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The dangers of social media

In this article, we look at the dangers of social media for mental health, at the legal and criminal dangers of social media, and at the risks posed by misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda.

People love social media. They allow us to stay in touch with family, friends, and acquaintances. They also allow us to interact with suppliers and customers. Lawyers, too, can use social media professionally. (See our past articles on social media for lawyers, on why they matter for lawyers, on how they can be great marketing tools, and on how they can be used for legal research). And let’s admit it, social media can be fun. It is no surprise then that a “typical” internet user spends almost 2½ hours each day using social media platforms. This equates to more than one-third of our total online time. But there also is an often-overlooked dark side to social media, and that is what this article is about.

The dangers of social media for mental health

We all have encountered stories of people taking their lives after being bullied on social media. This is one of the main dangers of social media: it can trigger or worsen mental health problems, such as anxiety, stress, depression, and loneliness. Studies have shown that excessive social media use can also increase feelings of emotional exhaustion, envy, low self-esteem, and dissatisfaction with life: the constant exposure to carefully curated, idealized versions of people’s lives, e.g., can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. People can get addicted to social media. They can expose users to harmful content. Cyberbullying and online harassment are also common on social media platforms. All the above can have severe psychological effects.

Let us have a closer look at some of these in more detail.

One of the most serious dangers of social media is cyberbullying and the accompanying harassment. Cyberbullying can include sending mean messages, posting embarrassing photos or videos, or spreading rumours online. Harassment can range from mean comments to threats and doxing (revealing personal information).

Social media platforms are designed to be addictive. The endless scroll and notifications trigger dopamine releases in the brain, making it easy for users to become addicted and spend excessive amounts of time on these platforms. People who are addicted to social media spend hours each day checking their feeds, and they may experience withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to use social media. This social media addiction affects real-life relationships, work, school, and other responsibilities. Social media addiction is a growing problem.

Social media can also expose users to harmful content, such as violence, hate speech, and sexual content. This content can be particularly damaging to children and adolescents, who may be more vulnerable to its effects.

Social media encourages people to compare their lives, achievements, and appearances to others, leading to a phenomenon known as “comparative stress.” This can negatively impact self-esteem and mental well-being.

Excessive use of social media can lead to reduced face-to-face interactions. These face-to-face interactions are essential for building and maintaining meaningful relationships. A lack of these interactions can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Social media also have an impact on youth development. Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of social media. Several of the items mentioned above can affect their self-esteem, body image, and overall development. It can also expose them to age-inappropriate content and online predators.

Legal and criminal dangers of social media

There are several legal, even criminal, issues as well when it comes to social media. Think of privacy concerns or cybercrime (e.g., identity theft, phishing, and hacking). Let us have a look at the most relevant legal dangers social media can pose.

A first group of concerns has to do with privacy and the protection of personal data. Many social media platforms collect vast amounts of user data. These can then be used for targeted advertising (see below) but may also leave users vulnerable to data breaches (see below). Users often share personal information without fully understanding the implications: when you share information on social media, it is accessible to anyone who can view your profile. This typically includes your personal information, such as your address, phone number, and email address, as well as your photos and videos. Even location-sharing features can compromise user privacy. All this information can be used by scammers, identity thieves, and other malicious actors. Clearly, social media platforms are not doing enough to obtain clear and informed consent from users regarding data collection and usage.

Identity theft is another danger of social media. Identity thieves use the information you share online to steal your identity and commit fraud in your name. They may also use your information to create fake social media profiles or send phishing emails. In these phishing attacks, cybercriminals trick users into revealing personal information, which then can lead to (more) identity theft. There also is a risk involved in using third-party apps: users often grant access to these applications without fully understanding the risks.

Social media platforms can also leave us vulnerable to cyberattacks and hacking attempts. The EU faces a surge in cyber-attacks, targeting critical infrastructure, institutions, and businesses. Most of these are ransomware attacks, i.e., demanding ransoms for stolen data. But cyberattacks and hacking attempts can also be used to disrupt the functioning of democratic institutions, political campaigns, and even electoral systems. Such attacks can have serious consequences for the integrity of elections and democratic processes. (See below).

Finally, there are the anonymity challenges which undermine accountability and legal liability. The anonymity and lack of transparency on social media often make it difficult to hold those who engage in criminal, harmful or unethical behaviour accountable.

The risks posed by misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda

Lawyers have been called the guardians of the rule of law and of democracy. We have reached a point where the amounts of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda that are being spread on social media even poses a risk to the rule of law, of democracy and the political process.

Let us start with the spread of misinformation, disinformation (=deliberate), and misleading information. Social media are a powerful tool for the rapid spread of misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories. There are many examples of how false or misleading information can go viral quickly, and of how it can be difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. And the false information often spreads faster than fact-checking can keep up. Given the circumstances, this can lead to real-world consequences, such as public health crises or political instability. The rapid spread of false and misleading information can also distort public understanding of critical issues, including elections. (See below).

Because of the algorithms that they use, social media can lead to filter bubbles and echo chambers. Social media algorithms are designed to show users content that aligns with their existing beliefs and preferences. This creates so-called echo chambers, where people are exposed only to information that reinforces their views. This can result in polarization, intolerance, and a lack of understanding between different groups. It also can hinder productive political discourse.

It should come as no surprise then that social media have been used as a tool for political manipulation. This can be done by individuals, organizations, or by foreign actors to influence public opinion. Tactics include fake accounts, bots, and coordinated disinformation campaigns. All of these can be used to amplify certain narratives and divisive political rhetoric, sway public sentiment, and undermine the integrity of democratic processes, including elections. There are plenty of documented examples where social media have been used to influence voter behaviour by exposing individuals to biased or misleading information. (Cf., e.g., the NYT article in the sources).

Social media platforms allow for highly targeted advertising. This can be used to influence specific demographic groups with tailored messages. While this can be a legitimate advertising practice, it can also be exploited to spread political propaganda and manipulate voter behaviour.

All the above contributes to an ongoing political polarization. Social media intensify political polarization by amplifying extreme viewpoints and creating an environment where moderate or compromise positions are less visible and less appealing to users. Such polarization makes it harder for democracies to function.

As a result of all of this, social media can erode public trust in traditional media, institutions, and even the democratic process itself. When people lose trust in credible sources of information, they may become more susceptible to manipulation. They also become less likely to participate in democratic activities like voting.


Social media are great but pose some serious risks as well. Considering all the above, there is a growing demand for regulation and for a legal framework. But that comes with its own legal challenges. Many countries guarantee a constitutional right of free speech. So, any regulation attempts will have to find a balance between freedom of speech and its limitations. And there is the ongoing debate whether the social media service providers are publishers or merely ITC platform providers. The social media service providers argue that the users are the publishers and that they, i.e. the service providers, only offer a platform.