Some platforms making attempts at providing preventive measures
The more young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed, according to the findings of a large new study.
“Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use,” said senior author Brian A. Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh.
Earlier studies have yielded mixed results, been limited by small samples or focused on one specific platform, this study, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first large, nationally representative study to examine associations between use of a broad range of outlets and depression.
For the study, researchers sampled 1,787 adults aged 19 to 32 in 2014, using questionnaires to determine social media use and an established depression assessment tool. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
On average participants used social media a total of 61 minutes a day and visited various accounts 30 times each week. More than 25 percent of participants were classified as having “high” indicators of depression.
[Related: Beware of Text Neck!]
The research found significant associations between social media use and depression, whether use was measured in terms of total time spent or frequency of visits. Controlling for other factors that may contribute to depression (age, sex, race, ethnicity, relationship status, living situation, household income, education level), researchers found that compared with those who checked least frequently, participants who reported most frequent checking throughout the week were 2.7 times more likely to suffer from depression. Similarly, compared to peers who spent less time on social media, participants who spent the most total time throughout the day had 1.7 times the risk of depression.
This was a cross-sectional study, so it doesn’t disentangle cause and effect, said lead author Lui yi Lin. “It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void.”
Researchers also allow that exposure to social media may cause depression, which could fuel more use of social media. For example:
Exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.
Engaging in activities of little meaning on social media may give a feeling of “time wasted” that negatively influences mood.
Social media use could be fueling “Internet addiction,” a proposed psychiatric condition closely associated with depression.
Spending more time on social media may increase the risk of exposure to cyber-bullying or other negative interactions, which can cause feelings of depression.
Scientists say the study’s findings could guide interventions to tackle depression, encouraging clinicians to ask about social media use among people who are depressed. The findings also could be used as a basis for public health interventions leveraging social media.
[Related: 8 Concentration Killers]
Some social media platforms already have made attempts at preventive measures. When someone searches the blog site Tumblr for tags indicative of a mental health crisis—such as “depressed,” “suicidal” or “hopeless”—they are redirected to a message that begins with “Everything OK?” and given links to resources. Facebook tested a feature allowing friends to anonymously report worrisome posts. Posters would then receive pop-up messages voicing concern and encouraging them to speak with a friend or helpline.
“Our hope is that continued research will allow such efforts to be refined so that they better reach those in need,” Primack said. “All social media exposures are not the same. Future studies should examine whether there may be different risks for depression depending on whether the social media interactions people have tend to be more active vs. passive or whether they tend to be more confrontational vs. supportive. This would help us develop more fine-grained recommendations around social media use.”