Advancing Our Understanding of the Associations Between
Social Media Use and Well-Being
Patti M. Valkenburg1, Ine Beyens1, Adrian Meier2, & Mariek M.P. Vanden Abeele3
1Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam
2School of Business, Economics and Society, FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany
3imec-mict-UGent, Department of Communication Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium
ORCIDS: Patti M. Valkenburg: 0000-0003-0477-8429, Ine Beyens: 0000-0001-7023-867X,
Adrian Meier: 0000-0002-8191-2962, Mariek M. P. Vanden Abeele: 0000-0003-1806-6991.
Many thanks to Wieneke Rollman for taking care of the administrative part of this special
CRediT author statement
Patti M. Valkenburg: Writing original draft; Ine Beyens, Adrian Meier, Mariek M.P.
Vanden Abeele: Reviewing & editing.
Please cite this paper as:
. Valkenburg, P.M., Beyens, I., Meier, A., & Vanden Abeele, Mariek M. P. (2022).
Advancing Our Understanding of the Associations Between
Social Media Use and Well-Being. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45, 101357 doi:
Advancing Our Understanding of the Associations Between
Social Media Use and Well-Being
The effect of social media use on well-being is among the hottest debates in academia
and society at large. Adults and adolescents alike spend around 2-3 hours per day on social
media , and they typically use five to seven different platforms in a complementary way,
to chat with their friends, to browse others’ posts, and present themselves to their friends and
followers [2, 3]. In parallel with this surging social media use, research into its impact on
well-being has accumulated rapidly. In the past three years, at least 50 meta-analyses and
reviews on social media have appeared, which together cover hundreds of empirical studies
[4, 5]. Moreover, in the same period, several umbrella reviews (i.e., reviews of reviews and
meta-analyses) have been published [4, 6, 7], of which one is included in this special issue
. These umbrella reviews reveal that the reported associations of social media use with
well-being are inconclusive [4-7], which begets the question how research should advance to
bring greater agreement and nuance to this field of research.
The aim of this special issue is to address this question and to inform researchers
about the rapidly expanding volume of studies into social media use and well-being. Each of
the 26 invited reviews zooms in on central theories and latest evidence on the social media
use and well-being relationship. The special issue is organized in four sections. A first section
includes reviews that provide theoretical and/or methodological meta-perspectives. A second
section focuses on different types of social media use, such as online dating, social gaming,
and cyberbullying. The third section reviews the effects of social media use on risk and
resilience factors of well-being, such as self-esteem, social comparison, and body image. And
a final section pays attention to the uses and effects of social media among special audiences
(older people, youth) and contexts (the workplace, the Global South).
In the remainder of this editorial introduction, we first provide definitions of social
media use and well-being. Then we reflect on the 26 reviews, grouped into the four sections.
We end with several overarching conclusions, in hopes that we can provide readers with
some important suggestions for how future research can tackle existing challenges in the
2. Definitions of social media use and well-being
In this special issue, we define social media use broadly, as “computer-mediated
communication channels that allow users to engage in social interaction with broad and
narrow audiences in real time or asynchronously.” [8, p. 316]. Social media channels can be
used with a multitude of aims and in different contexts, such as social gaming , online
dating , and networking in the workplace . Social media can include all kinds of
general audience apps, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, but also
specialized ones, such as dating (e.g., Tinder), professional (e.g., LinkedIn), or social gaming
apps (e.g., Discord).
We also define well-being broadly. Prior to the 1950s, well-being was predominantly
understood as the absence of psychopathology [e.g., depression, anxiety, 12]. With the rise
of positive psychology in the 1980s [e.g., 13] came an emphasis on more positive indicators
of well-being, such as hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Hedonic well-being (or simply
well-being) is defined as how frequently people experience positive affect, negative affect,
and how satisfying they experience their lives . Eudaimonic well-being is concerned with
actualizing one’s potentials [14, 15].
