The impact of prolonged social media exposure during the pandemic is something which we are only beginning to fully understand as a population. With legal requirements to work from home and minimize contact with others, many people have become dependent on social media as a form of entertainment, socialisation and distraction. In the year of 2020 alone, the average time spent on Meta platforms increased by 70%, whilst total messaging increased by 50%⁽¹⁾. Although many used social media as a means to de-stress during a period of mass isolation; a study by the IFS found that the public’s mental health actually worsened by 8.1%⁽²⁾⁽³⁾.

The negative impact of social media on the public’s mental health is something which has been firmly established since it first took off in the early 2000s. Due to the predictive and addictive nature of social media, users are incentivised to spend longer periods of time online than they otherwise would normally. Although algorithms help to create a more personalised user experience, the ways in which content is suggested can act as a catalyst for pre-existing mental health conditions. Moreover, social media’s addictiveness can impact the brain’s chemistry; which exacerbates feelings of low mood and creates a dependency on social media in order to produce dopamine. 

The upheaval caused by a global pandemic may also help to explain why people are struggling now more than ever. Although mandatory lockdowns were essential in reducing pressure on the healthcare system and curbing infection rates in the short term; the mental impact of prolonged isolation may be more longstanding. Considering the psychological importance that humans place on socialisation, incentives to work from home may remove crucial opportunities for people to interact with others, which have a knock-on effect on a person’s mood. In addition, the constant coverage of Covid-related news during lockdowns may exacerbate feelings of stress, isolation and hopelessness. By looking at all of the ways in which Covid has impacted the public’s everyday life, it is easy to see the relationship between the pandemic and a decline in mental wellbeing. 

Keeping these two factors in mind; it is easy to see why mental illnesses are on the increase post-pandemic. Considering that people have been unable to participate in everyday activities or contribute to society; many find themselves using social media much more heavily than they otherwise would. The lack of stimulating activity only makes it harder for users to pry themselves from their screens, which can lead to issues with dependency.  When combined with the stressful nature of the pandemic, these two components act as a perfect storm in decimating the public’s mental health. 

In order to fully understand how and why the public’s mental health has been impacted, it is important to fully investigate the influence of two factors; social media (outside of the pandemic) and the pandemic itself. By looking at both of these factors individually, it is then possible to understand the combined impact of both. From the findings gathered, this piece aims to conclude to what extent social media has impacted the public’s mental health and whether it can be seen as a main or contributing factor in the mental health decline during the pandemic.   

Social Media

Social media’s intentional addictiveness is something which has long since been established. Since the first introduction of Facebook in 2006, social media has shaped the ways in which we interact with others. Because of the importance that social media plays in society, it’s easy to see why so many people have become addicted to liking and sharing content online. Considering that social media addiction is a behavioural addiction⁽⁴⁾; the normalisation of spending long periods of time online helps to encourage such dependency issues to develop. As a whole, more than 330 million people suffer from social media addiction worldwide; amounting to almost 7% of social media users⁽⁵⁾. 

Social media is effective in keeping users hooked using two factors; predictiveness and addictiveness. These help to keep users coming back more frequently and for longer periods of time. Social media algorithms are designed and implemented in order to predict what we want to see by monitoring our interactions online and recommending content which matches our interest. On a psychological level, these interactions are designed to be intentionally addictive; encouraging users to spend longer periods of time online by influencing the brain’s chemical response.


Ramsay Brown states that “behavioural design...has certain patterns...just like architectural and industrial design”⁽⁶⁾. Social media track these interactions on a macro and micro scale; helping to predict which topics will grab our attention next⁽⁷⁾. Large scale interactions (such as liking and sharing) and small scale interactions (such as hesitations in scrolling) are used to help build a digital persona of each user based around their likes and interests⁽⁸⁾. This helps to create a more personalised experience online, keeping users engaged and producing a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion”⁽⁹⁾⁽¹º⁾⁽¹¹⁾⁽¹²⁾; where interactions with positive posts further encourage positive behaviours and interactions online. 

Conversely, negative interactions can lead to a downward spiral of negative content consumption; otherwise known as ‘doomscrolling’. This behaviour can lead to users with anxiety to develop unhealthy fixations around stressful topics. Since users with anxiety and depression are already more predisposed to interacting with negative or stressful content; algorithms may act as a catalyst in the worsening of such conditions.

