Is social media really a social dilemma?

April 24, 2024
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Social media is toxic. Snapchat filters promote unrealistic beauty standards. Instagram and Facebook are terrible for your mental health. There is a social dilemma.

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Research into the effects of social media on mental health are often inconclusive and neglect factors such as socio-economic background and race, ultimately contributing to the popular narrative that social media is bad for your health.

Social media is toxic. Snapchat filters promote unrealistic beauty standards. Instagram and Facebook are terrible for your mental health. There is a social dilemma. 


All of these statements are familiar to anyone who occasionally discusses their observations regarding social media. These statements are also particularly common amongst mainstream media outlets. For example, the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) paints a very dramatic and urgent message about how social media functions in a manipulative way and negatively impacts mental health. Although there are some truths to its message, the documentary fails to provide a nuanced and holistic view of the problem. 

Contrary to the film, current evidence is inconclusive as to whether there is a link between social media and mental health (Andreassen, 2015; Berryman, Ferguson, & Negy, 2018; Pantic, 2014). Furthermore, previous research into a link usually investigates how often people use social media and ignores how they use it. Ignored factors such as ‘passive’ use (viewing posts without engaging with them),  night-time specific use, and emotional connections to use are commonly left out of research. 

Recent research tries to expand our understanding of a link by incorporating concepts such as the level of integration of social media use into social behavior and the emotional connections that social media generates. A study by Bekalu, McCloud, and Viswanath (2019) uses these concepts and indicates that routine use of social media is associated with positive health outcomes, like high social well-being and positive mental health, but emotional connection is associated with negative outcomes. 

This suggests, for example, that participants who incorporated social media use into their social routines, such as using it to facilitate communication and relationships, felt more social well-being. However, the more emotionally connected to their use of social media, the less likely they were to experience that social well-being. This conceptually makes sense since being emotionally connected to your social media use, such as feeling very upset when you cannot log into your instagram account, would suggest you have an unhealthy relationship with your app. 


So, perhaps evaluating the role of social media in mental health requires more than correlating how frequently people use their apps and how they feel. The authors of the paper expand this idea further when they conclude that[MR1] , “the strength of the positive and negative associations of routine use and emotional connection with the health outcomes varies across socioeconomic and racial/ethnic population subgroups” (79). Accordingly, the In fact, the study suggests that being older, of a racial minority, and less educated are all associated with the harms of social media. This conclusion is interesting because it points to the complexity of individual differences that can affect how social media impacts your health. 

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels 


Mainstream media often lacks this more complex view of the effects of social media. For example, The Social Dilemma boldly makes the correlation that suicide rates among young populations began to increase around the same time that Facebook launched. However, this observation does not prove causation and neglects finer yet impactful details. As Niall Docherty writes in his critique of the documentary, “rather than seeing the ostensible crisis in mental health faced by teenagers as caused by social media self-comparison…,” we should “…investigate how other socio-political factors — gender, race, and class inequalities — contribute to our feelings of individual and collective well-being” (More Than Tools, 2020). 


After watching the documentary, one should ask themselves if such a dramatic and negative characterization of social media aids in its positive transformation or contributes to an oversimplified view of the problem. Perhaps both.

There is no doubt that social media can have negative health consequences in certain situations and individuals, however that is not always the case.

On the contrary, there are many ways that social media can be positive! One positive association of social media use in university students includes greater diversity in communication networks, which is consequently positively related to social capital (i.e. shared values, trust, and sense of identity) and well-being (Kim and Kim, 2017). 

Furthermore, studies suggest that social media allows for people to overcome barriers in communication such as distance and time to expand and strengthen offline networks and interactions (Antoci et al., 2015; Hall, Kearney, & Xing, 2018; Subrahmanyam, Reich, Waechter, & Espinoza, 2008). Overcoming distance and time has certainly proven to be a benefit of social media for most people this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has separated families and friends all over the world. The ability to communicate and interact with others during times of isolation is invaluable in maintaining positive mental health. 


Even with a more critical perspective of the link between social media and health, it is important to stay healthy while using your personal technology. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that from the MindHandHeart group at MIT in Boston, MA:


1.     Support a healthy online community by asking yourself these three questions before commenting on a post – “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

2.     Follow accounts and people who bring you joy!

3.     Avoid looking at your social media platforms right after you wake up. 

4.     Take a break from social media occasionally and support your friends to do the same if they are struggling with overuse. 

Overall, it is important to understand the pros and cons of social media use and how it can impact your mental health.

Do your own research on specific issues related to social media, especially since we use it every day. Do not take what you see on Netflix as the entire truth. Recognize the multitude of factors that can affect mental health when paired with social media since they can impact how you choose to interact with your apps!


Andreassen, C. S. (2015). Online social network site addiction: A comprehensive review. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 175-184. doi:10.1007/s40429-015-0056-9 


Antoci, A., Sabatini, F., & Sodini, M. (2015). Online and offline social participation and social poverty traps: Can social net- works save human relations? Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 39, 229-256. 


Berryman, C., Ferguson, C. J., & Negy, C. (2018). Social media use and mental health among young adults. Psychiatric quarterly, 89(2), 307-314.


Bekalu, M. A., McCloud, R. F., & Viswanath, K. (2019). Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use. Health Education & Behavior, 46(2_suppl), 69S-80S.

Docherty, N. (2020, October 05). More than tools: Who is responsible for the social dilemma? Retrieved 2020, from

Hall, J. A., Kearney, M. W., & Xing, C. (2018). Two tests of social displacement through social media use. Information Communication and Society. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2018.1430162 

Kim, B., & Kim, Y. (2017). College students’ social media use and communication network heterogeneity: Implications for social capital and subjective well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 73, 620-628. 

Orlowski, Jeff (Director). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Film]. Netflix.

Pantic, I. (2014). Online social networking and mental health. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17, 652-657. 


Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N., & Espinoza, G. (2008). Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 420-433.


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