3. Meta-perspectives on social media use and well-being
The first six reviews deal with theoretical or methodological meta-perspectives on
social media use and well-being. Valkenburg starts with an umbrella review of 27 meta-
analyses and reviews on social media use and well-being that appeared in the past 2.5 years
to take stock of what we know and what we still need to know , whereas Parry et al.
present a methodological perspective on the same topic . Both reviews observe that early
work predominantly relied on cross-sectional designs and self-reported measures of social
media use. And both reviews see promising developments in the field to overcome these
shortcomings, such as a focus on more advanced study designs (experience sampling),
analytical methods (machine learning), more nuanced social media use measures, and a focus
on person-specific susceptibilities to the effects of social media use on well-being. Oliver
adds to these reviews by focusing on eudaimonic well-being , and how this type of well-
being may be elicited through the sharing and consuming of specific content, such as heart-
warming video clips. Despite the potential of social media use to enhance eudaimonic well-
being, factors such as perceived inauthenticity and dark triad personality characteristics may
counteract these positive outcomes.
The notion that we need to focus on the user who interacts with social media is
emphasized in Ellison et al. They argue for a sociotechnical approach that takes the mutual
shaping process between technology and the user (motivations, psychological dispositions)
into account when investigating the well-being implications of social media use . A
sociotechnical approach could help us understand how social media users creatively adapt
objective features of social media to suit their own needs, thereby partly shaping their own
That these well-being implications can vary, is further explained by Bayer et al. and
Vanden Abeele et al., who both develop meta-perspectives on social media overuse [19, 20],
beyond common social media “addiction” narratives. Bayer et al. argue that a great deal of
social media use is habitual, which can affect one’s well-being for better or worse , for
instance when automatic social media checking enhances social support or, alternatively,
when it conflicts with personal goals. Vanden Abeele et al. take habitual (over)use of social
media one step further by connecting it to digital well-being, defined as the experience of
optimal balance between the benefits and drawbacks obtained from mobile connectivity. By
using three metaphors—social media as a Drug, Demon, and Donut—they conceptualize
when, for whom, and why digital disconnection may (and may not) work.
In conclusion, all six meta-perspectives highlight that social media use does not have
an unambiguously good or bad impact on well-being, but rather that associations are
inherently complex and nuanced—a reality that is further unpacked in the remainder of the
4. Types of social media use and well-being
Seven reviews focus on the well-being implications of different types of social media
use, ranging from online dating and social gaming to dark social media use and
cyberbullying. Toma’s review on online dating reveals that even though individuals with
psycho-social vulnerabilities generally prefer online dating to offline dating, the well-being
implications for these online daters have hardly been investigated . Such implications
have been better addressed for social gaming, the playing of games with other members of
the same online group, while communicating via social media , which can stimulate a
sense of community and well-being in the short term.
The review by Hoffner and Bond adds to this literature by revealing that social media
do not only afford connections among friends or acquaintances, but also offer ample
opportunities for parasocial relationships, the social-emotional connections that social media
users feel with media figures such as influencers or celebrities. Parasocial connections have
been shown to beneficially influence well-being, although adverse outcomes have also been
observed . Adverse outcomes are also addressed in the next four reviews [22-25]. Xu et
al. focus on the cognitive demands of social media multitasking . Although such
multitasking could lead to short-term positive effects on well-being, for example when work
tasks are alternated with interactions with friends or family members, the weight of evidence
shows that frequent social media multitasking is associated with lower levels of well-being.
Three other reviews focus on the ‘dark’ sides of social media use: Walther
reconceptualizes online hate , Giumetti and Kowalski discuss cyberbullying , and
Quandt et al. explore dark social media participation , which includes incivility, hate
speech, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Evidently, cyberbullying, online hate, and dark
social media participation may have severe effects on victims and society at large. But what
is often overlooked are its positive well-being implications for perpetrators [24, 25].
Knowledge of the mechanisms experienced by perpetrators, such as positive emotions (e.g.,
schadenfreude) and social approval, may not only enhance our understanding of the
development and effects of dark social media activities, but may also help us design
strategies to prevent or counteract these activities.
5. Social media use and risk and resilience factors of well-being
Eight reviews synthesize what we know about the associations of social media use
with key risks and resilience factors of well-being, such as body image, social displacement,
self-esteem, and self-regulation. Two out of these eight reviews reveal rather consistent
effects of social media use: Vandenbosch et al. find consistent negative effects of idealized
appearance-related content on body image, and rather consistent positive effects of body-
positive content on body image . Hall and Dong reveal that social media use
predominantly displaces other types of media use, while there is little evidence that it
displaces face-to-face interactions . Social media are regularly used to reach out to close
others when they are not physically available. In such cases, social media use can be a boon
to social relationship maintenance and social support.
