Do you ever find yourself sitting on your couch, scrolling through TikTok or Facebook, and realize you feel happy? What about the opposite? Do you ever find yourself lying in bed, watching videos and seeing photos on social media, and realize you feel sad? Why is it that people can have such a great emotional experience on social media one day, but a totally different emotional experience the next?

A Mood Congruent Bias (or So We Thought)

Cognitive psychologists have long known that people are really good at paying attention to things that reflect how they currently feel—a phenomenon called "mood congruent attentional biases." In classic experiments, happy people pay a lot of attention to smiling faces on a computer screen (while mostly ignoring neutral or frowning faces), and sad people pay a lot of attention to frowning faces (while mostly ignoring neutral or smiling faces). This mood congruent attentional bias can help explain why, when people feel happy, they often keep feeling happy, and when they're feeling sad, they often keep feeling sad. If you're feeling good and pay a lot of attention to happy things, you're a lot more likely to maintain or increase those positive emotions and keep on feeling good. But if you're feeling sad and pay a lot of attention to sad things, you're more likely to maintain or increase those negative emotions and keep on feeling down.

We thought the mood congruent attentional bias should also apply when people are on social media. If it does, then people who are in a good mood when they open social media should feel even better afterwards, but people who are in a bad mood when they open social media should feel even worse. This could explain why social media sometimes makes people feel pretty good, but at other times can make them feel pretty bad.

Manipulating the Social Media Experience

To test this idea, we conducted experiments with 703 college student participants.  We got them into either a happy or sad mood by having them write about a really happy or really sad memory while listening to happy or sad music, respectively. Then we had participants use their own social media for three minutes—enough time to do some stuff on social media, but not so much time that the mood induction would wear off. Participants reported their positive and negative emotions at three time points: right at the start of the study (baseline), after the mood induction, and after social media use.

An Emotion Dampening Effect

So, what did we find? First, the mood induction worked. People in the positive mood condition showed an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions, and people in the negative mood condition showed an increase in negative emotions and decrease in positive emotions. But after social media use, an unexpected pattern emerged. Rather than the happy group feeling even better and the sad group feeling worse, we found that for the happy group, positive emotions decreased, and for the sad group, negative emotions decreased. What's most striking is that these emotions decreased even below people's baseline moods. In other words, social media use made happy people less happy than they were at the start of the study and made sad people less sad. Not what we expected, but quite interesting findings nonetheless.

What Does This Mean for Your Emotions While on Social Media?

Based on our findings, social media appears to have the effect of dampening people's strongest emotions. So, if you're feeling good, social media may bring those positive emotions down. But if you're feeling kind of crummy, social media use may help you reduce those negative emotions.

Although not what we expected, these findings can still help us understand why sometimes, social media can make you feel better, but other times it can make you feel worse.  Our results suggest that social media makes people feel worse when they are already happy, and makes them feel better when they are already sad.  It does so by dampening strong emotions, not by reinforcing them through mood congruent attentional biases.

If you're ever feeling strong emotions and want to bring them down (like while trying to focus on work, for example), a brief break to use social media may do the trick.

Social media is often described in popular media as having only negative effects on mental health. But our research shows that its effects may be more nuanced. While social media may reduce people's positive emotions, it may also be used as an effective tool for coping with negative emotions.

Our research continues to experimentally examine how social media makes people feel, taking into consideration a host of factors (like the specific activities people engage in on social media) so we can help people use it in healthy ways.

For Further Reading

Tuck, A. B., Long, K. A., & Thompson, R. J. (2023). Social media's influence on momentary emotion based on people's initial mood: an experimental design. Cognition and Emotion, 37(5), 1-8.

Alison Tuck is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and studies the influence of social media on mental health and internalizing psychopathology using multimethod designs from adolescence to late adulthood.

Kelley Long is a Masters in Psychology student at Teachers College, Columbia University and she is interested in studying emotion regulation in mood and anxiety disorders as well as treatment for those disorders. 

Renee Thompson is an Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Science at Washington University in St. Louis and studies the everyday emotional experiences of people across the lifespan, with a focus on internalizing psychopathology.