The participants’ experiences with social media use and mental health and well-being converged under three main themes:
Interpersonal consequences of social media
Personal consequences of social media
Motivations affecting social media use
In relation to the main themes, several subthemes were developed (Table 1). Overall, social media was an important part of the participants’ everyday life, with both a positive and negative impact on their mental health and well-being. It became clear that the level of engagement with social media varied across participants; many used social media frequently and overtly expressed several positive and negative sides of social media use, while some had a more detached relationship to social media and did not see it as exerting much influence on them.
An overview of the commonality of each theme and subtheme can be found in Table 1. As can be seen from the table, all three main themes and the majority of the subthemes were present in all focus group interviews, and the themes thus had broad coverage.
An overview of the frequency of each theme/subtheme across the interviews
Number of interviews the theme/subtheme occurred in
1. Interpersonal consequences of social media
1.1 Expanding the social world
1.2 Different rules apply
1.3 People behave worse on social media
2. Personal consequences of social media use
2.1 There are pros and cons of being connected
2.2 Social hierarchies are on display
2.3 Upward social comparison
2.4 The visibility and permanency of content
2.5 Use on the expense of other things
3. Motivations affecting use
3.1 An unmissable social arena
3.2 Self-presentation and impression management
3.3 From fun to addiction
3.4 A way to dodge what is difficult
3.5 Awareness and regulation of own use
1. Interpersonal consequences of social media
The participants discussed several ways in which social media affected communication and interaction, both positively and negatively. Three subthemes were generated: i) expanding the social world, ii) different rules apply, and iii) people behave worse on social media.
1.1. Expanding the social world
The participants said that social media facilitated their social lives by allowing them to communicate easier, maintain friendships, and also make new friends. Social networks were visible, and thus “everyone knew everyone” and going from that to being friends was easy: “Yes, I feel that it is much easier to get to know people. It’s like, you see that the people you are following are following someone, and then, like, everyone sort of knows each other” (Focus group (FG) 3, male (M) 6). Further, social media facilitated group cohesion, for example within their class at school, by allowing multiple people to communicate continuously. One participant described how social media made him notice or pay more attention to his classmates. In a way, peoples’ social media profiles made them turn up on each other’s “social radar”.
This boost in social exchanges also had some downsides. Firstly, the participants talked about how many friendships on social media were superficial, and that they preferred face-to-face interactions. Some pruned their online network, deleting people that they did not see as real friends. One participant exemplified this side of social media:
I feel that even though [social media] enables more contact with friends and give me more friends, I also feel that, really, I have lost many friends. Because I feel that many of the friendships I have aren’t real friendships (FG1, female (F) 2).
Second, social media made them accessible to a wider range of people, including strangers. Unwanted attention on social media was discussed in four of the interviews, where the participants described receiving messages and group chat invitations from strangers. They were not particularly bothered by this, however, receiving sexualized content made them uncomfortable: “Nudes… people send you, like… A picture of their penis… I did not need to see that, I did not want to see that” (FG3M5).
1.2. Different rules apply
Some of the participants described that a different set of communicative rules applied to social media, where the threshold for making contact was lower than in real life. Online communication was described as easy, informal, and less intrusive, compared to getting to know people outside social media:
I feel that, I don’t how it was before, but that it is easier to get to know people. There are, like, different rules on social media than in real life. More is accepted. So it is easier, in a way, to make contact with new people, or you can say other things, I feel, on social media (FG1F2).
Conversely, online communications also had a downside, where communication was easily misinterpreted, as facial expressions, body language, and the tone of voice were largely missing. Beyond direct communication, actions or inactions on social media could be (mis)interpreted as social signals, and certain “norms” or rules of behaviour had to be followed. For example, failing to like and/or comment on a friend’s picture could be interpreted as a sign that something was wrong:
Yes, the pictures were nice, but you don’t always have to comment on every single one. But still, you feel like you need to, because…otherwise it may be like: “Oh, she didn’t comment on my picture!” It may be interpreted negatively (FG2F3).
Some of the females discussed how they sometimes forgot to add someone to their private story, and worried that they had hurt someone unintentionally. Generally, both males and females agreed that the girls cared more and attached more meaning to social media than boys.
