in the process or won’t find something that matches everyone’s standards. I think social media is scary because it becomes very easy to compare yourself to others when this information is readily available.”
Katie isn’t alone in her experience (as anyone who has ever wanted to nail an impressive internship knows); Kelsey, a sophomore at Ohio State University, says she’s reacted the same way to her friends’ posts. “I can’t help but compare my life with everyone else’s, even when I know that what people post online isn’t necessarily reality,” she says.
So if it feels so bad, why do we do it? Blame human nature. Dr. Ramani says, “Social comparison is what human beings do. We’re a tribal species. We look at each other, we learn from each other.” This can be great if you’re trying to pick up on social cues—this is exactly how you learned not to burp in a restaurant, how to behave in class and even how to flirt with that sexy, sidelong glance—but on social media, observation of others leads to unhealthy comparison.
Dr. Ramani says it’s because we aren’t seeing the full story. Sure, maybe your arch-enemy got the summer internship of her dreams, but what you might not know (because she isn’t posting about it) is that she and her boyfriend have to break up because of the distance, or she’s worried about budgeting on that unpaid intern salary or anything else that’s less than perfect. When we don’t see the full picture, we’re likely to feel worse about ourselves—unlucky, or even worthless. Of course, none of that is true!
If you find yourself constantly comparing your life to others’ based on photo albums or Facebook posts, Dr. Ramani says the best way to stop is to clean out your News Feed the same way you would clean out your closet. You don’t have to delete people as friends, she says. Instead, you can change your settings so that the person won’t show up on your News Feed, which means you’ll be way less tempted to look through all of her super-cute sorority photos every time she uploads them
To fill your News Feed back up, Dr. Ramani suggests following inspirational pages: ones that post confidence-boosting quotes to remind you that you, too, are valuable. You’ll take your social media experience into your own hands and turn it into a more positive one—one that doesn’t make you question your haircut, your choice of college or your “single and loving it” relationship status.
Social media isolate you
Just because you have a large social network doesn’t mean you’re actually being social. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget when most of us keep in touch with old friends via Facebook and texting (rather than good, old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face chats). The problem is that the more time you spend “socializing” online, the less time you have to grab coffee with your classmate or watch a movie with your roommates. Think back to the last time you and your friends sat down for a quick coffee or a meal. Did you make it through the time without checking your phone? Did anyone else? If you’re all sitting together but wrapped up in your own digital worlds, you aren’t getting enough social interaction to stop you from feeling isolated down the line.
“Social media can isolate people from real people,” Dr. Ramani says. “A person can think they’re interacting with other people, but in fact, [they] really aren’t. They really aren’t leaving their house or interacting with real human beings, so they may wonder why they may be feeling so alienated or so isolated.”
At that point, you could start blaming and questioning yourself: maybe you aren’t fun enough, maybe you haven’t made enough of an effort to make friends, maybe no one wants to hang out with you, maybe you smell funky. In reality, it has nothing to do with you at all, and everything to do with how you’ve been spending your time: sitting in front of your computer, substituting face-to-face interaction for online engagement.
Kelsey identifies with this experience. “I’ve found that social media, especially Facebook, can have a seriously negative impact on my emotions,” she says. “If I’m already having a bad day or feeling especially self-conscious, scrolling through my News Feed can actually make me feel incredibly depressed, lonely and even isolated. It’s like FOMO to the max.”
If it leads to FOMO, can you really call it “social” media anyway? When left unchecked, these feelings can lead to anxiety and depression (learn how to tell the difference between “feeling down” and depression here).
It’s important to remember that the isolation and loneliness can be easy to solve; by walking away from your computer or putting your phone down during lunch, you’ll be able to have more meaningful connections with the people around you (and feel less alone in the process).
However, if you’re really feeling anxious or depressed and it’s affecting your mood, your ability to engage in school or your friendships, Dr. Ramani says it’s time to ask for help—you wouldn’t want social media to ruin your relationships or kill your happiness. “This is one of those rare times in life when you can access low- or no-cost psychotherapy care,” she says. All colleges have these services available to students, and the people who work there are specially trained to work with students, which means they’ve seen these problems before and know how to help.
Slowing down your social media usage is a great first start, but it never hurts to get someone on your side to help you deal with those tough emotions. If you’re feeling down, make an appointment at your campus’s counseling center with a counselor (usually a psychologist, sometimes a psychiatrist).
We love social media as much as the next person—hello, Snapchat—but we also know there’s a fine line between enjoying Facebook and letting it bring you down, and sometimes it’s hard to see where that line lies. Now that you know the signs, you’ll have a much easier time seeing when to stop—and how to go about unplugging. Save the tweets for another time. They can wait!