For users suffering with anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), subconscious micro interactions can lead to triggering topics appearing on screen. This can lead to confirmation bias, a distortion of risk perception and an increased likelihood of users looking at more stressful topics in the future⁽¹⁴⁾⁽¹⁵⁾. Although users have the ability to avoid triggers, the intuitive nature of algorithms make it hard to act before interactions are logged. Morteza Dheghani states that we as humans are designed to think emotionally; “it’s the nature of humanity that emotional processes are faster, and gut reactions happen before reason kicks in”⁽⁶⁾.

Viewing this type of content online increases the user’s stress levels, triggering a fight or flight response. Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University states that this response can lead to users doing the very thing that causes them stress; “our constant need to check in...produces the stress hormone cortisol, generating discomfort and anxiety if we can’t check in or miss something⁽⁶⁾.” This stress response can lead to the rapid perpetuation of unhealthy fixations and facilitate spiralling. 


From the moment that social media was conceived, it has been designed to capture and hold user attention. Neuroscientist Ramsay Brown describes how social media is designed to trigger the release of feel good chemicals to the brain, stating that “All social media platforms have ways to keep you coming back⁽⁶⁾.” Social media uses multiple different techniques in order to keep users hooked such as; Queued alerts, counteracting ‘end’ signals and the fear of missing out⁽⁶⁾.

Queued Alerts

In order to keep people engaged on social media, social media platforms send notifications targeted towards the needs and interests of the user. This incentivises users to re-enter the application with the promise of instant gratification. 

Counteracting ‘end’ signals

Our brain is hardwired to sort everyday actions into a start, middle and end. This allows us to calculate how long we should spend on specific tasks and sends us signals when to stop. Through functionality such as infinite scroll, users no longer know when to log out or take a screen break. Because of this, we are much more likely to spend longer periods of time on social media. 

The fear of missing out

Part of the reason that users spend long periods of time online is the looming possibility of instant gratification. Similarly to gambling, our brain craves the dopamine highs caused by our pleasure response. Because users fear missing important or satisfying interactions, they are more likely to spend long periods of time online. As a whole, fear of missing out (FOMO) has been linked to lower mood, lower life satisfaction and higher levels of dependency in users. 

In a testimony before the House of Consumer Protection and eCommerce in 2020, former Facebook director Tim Kendall compared Facebook’s intuitive design to “[taking] a page out of big tobacco’s playbook to make [their] offering addictive from the outset”⁽¹⁶⁾. This addictiveness may go some way to explain why people develop unhealthy fixations and struggle with dependency issues when using social media on a daily basis. 

Even without a global pandemic, social media addiction has been known to cause a decline in mental health; including increased feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. In a 2018 study by Harvard University, scientists identified neural pathways in the brain which associates the use of social media with the use of addictive substances⁽⁸⁾⁽¹⁷⁾. This constant injection of dopamine can deregulate the production of feel-good chemicals to the brain, meaning that users feel the need to spend longer periods of time online and struggle to feel as happy outside of social media⁽¹⁸⁾. In addition, it has been proven that social media addiction has a negative impact on sleep patterns and quality of sleep⁽¹⁹⁾, which impacts on the brain’s ability to function on a day to day basis. As a whole, it is clear to see that there is a strong correlation between long term social media use, issues with dependency and a decline in mental wellbeing. 

The pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the public have suffered from a general decline in their mental wellbeing. As we begin to transition back to a sense of normality, many are only beginning to deal with the distress caused by multiple lockdowns and deaths over the past 18 months. In a Chinese study taken in January 2020⁽²º⁾, 54% of participants noted a moderate to severe psychological impact from the pandemic; with 27% dealing with symptoms of anxiety and 17% dealing with symptoms of depression⁽²º⁾. Additionally, an online study noted a 72% increase in OCD and OCD related symptoms⁽²¹⁾. This may be due to a number of factors, including social isolation and reduced access to psychiatric care. When understanding the reasons behind such figures, it’s important to recognise the impact that the pandemic has had on the population’s everyday lives; including their social and working lives. 