1.3. People behave worse on social media
The nature of social media was described as having some unfortunate effects on how people behave towards one another. On social media, people could be anonymous or feel anonymous, and according to the participants, it was easier to be mean because there were no real consequences of their behaviour, or because you did not see the emotional reaction of the other person:
That is perhaps the worst thing about social media, that people may be anonymous. They don’t feel that their behaviour have consequences for them, but… then they may post a nasty comment on a picture posted by a 13 year old girl and her self-esteem takes a hit. And then… They just think like “OK, it’s funny, I’ll just post a comment, she doesn’t know who I am.” And then it goes to hell for her (FG5M1).
Negative and unwanted events on social media, actual or hypothesized, were thematised in all interviews. These events included backbiting, bullying, nasty comments, and threats to share content against one’s will.
Related to this, the girls in one interview expressed frustration about how the content people post on social media is freely discussed and criticized, where the social media profiles of celebrities and others are flooded with negative comments on their appearances: “It’s interesting that people bother to spend their time putting others down. Why would you, if you don’t care about that person, why would you spend your time commenting that you don’t think that person looks good in her picture?” (FG4F2)
2. Personal consequences of social media use
During the interviews, the participants discussed how social media use had impacted them personally in both positive and negative ways. Five subthemes were developed: i) there are pros and cons of being connected, ii) social hierarchies are on display, iii) upward social comparison, iv) the visibility and permanency of content, v) use on the expense of other things.
2.1. There are pros and cons of being connected
Social media was highly valued by the participants due to the possibility to effortlessly and continuously communicate with friends. Many highlighted that social media allowed them to stay in touch with friends and family living far away, making them “feel closer, even though they are on the other side of the world” (FG1F2). In addition, social media provided a sense of connectedness with a wider community and gain insight into issues around the world.
Social media was further seen as positive in the sense that it allowed them to seek social support from friends, and that it was a means to express themselves and being heard/seen by others. Getting attention in terms of likes and comments, or being included in someone’s story, made them feel good. Conversely, the participants described how not being included in someone’s story or in a group chat made people feel excluded:
“I am in many different groups [on social media] with different groups of friends. And then, if one of my best mates see that I am in a group, and he’s sitting there and asks: “Hey, what is that? Why am I not in that group?” So, you can feel excluded” (FG3M3)
The opportunity provided by social media to keep up with what their friends were doing was both valued and came with some unwanted consequences. It provided a feeling of “having control” of what was going on among their peers, but keeping up with everything happening on social media was also stressful. Several mentioned the constant stream of notifications as annoying and overwhelming: “Yes, you are often overwhelmed by everything. So it only leads to stress, more stress in your everyday life.” (FG2F4)
Further, watching friends’ posts on social media of having fun without them, could make them feel unwanted or excluded. Also, it could trigger a feeling of missing out that drove them to attend social gatherings and parties despite having plans of relaxing at home, exemplified in the following dialogue (FG1):
F1: It’s that thing, that you feel that you should attend everything all the time.
F2: Yes, that you should join… Yes, I think social media contributes a lot to me feeling that I should do something every weekend.
F2: If it is a Friday or Saturday and I don’t have any plans, and it would have been wise and probably very cosy to relax at home with my family, and yeah, eat snacks and watch a movie. But I feel that I can’t. Because then I will just have a bad time, because I will see that everyone else is out having fun, and I’m just at home and… Still, they only post stuff when they are out. It seems like they are out every weekend, but it just that I have so many people on Snapchat. And when people share that they are out, it feels like everyone is.
2.2. Social hierarchies are on display
Another aspect of social media that impacted the participants negatively was the visibility of social relationships and social status on social media. Who were friends or not, who were allowed to see someone’s private story, etc., was readily visible and carried important meanings about the nature of peoples’ relationships:
And about private stories, I feel many people, sometimes they see like “my friend can see my other friend’s private story, but I can’t”. That does something to your mental health. And “why did she not add me to her story, she is included in my private story”, and it becomes like… (FG2F5)
The participants described how the number of likes and comments people received and the number of friends/followers they had, quantified popularity and social status, which was tiresome to think about. Participants in all focus groups talked about themselves or others being preoccupied with comments and likes, where the lack of comments or likes triggered negative thoughts about how others perceived them.
2.3. Upward social comparison
The participants in all five groups talked about how comparing oneself to people on social media could trigger negative thoughts and feelings, and eventually lead to poor health. They described how people tended to portray themselves on social media in a positive way, thus creating a “positive bias” where everyone told a one-sided story of how successful and pretty they were and how many friends and fun experiences they had. They described how even though they knew that what was posted on social media was only one side of the story, it was hard to not compare one’s own life and appearance to it. This pertained both to peers and to celebrities. Some of the females suggested that it should be mandatory to tag pictures that had been digitally altered (“photo-shopped”), in order to reduce insecurity among young people.
