What are the connections between social media use and depression? Between social media and anxiety? Does social media cause depression, or do depressed people turn to social media more, or is there some third factor that accounts for any association or correlation?
New research keeps coming out, and it’s kind of a jungle trying to follow it all. Screen time makes you anxious! No, anxious people are more prone to doomscrolling! No, Facebook makes you anxious, but gaming doesn’t!
Let’s start with a few caveats before diving into the research studies. First, all these studies are pretty small, and the effects they measure are also small. Many rely on the subjects’ self-reporting of their internet use, which may have varying accuracy. Even if we reduce the focus from all “screen time” to only looking at social media, there is still a huge amount of variation. Some people use social media to look at photos or cartoons, others use it to argue with their friends and with strangers about politics, while still others work to “curate” a personal brand or image to show to the world. All social media use is not the same and it doesn’t have the same effects on us.
A 2016 systemic review looked at research into the connections between social media use and depression revealed “many mixed findings” in their evaluation of 70 articles on links between social media and anxiety and/or depression. Their conclusion noted: “ maintain and reflect the complexities of the offline social environment and the risks and benefits it may pose to mental health.” In other words, life is complicated, and so is life online.
A study highlighted in MoodSurfing a few years ago looked into social support, specifically on Facebook. Noting the frequently studied effect of broad and strong social networks (offline) in increasing life expectancy, the authors investigated whether the effect would be found in online social networking as well. Their finding was that people who received and accepted lots of friend requests had greater life expectancy, an effect that did not extend to those who only sent out friend requests. This finding does support the social support hypothesis, and also illustrates how granular these effects can be: it doesn’t only depend on which network you use, but also on how, exactly, you use it. Tellingly, the paper is titled: “Online social integration is associated with reduced mortality risk”. It’s not social media, it’s the social integration that is important.
What to do? If social media use seems to be leaving you unhappy or unsatisfied, maybe you can find specific actions or inactions that contribute to wellbeing. Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, a psychologist who works at McLean Hospital with youth who experience anxiety disorders suggests a self-rating scale for all social media use. “[we encourage] people to conduct their own behavior experiments by rating their emotions on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the most intensely one could experience an emotion, before and after using social media sites at the same time each day for a week. If one notices that one feels less happy after using them, then one might consider changing how one uses social media sites, such as using them for less time and doing other activities that one enjoys instead.” In other words: take control!
Hobbs WR, Moira Burke, Nicholas A. Christakis, James H. Fowler. Online interaction, social support, and health. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Nov 2016, 113 (46) 12980-12984; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1605554113
Seabrook EM, Kern ML, Rickard NS. Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review. JMIR Ment Health. 2016;3(4):e50. Published 2016 Nov 23. doi:10.2196/mental.5842
Shensa A, Sidani JE, Dew MA, Escobar-Viera CG, Primack BA. Social Media Use and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: A Cluster Analysis. Am J Health Behav. 2018 Mar 1;42(2):116-128. doi: 10.5993/AJHB.42.2.11. PMID: 29458520; PMCID: PMC5904786.