Social media and low self-esteem

Social media and low self-esteem

Table of Contents

In today's digital age, social media has become an integral part of our lives, especially for teenagers. Whether we embrace it, despise it, or simply tolerate it, there's no denying its pervasive presence. As the Principal of a school community, I am constantly confronted with the challenges associated with social media use. These issues are often intricate and don't come with easy solutions. However, amidst the complexity, a growing body of research offers valuable insights into navigating the world of social media wisely.

While social media is often hailed as a remedy for loneliness, a wealth of evidence suggests that it may actually exacerbate feelings of isolation. Unsurprisingly, it can trigger a dangerous game of comparison, leaving individuals questioning their own self-worth. The consequences can be dire, with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression lurking in the shadows. In this thought-provoking article, we will delve into these troubling aspects of social media, examining them through a balanced lens.

Join me on this captivating journey as we uncover the hidden truths behind social media's impact on our mental well-being. Together, we will explore the complexities, challenges, and potential solutions that lie within this digital realm. Prepare to be enlightened, challenged, and inspired as we navigate the uncharted waters of social media's influence on our lives.

Does social media impact how you feel?

Researchers haven’t yet been able to prove a direct causative relationship between social media and mental health. However, it seems more than a coincidence that rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen concurrently with those of social media usage.

While social media may help to cultivate friendships and reduce loneliness, evidence suggests that excessive use negatively impacts self-esteem and life satisfaction. It’s also linked to an increase in mental health problems and suicidality (though not yet conclusively).

Rising rates of depression have coincided with the rise in smartphone use. A study published in 2017 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science looked at social media/smartphone usage, depression and suicide death rates in more than 500,000 US students in years 8 to 12. Between 2010 and 2015, they found a 33 per cent increase in the number of adolescents with high levels of depressive symptoms and 31 percent more died by suicide. The increase was driven almost exclusively by females.

The study’s lead author noted that the increase in depressive symptoms correlated with smartphone adoption over that period. There was also a corresponding jump in reports of students seeking assistance at counselling centres, mainly for depression and anxiety.

Conversely, those spending more time on non-screen activities (such as in-person social interaction, sporting activities, and attending religious services) were less likely to report mental health issues.

Another study, just released in JAMA Psychiatry, looked at social media usage in 6,595 adolescents. They found that adolescents spending more than three hours per day using social media may be at increased risk for mental health problems, especially internalising problems (suffering on the inside, including symptoms like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, negative self-image, and loneliness).

Furthermore, social media overload may lead to problems with self-esteem, particularly in teenage girls. “Many girls are bombarded with their friends posting the most perfect pictures of themselves, or they’re following celebrities and influencers who do a lot of Photoshopping and have makeup and hair teams,” Dr Alexandra Hamlet, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says in an article for “If that’s their model for what is normal, it can be very hard on their self-confidence.”

Another reason why depression is associated with social media might be what psychologists call displacement – which means what teenagers are not doing during time that’s displaced by social media. This includes mental health-boosting activities such as exercise, sleep and developing talents.

“If you’re spending a lot of time on your phone, you have less time for activities that can build confidence, a sense of achievement and connectedness,” Dr. Hamlet explains. “Yes, you get a little dopamine burst whenever you get a notification, or a like on a picture, or a follow request. But those things are addicting without being satisfying.”

How does social media affect sleep?

Social media can have a significant impact on sleep patterns in several ways:

1. Increased screen time:

Using social media often involves staring at screens for extended periods. The blue light emitted by screens can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles, making it harder to fall asleep.

2. Sleep deprivation:

Engaging with social media can lead to excessive use, resulting in reduced sleep time. Scrolling through social media feeds, interacting with posts, or getting involved in online discussions can be time-consuming and push bedtime later.

3. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out):

Social media platforms showcase the activities, events, and experiences others are having, leading to a fear of missing out. This fear can create anxiety and make individuals reluctant to disconnect from social media, even when they should be sleeping.

4. Mental stimulation:

Social media often provides a constant stream of new information, conversations, and notifications. This mental stimulation can make it difficult for individuals to wind down and relax before sleep. It keeps their mind active and engaged, making it harder to fall asleep quickly.

5. Emotional impact:

Social media can evoke various emotions, including excitement, anxiety, envy, and even depression. These emotional responses can disrupt sleep patterns and make it harder to achieve restful and deep sleep.

6. Sleep disturbances:

Receiving notifications or alerts during sleep can cause disruptions, waking individuals up and preventing them from achieving uninterrupted sleep. Many people keep their smartphones beside their beds, leading to easy accessibility and potential disturbances.