But it’s not true. Every single one of those models have edited their photos. No one really looks like that. It is not true. Their skin is not that flawless, their bodies aren’t that perfect. And then you get ideas in your head that others are perfect and pretty, “I should look like that”. And then you get afraid and unsecure about yourself. Even though what you see is not real. But you choose to believe it. And that leads to poor health.” (FG4F4)
Digitally altered images impacted not only peoples’ view of themselves, according to the females in one group, but also created unrealistic expectations among boys about what girls should look like. The widespread use of filters that augmented people’s facial features made some of the girls feel unsecure about their looks. They explained how the filters made them aware of their flaws and how much prettier they could have been if they looked more like how the filters made them look (plump lips, long lashes, etc.).
2.4. The visibility and permanency of content
The participants addressed some issues related to online communication or other online behaviours being visible and often permanent. Several participants talked about a specific feature of social media where the locations of your friends are visible in a map (Snap Map). Being visible on social media made them change their behaviour, or at least think about how their behaviour appeared on social media:
Since I have Snap Map, then I can think like; I am afraid that people might see that I am at home, almost. You think about it. “What if people see that I am at home all the time? Should I go to the gym, so that people see…?” You can almost start like that (FG1F2).
On a similar note, the participants in three of the interviews described how easily pictures could spread among peers and how people should be careful with sharing pictures with others. Photos that they shared in confidence with one person could be distributed to other people without their consent or knowledge:
They don’t say it directly, that “I have a picture of you, I’m going to send it to that and that person.” But you know. You have it in the back of your mind when you think about it. “Oh, shit. I sent that photo. Now he or she has it. They may share it whenever they want to”, like (FG4F3).
Further, the participants expressed worry that content they have posted never disappears and may harm them in the future. One participant stressed the necessity of using multiple user names so that what you do on social media would not be associated with you in real life.
2.5. Use on the expense of other things
Finally, many of the participants thought that they spent too much time on social media. The time and energy spent on social media displaced other important activities, such as doing homework or getting enough sleep:
It’s very addictive, yes, because it is a constant stream of entertainment and information, and I notice that it can have physical effects as well. Because I stay up when I should have gone to bed, because there’s so incredibly much to do and watch and keep yourself up to date on. And it’s fun, but you lose a lot of sleep (FG3M1).
Several of the participants worried that their use of social media had some negative consequences for their personal development. Specifically, they talked about how they did not learn how to be bored or to get to know themselves because they always turned to social media when they had nothing to do: “I think that it’s very positive for your mental health to explore your thoughts and figure out who you are and stuff like that. And that is something that you lose [because of social media].” They described how they did not challenge themselves because they used social media as a sanctuary or protection if they found themselves in challenging social situations (something was awkward, they were in a room with strangers). For example, some mentioned that they picked up their phone instead of keeping conversations going and that social media use impaired their social skills.
3. Motivations affecting social media use
Despite the negative effects discussed by the participants, they seemed highly motivated to use social media. Consequently, the participants gave the impression of being torn between the desire and perceived necessity to use social media and the negative consequences they experienced from it. Five subthemes were generated: i) an unmissable social arena, ii) self-presentation and impression management, iii) from fun to addiction, iv) a way to dodge what is difficult, v) awareness and regulation of own use.
3.1. An unmissable social arena
From the interviews, it was clear that one of the main motivations for using social media was to stay connected to and socialize with friends. As social media constituted such an important social arena, many of the participants expressed a necessity of using social media to keep up socially. Several participants described a fear of, and experiences with, missing out on what was happening among friends on social media. The participants stressed that there was no split between social media and real life and that if they missed out on things happening on social media, then they had missed “half the conversation”:
I think I would have become very stressed [without social media]. And that is because I think I’m afraid of the feeling of being left out. I would have felt like… it’s like if your friends went to hang out and you were left behind (FG1F2).
