In many ways, social media has succeeded in its mission to help us strengthen connections. It’s now easier than ever to track down former high school classmates, or to find people around the world who share our most niche interests. (“Women Who RV on a Budget”? Yep, there’s a Facebook group for that.)
But in other ways, social media can make you feel more isolated and misunderstood than ever. People act differently online—and that behavior can take its toll on you.
“Social media can be a great way to reconnect and stay connected to family and friends, or even [to] promote a business,” says Channing Marinari, LMHC, international certified alcohol and drug counselor, master’s in addiction. “However, when it begins to affect a person’s mental health, we need to take a step back and figure out what the problem is.”
It can be hard to step away from your Facebook news feed or delete the Twitter app from your phone, but if you notice yourself experiencing any of the following five problems, it might be time to pull the plug.
1. You feel constant F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out).
One of the best and worst parts of social media is being able to share the joys in your life. In previous decades, you might return from your Disney World trip and send an email to loved ones with your best photos. Now, everyone shares their photos on social media, turning your feed into an endless highlight reel.
“Most of the photos you find on social media portray that person as being constantly being happy, so we get a distorted view that everyone’s life is amazing,” says Cali Estes, PhD, founder of The Addictions Academy.
Imagine watching Netflix on a Friday night. It’s a popular activity—something most people do regularly—yet social media tells a different story. “You scroll through Facebook and see everyone but you having fun,” says Dr. Estes. “Depression and frustration set in, and you find yourself yearning to have fun like them.”
If all the photos of vacations, get-togethers, and celebrations have you feel like you’re missing out or living a “dull” life, you might benefit from stepping away from the news feed for a while.
2. You feel insecure or inadequate.
If you take the fear of missing out a step further, seeing friends’ posts might actually begin to make you feel down too. Browsing social media might trigger you to have anxiety-inducing thoughts like, Why wasn’t I invited? You’re not just seeing other people have fun, but you’re seeing your friends have fun without you.
You might also feel concerned about how you match up with everyone else. “Social media has been built on ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes,’ and many people spend their time comparing themselves, their success, and their lives to others,” says Marinari.
Comparing your life with others’ lives based on their social media presence is a dangerous path to go down. You might notice an “increase of dissatisfaction with [your] life” or “increased anxiety or conscientiousness of how [your] social media post will be viewed by others,” says Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT therapist, at Abundant Life Counseling St Louis, LLC.
3. You have anxiety about “keeping up” with the updates.
You might be obsessed with seeing every new status update from your Facebook friends, or catching each breaking news headline on Twitter. You may refresh your Instagram page frequently to see how many “likes” and comments you’ve accumulated on your latest post.
“If you feel incomplete when you are away from social media—as if your only friends are those you’ve found online—this is a sure sign that social media has taken too large a role in your life,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist in California.
Social media obsession is becoming increasingly common, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). About 20 percent of social media users say they can’t go more than three hours without checking in, ADAA reports.
These symptoms may suggest you’re developing an unhealthy addiction to social media, according to the ADAA:
Checking social media while socializing with others
Lying about how much time you spend browsing social media
Withdrawing from your family and friends
Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you’re away from social media for too long
Spending over six hours a day on different social media platforms
Or attempting to stop or reduce your social media use and not being successful.
A major sign that this addiction has gone way too far is if you’ve reached “the point where one’s productivity, work, and other responsibilities are suffering,” says Williamson.
If you nodded your head at any of the above signs, check out this 5-step approach to break any bad habit (and don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for help).
4. Your sleep is being negatively affected by social media.
Even among non-addicted social media users, scrolling your social media feeds has become a common habit to help you “unwind” before bedtime. While previous generations grabbed a book and got lost in the latest J.R.R. Tolkien novel, many people today get sleepy by reading tweets or getting in Facebook arguments with their cousin’s boyfriend’s uncle.
There are two big problems with this. First, it can be tough to put down the phone and actually go to bed, causing many people to stay up later than they intended to. Second, the blue light emitted by phones isn’t doing your sleep any favors. (Here are other innocent habits that hurt your sleep quality.)
Blue light has a short wavelength, and it delays the body’s release of melatonin, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Melatonin is a hormone that helps the body enter sleep mode. Certain habits can stimulate the release of melatonin (like a warm bath or gentle stretches) while others can delay melatonin (like bright lights and caffeine).
One sign that social media is negatively affecting your health is a “lack of sleep due to going to sleep too late or waking in the night to check social media,” says Dr. Manly. Lack of sleep affects your mental and physical health, and taking a break from social media might help break this habit.
5. You feel stressed, sad, or angry from the negativity.
Let’s face it: Social media isn’t always the cheerful place we want it to be. Among the photos of your brother’s new baby and your best friend’s golden retriever there are also complaints, political rants, insensitive jokes, and inflammatory headlines. Oh, and all the arguing in the comments section.
“Social media causes psychological symptoms akin to ‘road rage,’” says Dr. Estes. “The blood pressure goes up, anxiety goes up, and even depression can occur after you are blocked or dismissed, and you feel that there is no closure.”
You might be able to remedy the situation by just “hiding” or “unfollowing” all the Negative Nancys and Debbie Downers, but if it feels like the hostility is everywhere and overwhelming, maybe it’s time to take a break.
These are just a sliver of the ways social media may negatively impact your mental and physical health. Here’s a good rule of thumb: “If you find your moods are fluctuating by what you read on social media, you need a break,” says Dr. Estes. “If you are obsessing over when to use it or feel loss without it, you may need a break.”