The Dark Side of Social Media: How It Affects Self-Esteem

By June Kellum
June Kellum
June Kellum
June Kellum is a married mother of two and longtime Epoch Times journalist covering family, relationships, and health topics.
April 12, 2019 Updated: February 18, 2020

Social media is enjoyable to us, partly for reasons that are genuinely human, such as sharing ideas, finding inspiration, being entertained, learning new things, and, of course, connecting with other people.

Getting likes and positive feedback online can also make us feel good about ourselves, increasing what we might call a sense of self-esteem.

But social media also has a shadow side. Because it’s so enjoyable, social media can easily, and without our even realizing it, start to consume us—our time, focus, and emotional energy.

Social media can be an emotional roller coaster, making us feel terrible. It can make us envious of a friend’s vacation, car, family gadget, or work opportunity; hopeless and angry about the state of the world; or depressed about ourselves. And this can happen in the time it takes to scroll to a new post on Facebook.

To employ social media to our best advantage, we need to use it with wisdom and  know that it can amplify our own shadow side.


Social media is also enjoyable because platforms are designed for maximum attractiveness.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. … It’s exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology, ” former Facebook President Sean Parker said about the social media giant he helped create.

According to a report by Engineering and Tech magazine, Parker, who also co-founded Napster, said in a speech in 2017 that this exploitation was intentional.

“The thought process that went into building these [social networks]—Facebook being the first of them to really understand it—that thought process was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” he said.

“And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments.”

These little dopamine rushes can add up to an addiction.

According to an article by researchers at Harvard University, “Platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.”

And doctors have started to express concerns.

“It has taken the medical establishment a long time to recognize nonsubstance addictions, including relentless and uncontrollable use of digital media as an ‘addiction,’” wrote Dr. Paul Thomas and Jennifer Margulis in their book, “The Addiction Spectrum,” which includes a chapter on digital addiction.   

It was only last year that the World Health Organization recognized “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition, Thomas and Margulis noted.

Self-esteem certainly plays a role in any addiction, but the relationship is not always straightforward. Drug addiction often correlates with low self-esteem, while people addicted to gambling may initially have high self-esteem. This can flip, though, as gamblers become increasingly unable to control their behavior and fall into debt.

Similar to gambling, the “wins” on social media—when people like posts or write glowing comments—can raise self-esteem. But this is not stable ground on which to base a sense of self-worth.

Getting likes and accumulating a vast social following are not genuine indicators of our worth as human beings.

In an interview, Margulis said that social media can give us a false sense of being social.

“It’s isolating. Teenagers and adults don’t spend time talking on the phone, going for walks, going to parties, being together. They spend their time on their devices,” she said.

She pointed out that eye contact and physical touch, which are important to healthy relationships, are completely lacking in social media interactions, and this is “having a huge negative impact on young people’s self-esteem.”

In some cases, the impact is devastating.

We’ve seen a statistically significant uptick in suicide rates among young adults and I personally know of two young men who committed suicide in the last two months. Both of those young men were struggling with overuse of gaming and of social media,” she said.  


Besides addiction, social media use has been correlated with more loneliness, anxiety, depression, and narcissism, as well as a relatively new condition, FOMO (fear of missing out).

It also creates the perfect storm for an age-old vice: envy.

One of the seven deadly sins, envy is warned against by every major religion, but in today’s culture, envy is not the taboo it was in the past, and social media brings it out more frequently and with surprising strength.

We live in the age of envy. Career envy, kitchen envy, children envy, food envy, upper arm envy, holiday envy. You name it, there’s an envy for it,” writer Moya Sarner said in an article about envy and social media, published by The Guardian.

Envy is defined as a painful desire to have what someone else possesses, whether in terms of material possessions, accomplishments, or opportunities. Envy can also manifest as wanting someone else to be stripped of something that is theirs. (Jealousy is often defined a bit differently, as it relates to not wanting to lose something one currently possesses—often a romantic relationship).