Aside from these two main elements, it is important to consider additional factors which may have contributed to a decline in mental wellbeing. These include job redundancies, grief, a lack of routine, constant news coverage and the general stress caused by such an event. There are countless reasons as to why a person’s mental health may have been impacted at this time, since the Pandemic has affected everyone on a deeply personal level. 

The impact on social lives

Socialisation is an essential part of everyday life. Aside from the general benefits of mixing with others; socialisation has been proven to enhance concentration and cognitive function, as well as reducing the likelihood of developing dementia⁽²²⁾. When Coronavirus restrictions and lockowns were imposed, people were no longer able to benefit from socialising and struggled with feelings of loneliness as a result. Moreover, it has been proven that a lack of socialisation can have a number of incredibly negative psychological effects; including increased feelings of depression, a loss of reality and low self esteem⁽²³⁾. During the first Coronavirus lockdown, many spent months separated from friends, family members and loved ones. It then comes as no surprise that this had a negative effect on people’s wellbeing as a result. In a recent study, 76.6% of respondents suffered from a lack of concentration due to a lack of socialisation⁽²⁴⁾⁽²⁵⁾; whilst around 30% noted feelings of anxiety and loneliness⁽²⁶⁾. 

Moreover, prolonged isolation can have a huge impact on our emotional and physical health; negatively impacting sleep patterns and eating habits due to a lack of movement and mental stimulation⁽²⁷⁾. This dampens the human body’s pleasure response and impacts the brain’s emotional processing center (or amygdala)⁽²⁸⁾; which can worsen or contribute towards feelings of anxiety and depression. For those suffering from more acute symptoms, social isolation can lead to increased feelings of suicidality and hopelessness⁽²⁹⁾; which has unfortunately lead to a higher rate of suicide during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

As the world begins to open up and return to normality, many people are having to re-learn how to socialise with others outside of their bubble. Many psychologists have noted increased levels of social anxiety in people⁽²⁸⁾, as they struggle to re-adapt to socialising outside of lockdown. Those suffering from social anxiety may also find it more difficult to recover due to Covid; since it is easier than ever to avoid social contact. Psychology researcher Marla Genova further explains the impact of isolation on those suffering from social anxiety:

“Maintaining the progress is really important – because once you are not around people, as we haven’t been for almost a year now, it’s very easy to slip back into old patterns.”
(Ro 2021)

The impact on working lives

The pandemic has changed a lot of different aspects of everyday life; from the way that we socialise to the way that we work. In order to reduce transmission in the pandemic’s early stages, many people began working from home. Many would argue this can be seen as a positive thing; since it removes the need to commute, optimises workplace performance and makes work more accessible to everyone. However, working from home may have a number of negative impacts on a person’s mental health due to a number of social and environmental factors. 

Removing the social aspect from work can further perpetuate feelings of loneliness during a pandemic. Many people rely on their peers for moral and organisational support that they would otherwise miss out on at home. In a recent study completed by the RSPH, 67% of participants that transitioned to WFH felt that their health and wellbeing was impacted, as they felt disconnected from their colleagues⁽³⁰⁾. For many people, the work place is more than just a place to clock in and out of; it’s a place to make lifelong friends and work alongside people that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

As a result of the transition to remote work, people spend more time than ever behind a screen. In the past year alone, screen time has increased by 76% on average⁽³¹⁾. When working remotely, our attention is divided among a number of different platforms; including Slack, Email and Zoom. This Makes it difficult for people to hold and maintain focus throughout the day, contributing to workplace burnout⁽³²⁾. Moreover, there is a feeling of expectation to remain online throughout the day; leading to workers spending more time focusing on these platforms than on deeper forms of work. As a result of this, many struggle with feelings of workplace anxiety and a blurring of work and non-work boundaries⁽³³⁾⁽³⁴⁾. In a 2017 report by United Nations, 41% of remote workers reported feelings of stress and anxiety; compared to 25% of office workers⁽³⁵⁾⁽³⁶⁾.  