Most other reviews emphasize the duality of social media use in its influence on
risk/resilience factors: Reinecke et al. discuss self-regulation , Wolfers and Utz explore
stress , Cingel et al. summarize evidence on self-esteem , Meier and Johnson
critically engage with social comparison , Scherr with self-injurious thoughts and
behaviors , and Taylor et al. with close relationships . For example, social media use
is pre-eminently suited to maintain close relationships, but it is just as suited to hinder
relationship maintenance (e.g., through surveillance or phubbing) . Likewise, social
media use can be a severe risk for self-injurious thoughts and behaviors , but in some
cases it may be used as a coping mechanism  to protect against such thoughts and
behaviors [32, 34]. And finally, browsing social media can lead to upward comparison and
envy, but it can also lead to inspiration and enjoyment .
6. Social media use and well-being among certain groups and contexts
The final collection of five reviews focuses on the effects of social media use on well-
being in certain groups, including adolescents [35, 36], older people , and socially poor
versus rich individuals , and in certain contexts, such as the workplace  and the
Global South . The main conclusions of these reviews are rather consistent: Due to the
mainly cross-sectional designs, there is not enough evidence to draw nuanced conclusions
about the well-being implications of social media use within these groups or contexts.
Another common conclusion of these reviews is that social media use is neither
inherently good nor bad. Cotten et al. show that this duality applies to social media use and
well-being among older people , Gai et al. among younger people in both the Global
South and North , Pouwels et al. among the socially poor and socially rich , Beyens
et al. within the family , and van Zoonen et al. in the workplace . Importantly, these
reviews agree that there is not enough attention to the heterogeneity in social media use and
its effects on well-being within these groups and contexts. For example, it is time to move
beyond overly generalized Global North vs. Global South differences and instead investigate
the various micro-level individual variables that might change how social media influences
well-being . Likewise, it makes sense to move beyond comparing the well-being
implications of social media use among socially rich vs. poor, because the within-group
differences seem larger than the differences between these groups . Finally, the nature of
well-being outcomes associated with workplace social media use is shaped by the type
(work- vs. social-related), intensity, and context of social media use, as well as the personal
circumstances of users .
7. General conclusions and suggestions for future research
Together, the 26 reviews in this special issue provide an indispensable overview of
the uses and effects of social media use on well-being. As most of these reviews reveal, the
social media-well-being field is a bag of mixed findings. While common in related fields,
these mixed results may run the risk that researchers draw inaccurate or one-sided
conclusions, for example because they are only aware of a limited set of studies or fall prey to
alarming headlines highlighting individual study findings. Our collection of accessible and
inclusive reviews provides interested readers—researchers and practitioners alike—with the
conceptual tools and empirical knowledge to assess the state of research. In the remainder of
this introductory article, we discuss our overarching conclusions on the status quo and future
directions in this field.
Most of the included reviews agree that the social media use-well-being evidence base
is largely cross-sectional [5, 9, 11, 16, 20, 23, 30, 37, 39]. But, at the same time, many
observe a trend in recent studies to employ more sophisticated within-person designs,
including intensive short-term (e.g., experience sampling) or more long-term panel surveys
with wider measurement intervals. These longitudinal within-person designs have several
benefits. They are of course better attuned than cross-sectional studies to assess the causal
direction of the social media use-well-being association. But they are also theoretically more
suited to investigate media effects [20, 38]. After all, a (social) media effect is a within-
person effect, an intra-individual change due to media use [40, 41]. Within-person designs
also allow researchers to better assess whether the effects of social media on well-being
operate in the short term, long term, or both. Pouwels et al., for example, recently showed
that the short-term effects of social media use accumulated into longer-term effects, but only
for a minority of participants . The question to what extent short-term effects of social
media use accumulate to longer-term effects is an important and highly relevant open
Investigating within-person effects of social media use on well-being has additional
relevance. Several reviews have observed that social media use can lead to positive and
negative effects on well-being [17, 19, 21, 22, 31], suggesting that such opposite effects are
found across individuals. However, based on the seesaw metaphor introduced by Dodge et al.
