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The real impact of social media on your brain

Joel Pilgrim
Man looking depressed with phone

Learn about the potential impacts of social media on your mental wellbeing and what you can do to keep your use of it in check

Man looking depressed with phone

Social media has become a huge part of our lives, and while it has its positives – social media makes it easier than ever to connect, for one – being aware of the downsides and limiting its
control over you can be a gift for your mental health.

Throughout this article, you'll discover how social media can positively and negatively impact your overall wellbeing.

Positive aspects of social media

For all the criticisms of social media, many would argue it has changed their lives for the better in more ways than one. Staying in touch with friends and family has never been easier, and we can share our lives and feel connected with very little effort.

There are other positives too. Social media allows us to:

Feel seen

We can share our achievements, thoughts and feelings, and have them validated.

Find our tribe

It enables us to connect with like-minded people for advice, acceptance and support (there’s a Facebook group for just about everything).


It makes it easy to chat and keep up with friends and friends of friends, when getting together isn’t possible (hello, global pandemic).


We can form mutually beneficial connections with people that can help grow our businesses or social networks. It also allows us to be more globally connected and aware about what’s going on in the world.

Update in real time

It’s easy to share important information quickly in times of emergency or natural disasters.

Discuss issues of importance

We can chat through topics of interest with others, raising awareness and normalising once-stigmatised concerns, such as mental health.

However, when we rely too heavily on social media for connection, validation and engagement, these positives can turn into negatives.

Joel Pilgrim, CEO of mental health organisation Waves of Wellness Foundation, reminds us that connecting on social media doesn’t mean we don’t need to connect in person.

“Humans are made to connect, we thrive on it,” Joel says. “Allowing technology to replace human connection means people have a very superficial level of engagement – we are the most connected we’ve ever been via technology, but I would argue that we’re more disconnected than ever as humans.”

Related: How to create and maintain deep, meaningful friendships

Two men out surfing

Connected but alone

Social media has morphed into something bigger than we could have anticipated – the amount of time we spend scrolling and interacting on our chosen platforms is ever growing – but research has shown it’s making us feel more isolated and lonely than ever before.

Joel, a keen surfer and mental health occupational therapist, co-founded Waves of Wellness in 2016. The organisation, supported by nib foundation, uses ‘surf therapy’ to help people experiencing mental health challenges.

We teach them all these skills and strategies they don’t even know they’re learning – we call it health by stealth.

People experiencing anxiety and depression, bullying or low self-esteem are among those taking part in Waves of Wellness programs, problems that Joel says are being magnified through the use of social media.

"Surfing is the bait that lures people in and then we teach them all these skills and strategies they don’t even know they’re learning – we call it health by stealth.”

Related: 6 ways to get help for mental health - and you won’t have to pay a thing!

Negative effects of social media

 University of Pennsylvania study found that the higher the use of social media platforms, the higher the rate of feelings of loneliness and depression. Other negative impacts relating to social media use include:

Social comparisons 

Filtered, highly curated and edited images make us think our looks and lives aren’t up to par, despite rationally knowing it’s not a realistic representation.

Fear of missing out 

Feeling left out of real-life social interactions because they’re being presented on your feed.

Heightened anxiety and depression 

Comparisons with others aside, humans need face-to-face contact to stay mentally healthy.

Addiction to instant gratification 

The instant access and consistent feed of content can mean you are on social media longer than you should be, or even than you intend to be, exacerbating the risk of experiencing negative effects.


Social media can be a time sucker, and stop you from doing the things that improve your health and mood.


Social media platforms can be hotpots for rumours, lies and abuse.

Warped perspectives

Algorithms create echo chambers that can limit your exposure to a range of points of view and spread misinformation.

Privacy invasion

What we watch, read, like and follow are tracked, and our data used to influence what we buy, see, do and believe.


Sharing selfies and your innermost thoughts on social media can create unhealthy self-centredness and distance you from real-life connections.

What drives your use of social media?

Getting real about what you’re seeking to get from social media when you use it is a useful first step in taking control of social media rather than having it control you.

“It's important to have a conversation with ourselves and consider what we enjoy about social media and what we don't like about it,” Joel says.

You may be drawn to social media because you’re bored, procrastinating, or want external validation to bolster your self-esteem, for example, or it may be that you’re lonely and find it easier to connect with people via social media than in person or by phone.

If you find yourself becoming hypervigilant about your social media accounts, obsessively checking in to see how many likes a post has, or getting upset when the number of people following you drops, it may be time to take a step back.

Just do more of what makes you feel good, fills your cup and gets you away from your phone.

Joel advises doing more activities that put you in a state of flow and allow you to step away from technology. “Whether it’s surfing or sewing, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Just do more of what makes you feel good, fills your cup and gets you away from your phone.”

8 ways to keep your social media use in check

  1. 1

    Track your screen time and app usage with the reporting option on your phone. You may be shocked at just how much time you’re spending on social media.

  2. 2

    Reduce the number of platforms you’re on and set a limit of 10 minutes per platform per day. A study on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram use found limiting time spent on these platforms significantly reduced feelings of depression and loneliness.

  3. 3

    Choose your tribe and what to share with them. Creating a ‘close friends’ group on platforms such as Instagram can be a great way to share and stay in touch with people in your inner circle.

  4. 4

    Note which accounts trigger negative feelings and unfollow them and keep or seek out accounts that lift your spirits.

  5. 5

    Avoid the ‘explore’ or ‘discover’ or ‘for you’ section of a platform. The selection of ads, sponsored content and posts you’re shown is determined by what you’ve liked, followed, watched and read in the past and is designed to make you spend more time (and money) doing more of the same.

  6. 6

    Turn off notifications for everything other than messaging.

  7. 7

    Set your phone to ‘do not disturb’ at night, whenever you’re spending time with others, and at regular intervals through the day (pre-set or whenever you need time out).

  8. 8

    Schedule regular digital detoxes. Start with one evening a week, then try switching off for a weekend or entire holiday. Your brain will thank you for it.

If you’re struggling with depressive feelings, loneliness, jealousy or any other negative feelings, speak to your GP about ways you can work toward treating and managing your mental health.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call:

●       Lifeline 13 11 14

●        Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

●        Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

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Joel Pilgrim at the beach

Joel Pilgrim

Joel Pilgrim is an Occupational Therapist and the Founder and CEO of mental health charity, the Waves of Wellness Foundation, also known as the WOW Foundation. Joel and his team are pioneering surf therapy intervention in mental health with a vision to roll out international programs. The Waves of Wellness Foundation strives to bring the WOW factor to the field of mental health services, breaking down the stigma and turning traditional support on its head.