New research suggests the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.
Investigators from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine believe the findings could help clinical and public health entities better care for depression. The study does not, however, establish causation.
Depression is expected to become the leading cause of disability in high-income countries by 2030. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is available online and is forthcoming in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Researchers explain that this was the first large, nationally representative study to examine associations between use of a broad range of social media outlets and depression.
Previous studies on the subject have yielded mixed results, been limited by small or localized samples, and focused primarily on one specific social media platform, rather than the broad range often used by young adults.
“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, M.D., Ph.D.
In 2014, Dr. Primack and his colleagues sampled 1,787 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine social media use and an established depression assessment tool.
The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.
On average the participants used social media a total of 61 minutes per day and visited various social media accounts 30 times per week. More than a quarter of the participants were classified as having “high” indicators of depression.
Investigators discovered a significant link between social media use and depression whether social media use was measured in terms of total time spent or frequency of visits.
For example, compared with those who checked least frequently, participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression.
Similarly, compared to peers who spent less time on social media, participants who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had 1.7 times the risk of depression.
In the study, researchers were careful to control for other factors that may contribute to depression including age, sex, race, ethnicity, relationship status, living situation, household income, and education level.
Lead author Lui yi Lin, B.A., emphasized that, because this was a cross-sectional study, it does not disentangle cause and effect.
“It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void,” she said.
Conversely, Ms. Lin explains that exposure to social media also may cause depression, which could then in turn 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 similar negative interactions, which can cause feelings of depression.
The findings will encourage clinicians to ask about social media use among people who are depressed. Moreover, the knowledge of the relationship could be used as a basis for public health interventions leveraging social media.
Some social media platforms already have made forays into such preventative measures. For example, when a person 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 provided with links to resources.
Similarly, a year ago Facebook tested a feature that allows friends to anonymously report worrisome posts. The 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,” said Dr. Primack, who also is assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences and professor of medicine.
“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.”