To minimise the impact of social media on sleep, it’s advisable to establish a digital detox routine before bedtime. This involves setting boundaries, limiting screen time, and avoiding social media engagement at least an hour before sleep. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading or practicing relaxation techniques, can also aid in promoting better sleep.

Sleep and low self-esteem

As outlined, one crucial thing that social media can displace is sleep. A recent study by paediatric researchers Scott, Biello and Woods involving almost 12,000 adolescents found that overall, heavier social media use was associated with poorer sleep patterns. Very high social media users, for example, were more likely than average users to report late sleep onset and wake times and trouble getting back to sleep after night-time waking.

The Child Mind Institute points out that lack of sleep can negatively affect teens’ mood, and ability to regulate emotions and get along with adults. Sleep and depression can become a vicious spiral, as lack of sleep leads to depression and vice versa.

Other research shows that 60 percent of adolescents check their phones in the hour before going to bed. On average, they got an hour less sleep than peers not using their phones pre-bedtime.

Toxic social media breeds bad behaviour

Furthermore, social media can be a breeding ground for bad behaviours. Some of these include:

  • Narcissism – social media may encourage self-obsession. You’ve no doubt seen people fixated on getting the perfect ‘selfie’ for their social accounts. Facebook, in particular, has reportedly caused what researchers call a context collapse, where users become locked into a single persona and “self-edit” what they share on social media to comply with this persona. However, self-absorption contrasts starkly with the attitude Christ calls us to – a selfless desire to place God first and love and serve others (Mark 12: 30-31).

The anonymity and distance afforded by the online environment can also embolden behaviours that people may not consider in face-to-face interactions. For example:

  • Lies – in their endeavours to portray a certain persona, people blatantly lie about their lives, or distort the truth. Others pretend to be someone else, sometimes by stealing identities.
  • Bullying – more than a third of young people are bullied online, according to a 2018 survey of 1,000 young people by mental health organisation ReachOut Australia. They also found that reported cyberbullying had doubled in 12 months among 14 to 16-year-olds.
  • Spying – social media is an easy platform for prying eyes. Maintaining privacy is an increasing concern. According to children’s digital safety organisation GuardChild, 39 percent of tweens and teens think their online activity is private from everyone. Twenty-four percent of social media users reported they were not at all confident using privacy settings.
  • Stalking – cyberstalking is harassing behaviour using an online platform. It may include threats, cryptic messages and sexual innuendo, usually with a goal of creating fear or intimidation. For example, adult predators may create fake profiles, pretending to be a young person to befriend and gain the trust of young people online. An Australian Government Committee on Cybersafety found that young Australians appear unsure of what cyber-stalking involves.

'Likes' do not make you feel happier

While getting 'likes' on social media posts might give a short-lived high, studies have indicated they don’t make people happier.

A 2017 study by the British Psychological Society found that receiving likes didn't make people feel any better about themselves or lift mood when they were down. Study author Dr Martin Graff said: "Although this is just a relatively small-scale study, the results indicate that the ways we interact with social media can affect how we feel and not always positively."

Evaluate everything you share on social media

While much of what gets shared on social media seems harmless, it’s worth remembering that not everyone has good intentions. Social posts can make great fodder for internet trolls, cyber-bullies and, worse still, paedophiles. Much care should be taken.

It’s conceivable that your young person’s posts could get into the hands of the wrong people. A rash decision to post a revealing picture, for example, could lead to long-term regret when it turns up in a search by an employer.

In an attempt to keep our students safe online, ACC secondary students are educated on the responsible use of social media and technology. It is important that parents model responsible use in their homes too.

Positive habits to increase happiness and combat low self-esteem

Social media is unlikely to help your child develop self-worth. But there are proven things you can do to combat low self-esteem and reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.

Do what you love

The Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association note that doing enjoyable activities, like hobbies or sports, is associated with reduced stress and better psychological function. They explain that creative or engaging hobbies can have similar effects to exercise on the brain and mental health.

Helping others in your community

An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that contributing to the lives of others has many benefits. For example, volunteering can give you a sense of purpose, increase self-esteem, reduce stress, relieve symptoms of depression and combat loneliness. As Jesus pointed out, it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Seek healthy friendships

Good friendships help to prevent loneliness and provide a sense of belonging and purpose. They are associated with higher levels of happiness and self-worth, and reduced stress and risk of depression. Youth Central have great advice about making friends.

