Does social media make you feel lonely? Here's why and how to avoid it.

by Kaiser Permanente |
Three smiling friends take a selfie on a mobile phone

Social media can be a fun and easy way to connect with friends and loved ones near and far. But if you’ve ever scrolled through your Instagram or Facebook feed and felt lonely, down on yourself, or unhappy as a result, you’re not alone.1

Researchers found that people turn to social media more when they’re feeling lonely.2 But, surprisingly, people felt worse after spending time on social media. It didn’t help them feel less isolated. It actually made them feel lonelier. This was due to social comparison — or the act of comparing yourself to others. The more study participants compared themselves to others while using social media, the less happy they felt.2

“We’re all prone to comparing ourselves to others but social media can heighten this tendency,” says Michael Torres, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Mental Health and Wellness Center in San Leandro, California. “For example, you look at other people’s posts and think: ‘I should be doing that. I should be living that life. I should be that happy. I should have that body. I should have that kind of family. I should have that many friends.’”

“Social comparison often happens when you feel like you’re not experiencing the lives others are portraying in their posts,” says Dr. Torres. It can be hard not to feel bad about yourself — especially if others are glamourizing their lives or curating their posts to look a certain way. But this sort of thinking is bad for your mental health. “When you compare yourself to others, it leads to self-judgment, low self-esteem, and a negative sense of self,” Dr. Torres explains.

To help you have a healthier relationship with social media, Dr. Torres shares 8 tips on how to stop comparing yourself to others as you’re scrolling through your feed.

Actively comment and reply to others

Researchers found that the more you look at other people’s posts and images without engaging with them, the more likely you are to compare yourself to others. And this leads to lower self-esteem.2

Passive scrolling takes away the positive mood-boosting benefits that come from person-to-person interaction.2 Forget the passive “likes” too. Instead, try to comment and reply to others with positive messages. Make social media, well, social. You’ll feel more connected to others if you make it more of a 2-way conversation.

Spend less time on social media

“The fact is, the more time you spend on social media, the more accustomed you get to self-comparison and the negative mindset that comes along with it,” says Dr. Torres. Try cutting back to a total of one hour a day to help you get to a healthier frame of mind. The goal is to give yourself some time away from social media to de-stress, focus on yourself, and feel better.

If you’re really struggling with negative emotions and loneliness because of social media, Dr. Torres suggests taking a 1- to 2-week break from it. Then measure how you feel afterward. “Chances are you’ll feel better,” he says.

Start using the unfollow button

If you consistently feel jealous, angry, sad, or down on yourself after seeing someone else’s social media posts, it’s time to cut them out of your feed. “Stop following people, organizations, and causes that make you feel bad,” says Dr. Torres. “This is an essential boundary to establish for yourself,” he says.

“Just like you would stop spending time with a toxic friend in real life,” says Dr. Torres, “you should also stop spending time with a toxic social media friend.” Your own mental health is more important than following someone or something on social media. Even if they’re a friend or family member in real life, you can unfollow them. You don’t have to bring those negative feelings into your daily life. It’s OK to set those boundaries.

Follow organizations that inspire you

“Don’t follow so many people on social media,” says Dr. Torres. It might sound funny, but one way to avoid comparing yourself to others is simply seeing fewer people in your feed to compare yourself to. Instead, Dr. Torres recommends following organizations that are doing good in the world and that inspire you. This could be organizations or campaigns that promote healthy living, well-being, and other encouraging messages.

At minimum, he suggests following more positive-oriented organizations or campaigns than individuals. “If you choose to follow people, make sure they’re inspirational, healthy, or make you feel good,” he says.

Go positive with your posts

“Posting positive things that matter to you or that inspire you can feel life-affirming and help you have a more constructive experience on social media,” says Dr. Torres. “I especially like to encourage teens and young adults to commit to going positive on social media — it helps get them out of the gossipy and cyberbully world of social media,” he says.

The point though isn’t to post a glossy, idealized version of your life to make others jealous. It’s more about creating a positive space for you and others. Share things that you’re learning or developing in your life to help connect you with others.

Turn off push notifications

Alerts can be a stressful and upsetting reminder of how everyone else is doing. Take control of your account and only check it when you feel like it. “Shutting off notifications is a healthy boundary to set with your social media use,” says Dr. Torres. Especially if you know you’ve been feeling lonely, anxious, or sad because of it.

Make bedtime a social-media free zone

“Stay off social media at nighttime and before bed,” says Dr. Torres. “That quick scroll before bed can leave you with anxious thoughts and negative feelings that can keep you up at night.” These worried thoughts can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. This can further affect your mood and happiness. Try to avoid checking your phone. Consider charging it out of arm’s reach or do a pre-bedtime meditation.

Connect in-person

Spend time with people in real life. “Social media can be an excellent way to feel connected, but let’s not make it the only way to feel connected with people, places, and things,” says Dr. Torres. “Nothing is better than an actual in-person engagement with a friend,” he explains. When you’re face to face, you can read body language, emotions, and energy better, which means more empathy and less comparison.

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2  Derrick Wirtz et al., “How and Why Social Media Affect Subjective Well-Being: Multi-Site Use and Social Comparison as Predictors of Change Across Time,” Journal of Happiness Studies, August 5, 2020.