Although remote working enables people to work from anywhere, many people default to working from their bedrooms or living rooms due to limited space at home⁽³⁰⁾. Before Covid, a person’s home could be viewed as a socialising and relaxing space after a day at work. Because of the immediate shift to at-home working, many struggled to mentally separate their working and relaxing space and struggled to fully focus during working hours. For those working in sleeping areas such as bedrooms (almost 26% of workers⁽³⁰⁾), working from home tended to have an impact on their sleeping patterns and musculoskeletal health. Moreover, parents and pet owners also had to balance education/ supervision alongside their everyday work life during lockdown. This caused many to suffer from increased levels of anxiety and fatigue/burnout as a result. In the same study by the RSPH, 41% of respondents with more than one person in their house (including children, housemates etc) felt more prone to mental health issues whilst working from home, whilst only 29% of respondents who lived alone felt the same way⁽³⁰⁾.

Aside from the general issues of working and relaxing in the same space; working from home has been associated with a negative impact on a person’s work-life balance. This of course varies depending on the kind of work completed, the support given by workplaces and external support outside of the workplace⁽³⁷⁾. A research article by Jodi Oakman looks into this relationship in more depth, and from her findings identified a connection between lower intensity work and higher levels of work strain⁽³⁷⁾. This may be due to a number of factors such as increased complexity when working from home, lower autonomy and remaining in constant contact with work⁽³⁰⁾⁽³⁷⁾. This makes it harder for people to shut off at the end of the day due to the flexibility of working times. Keeping all of these factors in mind, it is easy to understand why many struggled with their mental health during this time. 

Social Media & the pandemic

By looking at the individual impacts of social media and the pandemic, it is easier to see how both factors coincide to impact the population’s mental wellbeing. Safety measures which reduce social activity have made us more reliant on technology for our day to day lives. This reliance then increases the likelihood of developing a social media addiction and struggling with mental health issues as a result. Moreover, the ways in which we use social media has changed because of the pandemic; with more people sharing and discussing the news than ever before. When combined with the addictiveness and predictiveness of social media, this has the potential to perpetuate and worsen anxiety around the pandemic. 

Due to lockdowns and social distancing, many people have become more reliant on social media as a means of combating symptoms of loneliness. Although this was intended to reduce the impact caused by a lack of socialisation; excessive social media use may end up having the opposite effect. A study by the Fudan Institute of Communication links social media exposure during Covid-19 to an increased likelihood of developing combined anxiety and depression⁽³⁸⁾. Although loneliness and a lack of socialisation increase the risk of developing mental health issues⁽²³⁾⁽²⁶⁾⁽²⁹⁾, social media usage may only end up exacerbating such problems. This is due in part to the way in which social media is designed; since algorithms tend to monitor a user’s interactions⁽⁷⁾. This results in an increased likelihood of ‘doomsurfing’ or ‘doomscrolling’ in users with more negative thought and behavioural patterns⁽¹³⁾⁽¹⁴⁾⁽¹⁵⁾.

A large proportion of our daily lives have transitioned from offline to online as a result of the pandemic. A recent Ofcom report found that users spent an average of four hours and two minutes online each day; whilst time spent on social media increased by 36%⁽³⁹⁾. As a result, there is a greater proportion of people using social media in excess compared to pre-pandemic statistics. This may be due in part to the psychological impact of the pandemic; as many people used social media as a source of entertainment and distraction during the pandemic’s early stages. In recent findings from longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, a link has been identified between consistent levels of stress and excessive social media usage⁽⁴⁰⁾. Users with pre-existing mental health issues are more prone to excessive use; as social media addiction tends to be driven by psychological problems⁽⁴¹⁾. A research article by Nan and Guangyu Zhou outlines this relationship in more detail; stating that individuals suffering from moderate to severe Covid-related stress may feel that their basic needs are not being met psychologically (due to a lack of autonomy) and therefore turn to social media as a substitute for said unmet needs⁽⁴²⁾.

The pandemic has largely changed the way in which we use social media. In order to feel more connected, many people resorted to going online during the early stages of the pandemic. As the number of people using social media increased, so too did the amount of covid-related content. The coronavirus pandemic is unique in the sense that it is the first global pandemic experienced during the time of social media. This was of great benefit to health and governing bodies, as they were able to keep a large number of the public informed about the pandemic’s progress. However, the increased discussion and coverage of covid-related content may have facilitated ‘cyberchondria’ in users suffering from pandemic-related anxiety or OCD⁽⁴³⁾. Cyberchondria refers to anxiety about a person’s health, which is exacerbated or worsened by going online⁽⁴⁴⁾. This constant stream of information can cause users to become hyper-aware of pandemic related news, and can lead to users overestimating the personal threat of covid⁽⁴³⁾. This kind of interaction releases cortisol to the brain⁽⁶⁾; which can cause and facilitate spiraling behaviour in users with Cyberchondria⁽⁴³⁾. In the research article ‘Cyberchondria in the age of Covid 19’, the author describes how this can prompt unhealthy fixations and responses:

