Social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and more have become an icon of modern times alongside the internet itself, Facebook being the largest social media platform in the world with nearly a third of the world’s population having profiles on the website. As the popularity of the internet grew, depression and mood disorders among adolescents have steadily risen, becoming the most lethal affliction to young people in the developed world. Research on social media use has concluded over and over again that as social media use rises, so does the number of cases of depression and mood disorders. The correlation is clear, however the unanswered question remains: Why?
Does excessive social media use cause depression, or do depressed people tend to use social media excessively? In order to attempt to answer these questions, we must look at how social media applications hijack human psychology.
Almost every social media platform is in the business of keeping its users online as long as possible in order to deliver as many advertisements to individuals as possible. To achieve this goal, social media applications use addiction triggers to reward individuals for staying online longer. In the same way that dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure, is released when gamblers gamble or when alcoholics drink, social media applications are littered with dopamine release triggers. One researcher had this to say about social media applications and how they trigger addiction responses in users:
“The likes, comments, and notifications we receive on our mobile devices through social apps create positive feelings of acceptance… Our minds are being ‘brain hacked’ by these apps and social platforms;… research and development dollars are allocated to determining how technology can stimulate the release of dopamine during product use to make us feel good about ourselves. When we are not getting this dopamine release from our apps and smartphones, we feel fear, anxiety, and loneliness. The only remedy, for some, is to get back on the device for another pleasure release.” (Darmoc, 2018)
Another way social media can tap into a user’s psychology is through a concept known as emotional contagion: The phenomena of emotional states being involuntarily transmitted between individuals. While emotional contagion is well-documented in face to face interactions, research has shown that happiness, anger, sadness, and everything in between can be passed to an individual through social media. In a study conducted by E. Ferrara and Z. Yang, 3,800 randomly selected social media users were tested on the contagiousness of the emotional tones of the content they viewed online. The study found that emotional states are easily manipulated through social media, and simply reading emotionally charged posts can transfer emotional states to the reader. In other words, when a social media user sees a sad post by a friend, the reader feels that sadness. This can be especially harmful when compounded with the issue of online culture bubbles.
Social media applications utilize powerful algorithms to serve content to users that they are more likely to engage and interact with so users stay on the site longer. Social media users tend to engage with the same kind of content repeatedly, training the algorithms to serve them more and more of the same content, creating a “bubble” that the user rarely sees outside of. For example, a user who clicks on an article about a local shooting, or comments on a friend’s post about getting divorced will be served more negative content because it’s what they engage in. Combined with emotional contagion, these negative cultural bubbles could severely and adversely affect an individual’s emotional state.
Indirectly, social media applications act as the catalyst for destructive behaviors like comparison, cyberbullying, and approval-seeking. A side-effect of the way in which social media applications are designed is that users tend to showcase a highlight reel of their lives; posting all the positive and important moments and leaving out the negative and mundane. When a user observes these highlight reels from other people, they compare these portrayals to the worst parts of themselves, causing feelings of shame, irrelevance, and inferiority. These feelings can lead users to engage in destructive approval-seeking behaviors. Social media applications are also conducive to cyberbullying, where users can hide behind anonymity and remove themselves from the consequences of harassment. This harassment can have fatal consequences, and social media only makes it easier to engage in.
A UK study carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health tested the psychological impact of social media use on 1,500 adolescents and concluded that almost every major social media platform had a negative impact on the subjects’ psychological wellbeing, ranging from anxiety to self-esteem. The research is clear; cases of depression have been on the rise right alongside the growth of social media, and the more social media an individual engages with, the higher their chance of having mood disorders. What the data doesn’t yet show us is whether increased social media use causes depression, or whether depressed people tend to use social media excessively. In order to answer these questions, more diligent research must be done to control for this difference. However, if increased social media use does indeed cause psychological harm, the question will remain whether the responsibility for the rapid increase in cases of depression among adolescents lies with the users of social media, or with the social media companies themselves.
Darmoc, S., (2018). Marketing addiction: the dark side of gaming and social media. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. 56, 4:2 https://doi-org.ezproxy.ycp.edu:8443/10.3928/02793695-20180320-01
Ferrara, E., Yang, Z. (2015). Measuring Emotional Contagion in Social Media. PLoS ONE, 10, 1-14.