Social Media Anxiety

Definition and Overview

woman in distress
Getty Images/Jamie Grill

Social media anxiety is defined as a feeling of stress or discomfort related to the use of social media, often due to an intense focus on the level of popularity someone thinks they have achieved -- or failed to achieve -- on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

A related phrase is “social media anxiety disorder,” which denotes a level of distress relating to how someone is perceived by others on social media that is particularly intense or prolonged. There is no official medical label or designation for social media anxiety disorder. It's not a "disease," per se; it's just a description of intense anxiety related to heavy social media use.

We're Wired for Attention and Approval

Research has shown that human beings are innately motivated to crave social approval from other people, a trait which provides a foundation for studying how these attention cravings are playing out on the relatively new tools of social media.

Electronic communication forms such as social networks provide a natural breeding ground for activities designed to help people seek attention and gain approval from others. They also provide a foundation for feelings of rejection and dismay when people feel they are less popular than others, or worse, that they are being rejected by their peers.

Researchers have been conducting studies of the various ways people seek approval online and measure how they are being judged on social media. In particular, they are analyzing not only motives in posting, tweeting, and Instagramming but also measuring emotional and psychological reactions to the results of these activities.

Some analysts think people increasingly are measuring their self-worth and even defining their identity by the metrics of social media popularity – that is, how many likes their profile picture gets on Facebook, how many retweets their quips get on Twitter, or how many followers they have on Instagram.

Related phrases and phenomenon include #FOMA, a popular hashtag and acronym that refers to the fear of missing out.  Facebook addiction also appears to be a growing phenomenon along with social networking addiction.

Is Social Media Anxiety Different From Social Anxiety?

Social media anxiety can be considered a subset of a broader phenomenon called social anxiety, which typically involves feelings of distress relating to social interactions of any kind. The social interactions causing distress can be offline or online, such as speaking in public offline or using social networking tools online.

At its core, the distress of social anxiety usually involves a fear of being judged by other people.

Severe forms of social anxiety are considered a mental disorder, and sometimes are referred to as "social anxiety disorder" or "social phobia." 

People who suffer from this disorder typically have distorted thinking that leads them to worry excessively and obsessively about how other people are monitoring and judging them, often critically. The fear can be so intense that people actually avoid many or most social situations.

Social media anxiety has not gained the same level of medical attention as this broader phenomenon of social anxiety, as it is often viewed as simply a part of these broader fears.

Can Social Media Use Decrease Anxiety?

Not all researchers have concluded that social media use increases anxiety, though, or even contributes to the phenomenon. A study by the Pew Research Center released in 2015 actually concluded that the opposite may be true -- that at least in women, heavy use of social media may be correlated with lower levels of stress.