In addition to this drive or desire to use social media, the participants described peer pressure to reply and provide likes and comments on friends’ content, or to reciprocate messages they received (i.e., streaks):
If my friend has posted a picture of herself, I feel that I have to comment on it, just because… it’s mandatory. But it’s not. I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s just the way it is, a culture that has evolved… (FG1F1)
3.2. Self-presentation and impression management
A second important motivation for using social media was self-presentation. On social media, they could decide how they wanted others to perceive them, and their self-presentation was partly guided by social norms of what was considered cool among peers and showing others that they had an exciting life. Some of the females described it as a competition, where they deliberately posted pictures at times when people were most active, to get more feedback (likes, comments). Although the feedback they received on social media could produce positive feelings, they regarded it as unhealthy to care too much about it. Many expressed a desire to care less, but that it was hard to resist. As one participant put it: “But, it takes, I feel, quite a lot, psychologically, to resist the Instagram-pressure. You, sort of, you want to have a nice feed, you want many likes, and of course you want a lot of comments.” Others expressed that they rarely posted pictures on social media and that they cared little about how many likes or comments they received.
3.3. From fun to addiction
Most of the participants described social media as a source of entertainment and fun, and some described how they found creative inspiration on social media. In addition, they talked about their phone and social media as an easy escape from boredom, and that they had a habit of picking up their phone when they had nothing to do.
Many also described themselves and their peers as being addicted to social media. They described some features of their social media behaviour that resembled addictive behaviour, for example that there was something satisfying about using social media, that time went fast while using social media, and that they often spent more time than they intended: “Only you can decide when to stop [scrolling on social media], but not quite. It’s kind of your brain that decides and it becomes an addiction, or, it is natural to become addicted.” Others, in contrast, had no trouble leaving their phone behind and forgetting about social media for hours.
3.4. A way to dodge what is difficult
The participants discussed how they actively used their phone/social media to distract themselves from negative thoughts and feelings, and to escape awkward or uncomfortable social situations. It was also easier to talk about difficult things through social media because it became more distanced and less personal, and they could also take time to think about what they wanted to reply:
I think many people feel that it is easier to send a text rather than saying things out loud, face-to-face. That it is easier to send it over the phone, because then the person receiving the text can’t see how you react (FG4F2).
3.5. Awareness and regulation of own use
The participants expressed a high level of awareness and reflection about their own use of social media. The participants described how they were less socially active on social media if they were having a bad day, and that they then would use social media mostly for entertainment. On a good day, some would be more socially active on social media, while others again said they spent less time on social media when they are having fun.
I don’t know, if I’m having a good day then I usually don’t use my phone at all. Then I’m in such a good mood that I don’t need attention from anyone. I just sit and have a good time and just watch a really good movie and eat junk food. Just be pleased with that day, sort of. And then I forget my phone, forget social media, forget Snapchat, and just don’t answer and people will have to call me (FG4F4).
One participant explained how he could be more vulnerable to social comparison if he had a bad day.
The participants talked about how they had become more relaxed about social media as they aged. At a younger age, they were more affected in terms of body image, social comparison, or negative comments, and had grown more robust based on their own experiences.
I have put it behind me now. Because I’m thinking, does it matter? They’re not real. But before it was like: “Oh, they’re so pretty and skinny, blah, blah.” And then I let myself be affected and my health was affected, or I put myself down (FG4F4).
Several expressed the importance of being able to put away their phone, for example when doing homework. Many of the participants expressed a desire to use social media less, and several told about positive experiences while not having access to social media, typically when on vacation (FG2):
F1: Then it was nice to have, like, a week of relaxation. Like a… yes, cell phone rehab.
Moderator: What was nice about that, not having…
F1: Well, you didn’t have to write, like write text messages to anyone or, you sort of had an excuse not to be online. If that makes sense. You relax more, like, I was much more relaxed, and like, I could, rather than spending time on Instagram, I could talk to my family. Something that happens rarely in my everyday life. I enjoyed that very much.
Many of the participants took specific actions to regulate their use of social media, such as muting their phone and disabling notifications. The participants stressed how the algorithms of social media were designed to encourage more use.
In three of the interviews, the participants expressed the need for more relevant information about the negative effects of social media. They pointed out that children and adolescents need rules regarding social media use, and that when they start using social media, it is hard to stop. Conversely, some of the participants thought that grown-ups had a very negative view of social media, and that social media use was seen as more problematic than it was (FG5):
M3: There is a lot of positive sides to social media as well. But teachers and parents often bring up the negative sides. “You spend too much time on it” and “can you please put it away now?” and “social media is negative for your mental health”. That is what we are told by parents and other grown-ups.
Moderator: What do you think of that?
M3: It’s a bit annoying. Many of them haven’t really familiarized themselves with social media, they don’t know what we do in our world, on social media and stuff.
Similarly, the males in one of the interviews talked about how parents were disinterested in gaming and how they wished their parents were more engaged.