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Social media and personality: a bidirectional effect

In the course "Dynamics of Individual Differences", students write a blog post on a topic of their interest that is related to an aspect that differs between individuals and changes across the lifespan. Melania shared her blog post with us, enjoy!

Do you ever find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram for hours and then regret it, thinking about how you could have spent that time studying for an exam? Do you put a daily time limit on your Reddit account in the hope you will use it less but inevitably fail? Well, you might not be the only one. Social media usage is becoming one of the most popular online activities. Data reports estimate that in 2022, over four billion people were using social media worldwide, a number predicted to increase to almost six billion in five years. On average, a user spends around 2 hours per day on social media, which corresponds to roughly a month per year. Reading these numbers, I wondered, and maybe you do too now, what impact does this have on us? And what does it show about us? You might already know that based on our social media profiles, we are shown advertisements that interest us, and that is not a magic trick. Much research has found that how we use social media can predict someone’s personality traits, mental health, and even intelligence (Mori & Haruno, 2020). Only recently, research has also begun to investigate the effects of digital media on us, generating worrying thoughts in the general public. Researchers suggest that social media may be one of the factors that contribute to the increasing levels of anxiety and depression (Meier & Reinecke, 2021), warning people to limit their use of social media. But is social media really changing us? In what way? And are these changes lasting in time? In this article, I want to shed light on how social media can predict but also impact personality and well-being.

What is personality?

First let’s clarify the concept of personality. Personality encompasses the relatively enduring qualities that make up an individual’s distinctive adjustment to life, encompassing significant traits, interests, motivations, values, self-perception, skills, and emotional tendencies. While different theories offer varied perspectives on the structure and evolution of personality, they all agree that personality plays a crucial role in shaping behavior (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). One of the most popular theories in personality psychology is the Big Five theory, which identifies five main personality traits, namely extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, neuroticism and agreeableness. Although traits are considered as relatively stable, research agrees that there are general patterns of change during the lifespan. For example, the older we get, the more conscientious, emotionally stable and agreeable we get (Roberts et al., 2006). Life event studies show that for example the beginning of a new relationship, graduation and first job are related to personality change. This change is then influenced by both biological, such as maturation but also environmental processes such as life events. Personality changes are longer lasting, usually not creating a negative impact on everyday living. They should not be confused with for example the onset of mental health disorders such as anxiety disorder and depression, which are conditions that should be treated and have negative consequences on our well-being. In this article I want to stress this difference and investigate whether social media usage, which is a relatively new environmental phenomenon, can impact our personality in the long term but also our mental health and well-being, and how these relate to each other.

Why is this important?

To motivate you to read further (since social media might also impact your attention span), I want to illustrate the importance of studying how personality develops throughout the life span and which factors affect this process. First of all, personality traits are related to many relevant life outcomes. For example, more extraversion and less neuroticism have been found to predict subjective well-being, family, friendship, and romantic satisfaction, and psychological health (Anglim et al., 2020; Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006). High conscientiousness has been related to academic and occupational performance, as well as physical health. Be careful! This doesn’t mean that if you are an extravert you will have better mental health or romantic relationships. All these things are influenced by a myriad of factors, which we cannot study for every individual, therefore these relations should be taken as a small part of a bigger picture and do not apply to every single person on this earth. Secondly, personality might mediate the relationship between social media usage and mental health. Conscientiousness has been found to mediate the relationship between social media usage and social isolation. In a study conducted by Whaite and colleagues in 2018, social media usage was associated with social isolation across all five personality characteristics, however, conscientiousness was the only trait that mediated this relationship, meaning social media use poses a more significant risk for social isolation in those who act less conscientiously, as opposed to those who act more conscientiously. Again, this means being conscientious (not conscious), which refers to someone who is self-disciplined and dutiful, might be a protective factor, it is not a steel shield that can protect you from the monster of social isolation.

How can personality influence and predict social media usage?

If you are an extravert, research says you might use a greater number of social media platforms, while if you are conscientious, you might spend less time on social media (Bunz, 2021). Social media often serves as a platform for self-expression. People may showcase different facets of their personality online; your mom might post pictures of you as a child, and a blurry picture of the new pasta recipe she made and your best friend might post a picture every time they go to a party. Increasing evidence has found that algorithms can analyze the text of posts, comments, and messages to identify linguistic patterns and infer personality traits. For example, the use of certain words, sentiment analysis, and writing style can provide insights into characteristics like openness, extraversion, or emotional stability (Schwarzt et al., 2013). Other studies have indicated a connection between individuals’ Facebook “likes” and their personalities, including preferences for music, TV shows, products, websites, and content posted by friends. One of these studies used individuals’ “likes” to anticipate their personality scores and compared this prediction to assessments from friends, family, and colleagues. Surprisingly, the “likes” proved to be a more accurate predictor of personality than assessments from those who actually knew the individuals, including friends and family (Youyou et al., 2015). However this doesn’t necessarily mean that Tik Tok knows you better than your best friend, but it can probably paint a better picture of you because of all the information it has.

