Written By :

January 18, 2023


Can you imagine living one day without your phone? You can’t use your camera. You have to pay without your Apple Wallet, run without your Apple Watch, and ride your bike without listening to music. Even worse, you have to take the train, wait in queues and watch online classes without having access to social media. Without texting your friend ‘Hey I’m bored tell me something’. Without knowing what your friends are up to on Instagram stories, Snapchat streaks or your Twitter news.

In 2018, 88% of people have reported using some sort of social media, which has become an important part of everyday life. But what’s the psychology behind it? Why do you post on social media and what are its effects on your mental health?

Why you use social media

An experiment asked people to keep track of their social media posting habits and corresponding feelings in a journal. After analysing the data, it showed that “social and emotional influences played
an important role in media sharing behavior.” In other words, posting on social media make you feel things, and behave in a certain way, which is why you keep doing it. So what’s the psychology behind posting on social media?

A recent study aimed on asking users why they use social media platforms.

The Three Needs Theory

You’ve surely heard from your grandparents how they lived a wonderful life without Internet. Why then do you feel the need to use social media platforms on a daily basis?

To look at it from a psychological theory, McClelland, a professor at Harvard was studying human behavior, looking at how people make choices. He came up with The Three Needs Theory, consisting on three essential major needs that all individuals have achievement, power and affiliation.
The idea is that social media plays a role in fulfilling those needs. Which is why you feel the urge of constantly checking your phone.

The need for achievement

This is related to your desire of being on top. Like sharing your social and work achievements online, and receiving praise and feedback through comments and replies that are mainly positive (no one will reply that your baby looks ugly even though they might think about it) like the application of Linked-in, that targets your experience. All those play a role in activating the rewarding system in your brain, that you will read about it in details later. 

The need for power

Social platforms give you an opportunity to influence a big audience. A clear example are influencers that make their living out of giving their opinions and sharing their lifestyles with millions of people online, but it could also be as simple as sharing a tweet about your opinion on capitalism. Your need for power also leads to feelings of competitiveness with other accounts, which is again linked to the desire to be 'the best', having the best profile, sharing the prettiest pictures and the most interesting stories.

The need for affiliation

This need is also known as the need of belonging. Not having social platforms will make you miss out on what's happening there, being a world on their own. In fact, most of the time, you are using social media to connect with your friends and family through texting, calling or sharing memes and posts.

Behaviourists and the reward system

Behaviourists look at what they call ‘Operant conditioning’ to explain people’s behaviours. They believe that people’s behaviour can be modified through rewarding and punishment.

Some experts believe that the reason you continue using social media is related to the cores of operant conditioning, receiving rewards of some sort. Users are constantly weighing the social rewards of online exchanges. For example, you post a picture on Instagram, you get likes, positive comments, or replies from a cute guy/ girl. This will make you more likely to post again. That’s how your mind becomes conditioned to pick up the phone when you hear a notification, to be more interactive on social media platforms, seeking the ‘social rewards’ that they offer.

Social media and the brain

From a neurological perception, it turns out social media alters your brain in unique ways.

Social media can specifically affect teenagers’ brains. Since their brains are still developing, these apps were found to cause permanent change in their structures. Studies have found that media multitasking among young people is associated with poorer memory, increased impulsivity, and changes in brain function.

The reward system

Dopamine is the chemical that is related to feelings of pleasure, that incites someone to seek that pleasure again (evolutionary useful for the survival of humans in making them seek food or reproduce).

Research has found that positive feedbacks from social media, as simple as receiving a ‘like’ on a post, lead to an increase of dopamine in the brain (related to being ‘rewarded’ as mentioned above). It’s the same chemical playing a role in drug addictions, that creates feelings of euphoria and incites the addict to seek drugs again. The levels of dopamine concerning social media are surely lower than with drugs, but the underlying mechanisms are similar. The scroll down to refresh can even be compared to pulling the lever of a slot machine in the casino. You expect an instant ‘reward’ gratifying your need for affiliation (mentioned above).

When does it become an addiction?

Comparing the effects of social media with addictive drugs and gambling is scary. Recent statistics show that people spend 3 hours of their days on social media, that is nearly quarter of their waking life. So, you might ask, when does it become dangerous to the point of developing an addiction?

Lower self-esteem and a general anxiety about being excluded might make you prone of developing an addiction. Also, studies found that the fear of missing out (FOMO) might play a role in social media addictions. This shows that people are more prone to post or consume social media because of an underlying addictive behavior problem. Users becoming addicted have reported feeling less satisfaction with their lives, which they directly linked to their lowered self-esteem.

The subject of social media addiction has become subject to more academic research, since more and more people, specifically after the COVID-19 pandemic, are complaining of feelings of dependence.

Social media and your mental health

Studies have found a positive correlation between higher levels of depression and Facebook use. Is social media really that bad for your mental health?

Mental health benefits from social media

You wouldn’t be spending most of your time on social media if it didn’t make you feel good somehow. Recent studies have found some benefits that users, specifically young people receive from using those platforms

Social media and identity

Social media platforms have created an opportunity to create a whole new identity through virtual profiles. It can be a positive experience, enabling you to express your true self through sharing pictures, opinions, and awareness about topics that you’re interested in. Through your Instagram account you can now represent yourself, what you look like, where you spend your time, what you study and what you like.
But, on the other hand, social media has created an environment where you might feel pressured to change your personality or looks to become more desirable. That’s the case when you create a whole different version of yourself, presenting who you want to be (your ideal self) rather than who you are (your actual self), when your virtual profile does not match your reality. This was clearly shown in dating apps for example, known as catfishing, when you meet someone online and they turn out to be totally different than what their online profile.

