The anxiety of validation: How social media affects our mental health

Written by: Samantha Burgess, managing editor

Imagine that you just posted a cool photo to Instagram or tweeted a witty statement. You stare at your post waiting for someone to like and comment. To your disappointment the post gets hardly any attention. After a while you frown, setting your phone aside. You begin to wonder what went wrong. Am I not funny enough? Is the picture not as nice as I thought? Or do people just not care? In your hunger for validation, you start to become anxious or depressed when your expectations aren’t met.

This need for validation is a reality for many college students as, according to Pew Research Center, those between the ages of 19 and 29 are the top social media users. In another article by The Conversation, it was reported that 1 in 5 college students have anxiety or depression, with excessive usage of social media as a leading factor.

Dr. Clark Rose, professor and chair of the Bryan college Psychology department, explained that when we are constantly using our phones we are preventing our brains from resting. This constant stimulation wears out the brain and leads to burnout, a “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.”

“You become so anxious over the thought of missing out on whatever is happening on social media to the point where you become mentally exhausted, which then leads into depression,” said Rose.

Because we are relational beings, we desire praise and affirmation from the people around us. Rose explains that encouragement is good in the sense that it boosts our self-esteem. However, it can become toxic when we are seeking constant validation from various social media platforms.

In an article by BYU, clinical psychologist Stephen Thayer states, “When we stay in our private, online, social worlds, we miss out on the social crucible of face-to-face interaction that forges emotional resilience and character. Pandering for ‘likes’ on Facebook or Instagram does little more than feed an addiction to validation.”

This type of perceived validation leads to a certain amount of likes and comments shaping our self-esteem and our overall mental health.

Another aspect of this is our desire to live the glamorous life of Instagram celebrities and models. Social media often creates an unrealistic expectation of how we should be living our lives. We see the airbrushed photos of models or the fun, crazy life styles of celebrities and wish that we could be like them. In reality, that person isn’t as flawless and happy as we perceive them to be.

We find comfort in this sort of counterfeit reality that social media projects. This leads to distractions in the real world, whether it’s isolating yourself from friends or procrastinating studying for an exam. Rose explains that teens and young adults are so engaged with digital interactions that they avoid face-to-face interactions and thus, don’t develop necessary social skills. Lack of interpersonal social skills are attributed with loneliness and higher suicide rates.

Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic For Anxiety and Related Disorders, commented,“Social media and other technologies can give an individual a false sense of having true relationships, which can get in the way of developing peer support and mentor relationships.”

Others argue that, when used correctly, social media has positive effects. Because social media allows us to share and connect with others, it’s easier to find out when campus events are going on and to network with fellow students or potential employers. While social media can potentially damage our mental health, it can also be a place that provides peer support and allows us to find others with struggles similar to ours.

Rose added that, from a Christian perspective, social media can also be used as a way to witness to others or share inspiration. “The key is having moderation in our social media use and also realizing that social media has limitations,” said Rose. “Social media is better for general interactions as it isn’t conducive with reality.”

Since we are constantly glued to our phone, it can be hard to imagine taking a hiatus. But when social media is weighing on our mental health, it is best to take a break or at least limit our use. There are several ways in which we can balance our social media use. The first is to only check your phone when you get a notification, respond and then, instead of aimlessly scrolling, set it aside. Rose uses tupperware as an analogy for this kind of time management. Essentially, you are putting your phone into this hypothetical tupperware and only taking it out of the fridge for a certain period of time, for example 2-4 or 8-10 p.m.

Rose recommended deleting unnecessary apps or apps that send you excessive notifications. When our phone isn’t constantly pinging with notifications, we’re less likely to check it. Another tip is to post what you care about without the purpose of seeking validation. Finally, make social interaction outside of social media a priority. Go to campus game night or invite a friend out for coffee. And when your at said event, turn your phone off and focus on the interactions you’re having with the people around you.

“Limiting how often you check your phone each day is most helpful,” said Caleb Morgan, a senior corporate communication major at Bryan. “It is not very conducive to our current culture, but I believe that self-discipline is the most efficient way to avoid the negative effects of social media overuse.”

The next time you post that cool photo to Instagram or Tweet that funny statement, think about how it affects your mental health. What is more important to you: validation and the interactions you have on social media or the interactions you have with the people around you?


Samantha Burgess is a junior majoring in communication with an emphasis in digital media and is managing editor for the Triangle. Her interests in writing include profiles and feature articles. Burgess can often be found curled up with a good book, writing, listening to music or watching TV.