Can social media affect your personality in the long term?

Not a lot of research has been conducted on this phenomenon yet, but a recent study has investigated and found a bidirectional link between social media use and neuroticism (Andrews et al, 2020). This means that these studies found that if someone scores high on neuroticism, they tend to use social media more, which then also increased their neuroticism. Individuals with the personality trait of neuroticism exhibit characteristics such as emotional instability, anxiety, worry, fear, anger, envy, jealousy, and loneliness. The exposure to unfavorable social comparisons, such as measuring oneself against idealized images on social media, can intensify negative feelings in people who are already prone to worry and experience negative emotions. We, especially us girls, have at least once wished we looked or were as well-off as an influencer, and if a person is already neurotic, this can make them even more emotional unstable. Additionally, to keep up with other people they see on social media, a neurotic person might try to present distorted and idealized versions of themselves, which might lead to worrying feelings of having to live up to this image. Furthermore, individuals with neuroticism might encounter challenges in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with others, preferring passive engagement on social media, such as browsing others’ profiles and checking updates. Social media usage has not been found to predict the other five personality traits (Andrews et al., 2020), however the studies conducted are limited and not all of them use a longitudinal design. It is important to track changes in personality longitudinally, in order to see whether personality is affected in the long term and not only compare groups of people, as knowing the baseline level of a certain trait is what allows us to analyze change.

What does this mean for our well-being and what can we do about it?

Even though not a lot of research was able to relate social media to long-term personality change, much has been found on the link between social media usage and mental health. An excessive use of social media has been consistently found to have a negative impact on people’s well-being, leading to increased anxiety, depression (Meier & Reinecke, 2021), loneliness, and self-esteem (Huang, 2022). What is an “excessive use” of social media? And will everyone be depressed if they use it? I wish I could tell you to set your Reddit time limit to two hours and that will do, but most of the time, the answer to these questions is: it depends. Many factors play into this relationship and the answer to this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be. As we saw, a factor that can influence this relationship is personality. Extraverts might have a higher self-esteem, and not use social media to compare themselves, but it might allow them to keep a larger social network, which can be a protective factor against loneliness for example. On the other hand, if you are prone to anxiety and worrying feelings, and find yourself comparing your pictures with Gigi Hadid’s, it might be better to take some time off from social media if you notice an increase in these emotions. As mentioned before, personality changes should be a normative process, which should not affect your mental health or well-being. The personality trait of neuroticism can however make some people more vulnerable to anxiety disorders or depression (Klein et. al, 2011). If these negative feelings start to impact your daily life, please seek help from a professional.

I hope that at the end of this post, you have learned that social media usage and how this can have an impact on personality and well-being depends on a lot of things. We saw that neurotic individuals might be more prone to be affected by the negative consequences of social media, and might have to be more careful in how they are using it. My final tip is to always be mindful of what you use social media for and how this impacts your well-being, which, in the end, is what matters the most. Please take care of yourselves 😊


Andrews, N. P., Yogeeswaran, K., Wang, M. J., Nash, K., Hawi, D. R., & Sibley, C. G. (2020). Is Social Media Use Changing Who We Are? Examining the Bidirectional Relationship Between Personality and Social Media Use. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking23(11), 752–760.           

Anglim, J., Horwood, S., Smillie, L. D., Marrero, R. J., & Wood, J. K. (2020). Predicting psychological and subjective well-being from personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 146(4), 279–323.

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Schwartz, H. A., Eichstaedt, J. C., Kern, M. L., Dziurzynski, L., Ramones, S. M., Agrawal, M., Shah, A., Kosinski, M., Stillwell, D., Seligman, M. E. P., & Ungar, L. H. (2013). Personality, Gender, and Age in the language of social Media: The Open-Vocabulary Approach. PLOS ONE, 8(9), e73791.

Whaite, E. O., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Colditz, J. B., & Primack, B. A. (2018). Social media use, personality characteristics, and social isolation among young adults in the United States. Personality and Individual Differences, 124, 45–50.

Youyou, W., Kosinski, M., & Stillwell, D. (2015). Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America112(4), 1036–1040.

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