Envy also has an illogical characteristic: We generally feel it in regard to those close to us. For example, we don’t envy the wealth of Bill Gates, but we might envy the money or possessions of a friend or neighbor.

Social media offers unprecedented and abundant opportunities to be envious by exposing us to a wider segment of our peers and often only the highlights of their lives.

“Our age of equality and mass media encourages us to compare ourselves to anyone and everyone, fanning the flames of our envy,” psychologist Neel Burton wrote in Psychology Today.

Burton, author of several books includingHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception,” said our culture of materialism is partly at fault.

“By emphasizing the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible, our culture of empiricism and consumerism has removed the one countervailing force capable of smothering those flames,” Burton said.

In the book “Envy in Everyday Life,” forensic psychotherapist Patricia Polledri said envy is not something people are born with, but that takes root in early childhood if children fail to bond with their mothers and subsequently don’t develop good self-esteem.

Burton pointed out that envy is at the root of many other woes, including relationship issues, and mental and physical health problems.

“The distraction of envy and the dread of arousing it in others paradoxically holds us back from achieving our fullest potential. Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, tempers, restrains, and undermines even our closest relationships,” he said. “In some cases, it can even lead to acts of sabotage, as with the child who breaks the toy that he knows he cannot have. Over time, our anguish and bitterness can lead to physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers; and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. We are, quite literally, consumed by envy.”

Maybe this is why it was considered a deadly sin.

And the root of envy? Low self-esteem.

“Envy is the reaction of the many with low self-esteem. And thus that self-esteem is the key to self-improvement, “ Burton wrote.

Healthy Social Media Use

Social media use is a very personal decision, but one that can have a big impact on your well-being. This can be as subtle as staying up a bit too late, or using it to procrastinate.  

If you are concerned that you or a loved one might be addicted or on the verge of addiction to social media, there are online questionnaires that can help bring more certainty. “The Addiction Spectrum” also has a self-quiz to help you see where you fall on the digital addiction spectrum.

Even if you’re not addicted, being disciplined about social media is important.

Some ways to be more discipline include periodically doing a digital detox; using social media actively to connect instead of passively to see what others are posting; setting time limits; and only checking it at certain times.

You can also turn off your notifications so you’re not tempted to check frequently, and curate your Facebook feed so you see what’s important to you. And for an additional check on yourself, ask the important people in your life how they perceive your social media use and ask yourself if how you are using social media is bettering your life (not just making you feel happy).

Also, be aware that if you use social media as a pick-me-up, it may have the opposite effect, said Ana Jovanovic, a psychologist and life coach at Parenting Pod.

“It is important to note that we usually consume more social media content when we feel lonely or down. It is then that we are particularly vulnerable to the effect of social comparison,” Jovanovic said in an email.

When it comes to teens, limiting social media use is important, said Dr. Dominic Gaziano, director of Mind and Body Wellness Clinic in Chicago.

“The less our teenagers are bombarded with these images, and the more they interact with the outside world (more importantly, the real world) the more they will realize their self-worth is in their relationships with family and friends, not the influencer living in LA,” he said in an email.

Self-Esteem and Happiness

Self-esteem is a complex, individual, and ever-changing thing. While there are myriad experiences that make us feel happy, excited, relaxed, amused, or otherwise content in the moment, a deep abiding sense of self-worth comes from something else.

It is partly rooted in childhood but also partly constructed as adults. And we construct it daily by reflecting and making choices that better us.

Aristotle said that one cannot love others if one does not love oneself. To love oneself in the right way—which is not narcissistic—one must strive to act nobly.

He said, “Those, then, who busy themselves in an exceptional degree with noble actions all men approve and praise; and if all were to strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds, everything would be as it should be … and every one would secure for himself the goods that are greatest, since virtue is the greatest of goods.”

June Fakkert is a health reporter at The Epoch Times.

June Kellum
June Kellum
June Kellum is a married mother of two and longtime Epoch Times journalist covering family, relationships, and health topics.