Comparing and self-perception

This gap between your actual self and your ideal self creates feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem, and this is reinforced when you compare your real life with others’ virtual reality.

As a fact, your brain is biologically wired to compare. You compare job options, opportunities and self-improvements to make sure you’re growing the right way, and that’s healthy to a certain extent. However, what happens when you compare yourself with friends, influencers or celebrities on social media, is that you’re comparing your true, imperfect, sometimes chaotic life, with a perceived perfect virtual lifestyle, that is without doubt unattainable. Comparing yourself with so many others will lead you to have a lower self-esteem and a negative perception of yourself and your body.

Cognitive distortions

These negative effects might happen due to the formation of cognitive distortions, that are faulty beliefs that the virtual world of social media gets you stuck into. An important aspect of this is the aim for perfection, believing that you should have the perfect lifestyle, be flawless with an impeccable body, in able to be loved. This is a direct consequence of being constantly exposed to filtered images and representations of body types considered ideal.

Here are some other examples of cognitive distortions of social media

Lies that social media tells you Reality as it is
Celebrities and rich people are always happy. You see them post about their never-ending vacations, brands and perfect lifestyle.
Money and looks are not everything. Many celebrities reported feeling miserable during their shoots or events.
Everyone is living a happy, problem-free life for except you.
Just like you don't post your problems on social media, no one does. Only sharing happy moments and achievements do not deny the obstacles and efforts being put behind the scenes.
Most women have a perfect body and face.
More than 60% of women suffer from body image issues. Models of the most famous brands talked about their insecurities, and how photos are staged and filtered.
All couples are happy and in love
According to studies, 68% of relationships are toxic.
Love relationships should be perfect and effortless.
All relationships go through ups and downs, but once again, social media only captures the upside part. It doesn't show arguments, issues and tears that are a natural part of relationships, that require efforts, and include way more than going to events and posing for pictures looking pretty.

Trauma dumping

How many times have you felt forced to hear someone on Instagram, Tiktok or Twitter share specific details about triggering experiences? It’s in the human nature to share intense emotional experiences with social circles to help process them. This happens with negative as well as positive experiences. 

Trauma dumping is by definition the act of ‘sharing trauma without permission, in an inappropriate place and time, to someone who may not have the capacity to process it.’ It happens frequently on social media, and even includes examples of you coming across a post of a distressing event, through news pages on Instagram or Facebook or intense graphic information (like abuse) being publically shared. Also, comments sections on Tiktok or Twitter have become a hub for trauma dumping, and a competition to show the world that you had the worst experience. Users sometimes abruptly overshare their traumas in a toxic, insensitive way, mentioning every detail that comes to their mind. They assume that their comment will get lost among thousands others, but instead get more attention and responses of others adding to this train of negativity.

The problem here is that you don’t know how equipped the other person is, to receive such triggering information. Keep this in mind before sharing personal stories on social media.

The danger of social media and cyberbullying

Despite the benefits that these platforms give, you certainly tend to feel bad about yourself or frustrated whenever you spend too much time scrolling. In a culture where there’s a pressure of staying online all the time, you might become overwhelmed with anxiety. Users, specifically teens confront online toxic comparisons, sleep deprivation, less frequent face-to-face interactions, and most importantly cyberbullying. The matter of cyberbullying has been considered a serious matter, for its direct consequence on specifically teenagers’ mental health. Studies have found that a victim of cyberbullying will have more suicidal thoughts and be more likely to attempt suicide than someone who isn’t. Consider talking to your kids about this aspect of media.

Should my child be on social media?

All those dangerous effects of constant scrolling might make you wonder if you want your child to engage on social media at all. It’s important for you to weigh the benefits and the dangers that the virtual world presents. 

Some reminders to tell your kids before letting them use these platforms include

Ask before telling

Ask your child what applications they're using and how he/she can benefit from it. Ask to understand their point of view of using social media

Think twice before pressing 'send'

Remind them that something that has been sent over the Internet cannot be retrieved. Warn them about blackmailing and sending nudes.

Don't 'friend' strangers

'If you don't know them, be careful of the information you're sharing with them, someone you have only met online cannot be trusted'.

Be respectful and kind

Remind your kids that they don't know what others are going through, teach them about boundaries and how to respect others' privacy and opinions.

Social media self-care

How can you stay on the ‘positive side’ of social media, and enjoy sharing, posting and commenting without their detrimental effects?

Follow inspiring accounts
Post with empathy and kindness
Unfollow triggering accounts
Spend a day (or some time) away from your phone
Turn off unnecessary notifications
Remind yourself that social media is not reality

How can you stay on the ‘positive side’ of social media, and enjoy sharing, posting and commenting without their detrimental effects?


It may be true that living without your phone these days seems impossible. That is because of how easy it makes your life, and how connected and involved it makes you feel. At the same time, be cautious not to drain in the fake social media representation of a perfect life, partner, body… Remember that imperfections are what make us humans. You don’t need to be rich or perfect to be loved, this includes your dark circles, pimples, acnes, scars, body hair, and body fat. You are imperfectly perfect, don’t let any notification inform you otherwise.

Written By :

January 18, 2023