Social Media and Self-Esteem: A Toxic Pairing

Phi Atratus
  • Jan 19, 2022
  • 6 min read
young man interacting on social media

Social media platforms have become omnipresent. Most people have profiles on multiple platforms and use them to share updates and posts about their lives and connect with other people.

As much as we’d like to avoid social media, the truth is that it’s almost impossible for adolescents to grow up without it. Even adults are on social media, and many of them need these platforms for their jobs or to contact their friends and relatives, among other things.

While social media gives us tons of benefits, it also comes with certain risks. Low self-esteem is one of those risks. In this article, you're going to learn more about social media and self-esteem and how to feel better about yourself.

How Common Is Social Media Use, Really?

Numbers show that 82% of the U.S. population had a profile on social networks in 2021, which is a 2% increase compared to data from the previous year. More precisely, there are about 223 million social media users in the United States as of 2020.

Pew Research Center reports that 81% of surveyed adults use YouTube, whereas 69% most frequently use Facebook. People under the age of 30 are more likely to report spending a lot of time on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.

A report from Uswitch details that Americans spend around 325 hours a year on Facebook, or 58 minutes a day. About 53 minutes a day, or 297 hours a year, are spent on Instagram. The amount of time spent on Snapchat is about 50 minutes a day, or 277 hours per year. On YouTube, 40 minutes a day or 224 hours per year, and on Pinterest – 14 minutes a day, or 80 hours per year.

That’s a lot of hours.

People don’t limit themselves to one social media platform; most use multiple apps throughout the day. Such heavy use of social media has a major impact on a person’s mental health and well-being.

How Social Media Affects Self-Esteem

The question here is: what is self-esteem, actually?

In psychology, self-esteem is defined as a positive or negative orientation toward oneself, meaning that it's an overall evaluation of one's value or worth. High self-esteem indicates positive self-regard; it doesn’t mean a person is egoistic.

A person with a healthy self-esteem has a firm understanding of their skills, understands their needs, is able to express them, has realistic expectations from themselves, and maintains healthy relationships with others since they also have a healthy relationship with themselves.

Various factors influence our self-esteem, and social media is one of them. One study found that social media use was associated with low self-esteem in people with and without psychosis. Low self-esteem was linked to posting about feelings and venting on social media platforms.

Heavy social media use is particularly difficult for adolescents. Evidence shows greater use of social media, especially among women, is associated with online harassment, low teenage self-esteem, poor sleep, and negative body image.

Why are social media and self-esteem problems connected? Multiple factors could explain the link, and comparison to other people is on top of the list. A typical social media user, regardless of age, is exposed to all sorts of posts from their peers online. In that setting, a person is inclined to compare their life to someone else’s on that platform. This raises questions and doubts about their self-worth and paves the way to low self-esteem.

When it comes to social media and self-esteem, it’s important to address two major problems: cyberbullying and distorted body image.


Cyberbullying, also known as online bullying, has become a common occurrence today. Adolescents and young adults are most frequently affected by harassment via social media and text messages. About 50% of 10–18-year-olds have experienced some form of cyberbullying at one point or another. At the same time, victims of online bullying are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and self-harm and skip school.

Although cyberbullying is most common in adolescents, adults also experience it. In fact, 40% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some form of online bullying, and 75% have witnessed it happening to someone around them.

The reality is that cyberbullying can take place anywhere in a digital setting, such as text messages or online forums, among other things. This form of harassment existed before social media. That being said, social media did take it to a whole new level. Nowadays, a vast majority of online bullying cases take place on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, just to name a few. On these platforms, bullies have the freedom to post hurtful and harmful comments and hide their identities by creating fake profiles.

Users can share comments, images, and videos with their friends and other people, meaning a certain post can go viral. This can be even more difficult for a bullied person because their bullying doesn't actually stop. It keeps happening over and over again.

Compared to those who never experienced online bullying in any form, subjects who were either victims or offenders have lower self-esteem. A bullied person is constantly swamped with insulting messages and comments, which can be overwhelming. They may be inclined to doubt their worth and believe those hurtful comments are correct. This leads to self-esteem problems and negative quality of life. The link between social media and low self-esteem is strong but not impossible to overcome.

Distorted body image

Distorted or negative body image is referred to as feeling dissatisfied with one’s body or appearance. A person with a distorted body image is constantly focused on comparing their shape, size, and overall appearance with someone else, usually with unrealistic ideals. Also, someone with a negative body image may envy their friend's shape and appearance or resort to unhealthy lifestyle measures to achieve their body goals. For instance, they may engage in fad dieting.

Self-esteem and body image directly influence one another. A person with healthy self-esteem also has a positive body image, whereas their counterpart with low self-esteem tends to struggle with distorted body image.

One study showed that widespread use of social media could increase body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness, thus making people more vulnerable to eating disorders.

The connection between negative body image and social media has a lot to do with comparing oneself to other people. On social media platforms, especially Instagram and TikTok, users get to follow a wide range of influencers who share photos of “perfect” bodies and show just how fairytale-like their life is. But social media isn’t always real. In fact, it often isn’t. In many cases, these photos are heavily airbrushed to contribute to the prevalent idea of the perfect, thin, defined body.

A person who is exposed to that content often compares their body to the influencer’s (or someone else they follow) and feels they can’t compete. That’s when they draw the conclusion that their body isn’t attractive. When this happens on a daily basis, a person experiences serious problems with body image.

How Social Media Affects Mental Health

The relationship between social media and mental health goes beyond its effects on self-esteem. Heavy use of social media platforms can have other consequences too. Social media use is associated with anxiety, depression, and social isolation. The mental health problems caused by social media are particularly pronounced in heavy users.

One Canadian study found that students who used social media more than two hours a day were significantly more likely to use words such as “poor” or “fair” to describe their mental health compared to occasional users.

Additionally, heavy social media use is also associated with disrupted sleep. Inadequate sleep pattern is also linked to mental health problems ranging from stress to depression. It’s also noteworthy that your energy levels are also low when you don’t get enough sleep.

In other words, factors that make you more likely to experience negative mental health consequences of social media include frequency and duration of use, how much you sleep, and your current mental health status. People with problems such as anxiety and depression may find that social media worsens their condition.

Can Counseling Help?

Counseling is helpful for a wide spectrum of mental health and other problems. Problems caused by social media aren’t the exceptions. Regular therapy sessions can be particularly useful for a person with low self-esteem or someone who was subjected to online bullying or suffers from negative body image.

Besides face-to-face therapy, online counseling sessions are also a viable option. In a safe environment via video call, you work on resolving your problems with the most suitable therapist for your needs. Since everything is online, their location doesn’t matter. Only quality does!

During online therapy, the therapist creates a safe, nonjudgmental setting where you can discuss your struggles and work to adopt coping mechanisms that will allow you to improve mental health and improve your self-esteem. At the same time, online therapy is more affordable and convenient since you can take part in the sessions regardless of where you are, even from your office or bedroom.

The Final Word

The number of social media users keeps growing on a daily basis. Despite various benefits, social media also carries some problems. Many users experience issues with low self-esteem due to negative body image, online bullying, and comparisons to other people.

You can work on social media and self-esteem problems with a therapist. Therapy is a healthy and effective strategy for persons who want to empower their mental health and improve their quality of life. This is particularly the case for online therapy, which is convenient, practical, affordable, and easy to attend.

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