Having a sense of meaning

Knowing that our lives have significance is crucial for self-worth. This unsurprising given that God created us for a purpose (Eph 2:10). This truth has been corroborated by research. For example, this 2015 study found that people who sensed they were part of something larger than themselves tended to behave more benevolently and generously towards others.

Exercise boosts happiness

The link between regular exercise and better mental health is well-established. Regular exercisers have greater emotional wellbeing and lower rates of mental illness. Exercise boosts mood, helps with sleep and can even improve memory, as well as improving physical health.

Watch what you eat

Numerous studies have shown that what you eat affects how you feel. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that feel-good chemicals are made by nerve cells. Healthy choices are like premium fuel for growing brains.

For further tips, has a great list of self-esteem boosting worksheets, and this WikiHow post provides strategies for dealing with unhelpful beliefs and thoughts that may be contributing to poor self-worth.

Social media addiction

The advent of social media has revolutionised the way people connect, communicate, and consume information. However, it has also given rise to a common and growing struggle among both adults and teenagers. Social media addiction has become a prevalent issue in today's digital age, with individuals finding it increasingly difficult to disconnect from their online lives.

One of the main reasons for this struggle is the constant need for validation. Social media platforms provide a space where individuals can seek approval and recognition from others through likes, comments, and shares. As mentioned already, the fear of missing out (FOMO) also plays a significant role, as people feel compelled to constantly stay updated on the lives of their friends and acquaintances. This fear of missing out on important events or experiences can lead to anxiety and a sense of inadequacy.

Moreover, the addictive nature of scrolling through feeds and the endless stream of content can make it challenging for individuals to break away from social media. The platforms are designed to be engaging and to keep users hooked, often leading to excessive screen time and neglect of other important aspects of life.

This struggle with social media is not limited to teenagers; adults are also increasingly finding themselves caught in the web of social media addiction. The pressure to maintain a certain image, keep up with trends, and stay connected with professional networks can be overwhelming.

Recognising and addressing these challenges is crucial for individuals to regain control over their time and attention, prioritise mental and emotional well-being, and create a healthier relationship with social media.

Breaking Free: 30 Days Without Social Media

If you find yourself trapped in the cycle of social media addiction, it may be time to take a step back and embark on a 30-day social media detox.

A 30-day break from social media can be a transformative experience. It allows you to regain control over your time and attention, reconnect with the present moment, and prioritise your mental and emotional well-being. By disconnecting from the virtual world, you create space for self-reflection, personal growth, and meaningful connections with those around you.

During this social media detox, you'll discover the freedom that comes with breaking free from the constant need for validation and comparison. Instead of seeking external validation through likes and comments, you'll learn to cultivate self-worth from within. You'll have the opportunity to focus on activities that bring you joy, such as pursuing hobbies, spending quality time with loved ones, and engaging in physical exercise.

Without the constant distractions of social media, you'll find yourself more present and mindful in your daily life. You'll notice the beauty of the world around you, the small moments of joy, and the genuine connections that can be fostered offline. Your mental health will improve as you reduce exposure to the curated highlight reels of others and embrace your own unique journey.

Taking a break from social media doesn't mean cutting off all digital communication. It's about finding a healthy balance and using technology intentionally. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, you can use that time to engage in activities that nourish your mind, body, and soul. Whether it's reading a book, praying, or pursuing a new passion, you'll discover the joy of being fully present in the moment.

As you complete your 30-day social media detox, you'll gain a newfound perspective on the role of social media in your life. You'll have the opportunity to reassess your relationship with technology and establish healthier habits moving forward. By setting boundaries and being mindful of your social media usage, you can prevent the negative effects of addiction and create a more balanced and fulfilling life.

In summary, I certainly don’t mean to portray social media as evil. However, I want to highlight the importance of moderation and raise awareness of risks. With youth depression and anxiety such a serious problem, a focus on positive ways to build healthy self-esteem is vital.

By ensuring your child uses social media in balance – as part of a lifestyle that includes activities like exercise, sleep, spending time with friends and serving others – your child has the best chance of becoming the godly young man or woman they were designed to be.

Sophia Auld

Sophia Auld

Sophia Auld is the Editor of ACC’s blog. Sophia has a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of Sydney, a Graduate Diploma of Divinity from Malyon Theological College and is currently completing an MA in Writing and Literature through Deakin University. Sophia has been writing since 2015 across a range of industries. Two of her children completed distance education through Australian Christian College. Sophia is known for her depth of research and accurate, evidence-based approach to writing. On the weekends you might find her scuba diving with sharks, bushwalking or hanging out with family. Sophia can be reached at [email protected].