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In Their Own Words: Psychologist Investigators Share Recent Research

Created on August 5, 2017. Last updated on January 25th, 2022 at 01:04 pm

-New Series –

Emotional Responses to Social Media Experiences Among Adolescents: Longitudinal Associations with Depressive Symptoms

By Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D.

In two different homes, in two different towns, two teens are opening up Instagram, getting ready to post. Each scrolls carefully through recent photos, selecting a picture of a recent night out with friends, applies a filter or two, composes a clever caption, and posts. Then they wait. As they check back in on the photo’s status, each begins to realize that only a few “likes” are trickling in. A few hours later, the like count hasn’t budged. How do they react? One teen shrugs her shoulders, closes the app, and heads out to soccer practice, unbothered. The other teen gets a pit in her stomach and sits on her bed, ruminating over what was so wrong with the photo to make her peers despise it or – worse – ignore it completely.

The same social media experience can affect teens very differently.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I set out to learn more about how these different emotional responses to social media experiences might impact teens’ mental health. We asked almost 700 teens questions about how frequently they have negative emotional responses to social media (e.g., feeling bad about getting too few likes, feeling left out or excluded), and positive emotional responses (e.g., feeling happy because of a positive comment, feeling less alone). We also asked them about their symptoms of depression.

Here’s what we found: (1) Teens who reported more positive emotional responses to social media were actually more likely to experience depressive symptoms one year later. Why would this be? We suspect that teens who are more emotionally invested in their online experiences – relying on, for example, high numbers of “likes” to feel happy – may be at greater risk over time. (2) We also found that teens who were already experiencing depressive symptoms were more likely to report negative emotional responses to social media. Teens who are feeling depressed might be at higher risk for these difficult emotions when using social media – feeling bad after a negative comment, or feeling pressure to show a perfect version of themselves. (3) We found that, compared to boys, girls were more likely to report both positive and negative emotions in response to their social media use. It may be that girls are more emotionally sensitive to the experiences they have online.

When it comes to social media use, all teens are not the same. Encouraging teens to recognize how their online experiences affect their moods and emotions is an important first step toward helping them use social media in healthier ways.


Nesi, J., Rothenberg, W.A., Bettis, A.H., Massing-Schaffer, M., Fox, K.A., Telzer, E.H., Lindquist, K.A. & Prinstein, M.J. (2021) Emotional responses to social media experiences among adolescents: Longitudinal associations with depressive symptoms. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

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