“Sometimes I just need a break. At least a week to recharge and reset. Deep clean my space. Digital detox,” Mia Luckey, a 24-year-old self-described intuitive massage therapist based in Dallas, tweeted in March to her 24,000 followers. “I really just wanna be quiet and still for like a week.”
At nine years old, Luckey had her own MySpace account—an Alvin and the Chipmunks fan page—and an influx of followers who cared about what she had to say. Posting became addictive. After Luckey started high school, where she admittedly felt like an outcast among her peers, she found validation when she expressed herself on platforms like Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.
By the time she graduated, Luckey was glued to her phone and social media, where she got sucked into dark “rabbit holes” of political news, among other topics, as she endlessly scrolled through her feeds. She was spending between three to six hours a day on social media but it no longer felt validating; instead, it left her feeling anxious, unsatisfied, and not unlike a “zombie.” “When you get caught into that loop of scrolling, it’s hard to break away and witness and experience the real world,” she tells SELF.
Social media has become an inescapable part of our lives. Recent polls say 72% of Americans use at least one social media platform. For adults ages 18 to 29, that number jumps to around 84%. Estimates for teens hover around 90%.
Many of us turn to these platforms to mentally escape via cute cat videos or to connect with friends in hilarious group chats. And we’ve all felt the surge of serotonin a simple like can produce. But data suggests some people can experience the opposite effect and end up feeling isolated, detached, and, well, sad. Over the last few years, studies have shown a correlation between the time a person spends using social media and an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, body-image issues, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.
Research also shows that feelings of intense stress catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic made us even more dependent on social media networks, and according to some researchers, that shift has intensified potential mental health risks. But just how harmful social media can be—and what to do about it—is a matter of hot debate.
The case for social media’s awfulness is rooted in the research.
There have been numerous studies and conclusions surrounding social media’s mental health impact—including one that suggests technology use, which includes social media, is no more harmful to teens than innocuous activities such as eating potatoes. However, if you look at research that has been done with the highest quality measures and the largest samples, “the results are very clear,” according to Jean Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has authored more than 140 scientific publications and books, including iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. “Extensive amounts of time on social media [is] linked to depression and loneliness and unhappiness,” she tells SELF.