Anxiety and insecurity can trigger a compulsive search for information on social media that will further intensify anxiety, creating a vicious cycle of cyberchondria that is difficult to a result of potentially disturbing information, [it] can trigger or reinforce further safety-seeking behaviour (e.g., further/excessive Internet use).(Jokic-Begic 2020)

The WHO even identified the risk of excessive pandemic coverage, stating that we as a society were facing two major threats; a pandemic and an infodemic⁽⁴⁵⁾⁽⁴⁶⁾. As a result, they recommended that users avoid looking at or searching for covid related content more than once a day⁽⁴⁵⁾, since it can be incredibly detrimental to stress levels. One of the biggest problems that we face with the covid infodemic is the rapid spread of fake news. Since the pandemic started, sites like Twitter and Facebook have become inundated with news reports surrounding the topic of Covid-19. In the last year alone, 30 million tweets have been posted around the topic of Covid⁽⁴⁶⁾ . Twitter has even created a designated section in the app for users to view Covid-related news articles. In an age of mass information, it is easier than ever for fake news to slip through the cracks and even harder for sites to regulate. David Lazer, a professor of political science at Northeastern explains why this is the case, as “less than one percent [contribute towards] 80 or 90% of fake news”⁽⁴⁶⁾. Fake news is particularly dangerous in the way that it undermines credible news sources, undermines public support of safety measures and causes unnecessary stress in users suffering from pandemic-related anxiety⁽⁴³⁾. Meta has started to combat this issue by implementing algorithms to scan posts for covid related content, placing warnings over more questionable posts. Sites like Twitter and Tiktok have taken similar steps to combat the spread of misinformation, allowing users to ‘report’ any information that the site may have missed. However, it is worth questioning in hindsight whether these measures were implemented at the right time and, if so, how effective they were in containing the spread of fake news. 


From our findings, it is clear to see the profound impact of social media and the pandemic on the general public’s mental wellbeing. Even prior to Coronavirus, the negative implications of prolonged social media exposure has been observed and well established. Through reflection of these findings, we return to our original question; to what extent did social media impact the public’s mental wellbeing during the pandemic?

It is irrefutable that social media did impact the mental health of the public during Coronavirus. When combined with the social impact of lockdowns and social distancing; social media created a perfect storm for those struggling with loneliness, anxiety and depression. However, social media was not a sole factor in the public’s decline in mental wellbeing; so therefore it shouldn’t be considered as one. 

The level of mental health issues in the general public is unprecedented; after all, we live in unprecedented times. Placing the blame solely on social media paints a highly inaccurate picture; and fails to consider a number of factors. The UK is predominantly an aging population; with only 55% of over 65s having a social media platform⁽⁴⁷⁾. Moreover, the ways in which this age group uses social media vastly differs compared to younger age groups. However, despite their lack of online engagement; these groups have arguably been hit hardest by the pandemic. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Tackling Loneliness Network found that over a million over 65s are currently struggling with loneliness and/or mental health issues as a result of Coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns⁽⁴⁸⁾. It is also worth noting that our increased time spent online was as a result of Coronavirus restrictions. Without these; many would have avoided becoming reliant on social media or suffering from loneliness or social isolation as a result. 

In reality; the coronavirus has hit everyone on a personal level. Many have lost loved ones and missed out on major life events such as graduations, birthdays, weddings and Christmases. We have all lost two years of our life to a virus; that is something which a lot of us will never get back. The collective trauma caused by such a profound loss is something which we should all recognise and appreciate. 

With regards to the role that social media played; it is clear that the population’s mental health did not decline solely due to social media, but instead due to the effects of the pandemic at large. The pandemic and social media may have worked together to erode the mental wellbeing of the younger members of the population; but this is only because these people were left with little other alternative but to go online. As a whole, the effects of loneliness and heavy social media usage on the general population is something which should be heavily reflected upon and considered as we look to the future of this pandemic. 

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