, and adopted by Weinstein , such opposite effects may also be found within
individuals . As Dodge et al. argue, humans all have a person-specific set point for well-
being, which reflects their individual state of equilibrium. Their well-being goes down in
response to challenges (e.g., social media use-induced envy) and goes up in response to
resources (e.g., social media use-induced inspiration). But like a seesaw, their well-being
always returns to their personal set point. And, indeed, preliminary evidence suggests that
even within a period of three weeks, the effects of social media use on self-esteem can be
both positive and negative within single persons . Such situational within-person changes
have not been investigated and provide an important avenue for future research.
Some reviews point at the agency of users in their choice of social media activities
and their experience of effects [18, 31, 36]. For example, as Ellison et al. observe, technology
matters—but it does not solely determine effects. And as Beyens et al. observe, adolescents
are not passive recipients of social media messages and media-specific parenting. They are
active agents, who shape their own social media use and influence their parents’ media-
specific parenting . Such agency attribution to media users aligns with a longstanding
tradition of dynamic transactional theories of development [46, 47], which ascribe
considerable agency to individuals to shape their own social environment. But it also echoes
dynamic transactional media effects theories, such as Slater’s reinforcing Spiral Model 
and Valkenburg and Peter’s Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model , which
conceptualize that the media user—rather than the media—is the starting point in a process
that leads to selective (social) media use and that may or may not bring about a change in
behavior, attitudes, or cognitions—the media effect.
Media effects theories, which were evidently developed long before theories of social
media and computer-mediated communication , propose that individuals, by shaping their
own selective media use (deliberately or not), also partly create their own media effects .
The collection of articles in this special issue shows that the effects of social media on
people’s well-being and its risk and resilience factors depend in part on individual (e.g.,
gender, self-regulation), socio-cultural (e.g., cultural values, parenting), and situational
factors (e.g., availability norms) [20, 22, 30, 35, 36]. As such, these reviews makes visible
what media effects theorists have long been advocating for: There is no such thing as a one-
directional, uniform effect of social media use on well-being. Instead, we need to account for
agency-based differences in selective social media use, agency-based differences in the
mechanisms leading to outcomes, and agency-based differences in susceptibility to the
outcomes of social media use.
Many of the included reviews also pointed at the need to abandon time-based
measures of social media use and substitute these with activity- or content-based measures [5,
16, 22, 33]. As for activity-based measures, most studies have focused on the presumed
positive effects of active social media use (i.e., posting) versus the presumed negative effects
of passive social media use (i.e., browsing) on well-being. However, two included reviews
conclude that it is time to abandon this dichotomy for empirical and theoretical reasons [5,
31]. Valkenburg convincingly shows that the three meta-analyses that have addressed the
differential effects of active and passive social media use on well-being yielded markedly
inconclusive effect sizes . Meier and Johnson show that passive social media use can just
as likely result in positive rather than negative effects on well-being . Moreover, as many
of the other reviews convincingly show, it is the content of passive social media use that
counts. Browsing supportive content , content that creates a sense of community , and
body-positive content , may lead to diametrically opposed effects on well-being than
unsupportive content , unrealistic appearance ideals , online hate , cyberbullying
, and other dark social media activities .
Finally, a considerable number of reviews have pointed at an effects heterogeneity
approach as an important avenue of future research [5, 11, 16, 20, 30, 31, 38]. As Parry et al.
argue, “research into social media use and well-being relations needs to acknowledge the
variation around average relations and embrace heterogeneity as a core characteristic of
social media use effects.” Indeed, several recent studies have adopted person-specific
methodologies, such as dynamic structural equation modelling (DSEM)  to investigate
and explain how the effects of social media use differ from person to person. These studies
reveal striking person-specific effects of social media use on well-being, ranging from
strongly positive to strongly negative. Person-specific methods to investigate the effects of
social media use hold high promise, not only because they may improve our understanding of
why some individuals are more susceptible to the effects of social media use than others, but
also because they may resolve the inconsistent aggregate findings that have been observed in
most reviews included in this special issue.
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