Young adults who use seven to 11 social media platforms are three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those who use zero to two platforms, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health (CRMTH).
The link remained strong even after adjusting for the amount of time spent on social media overall.
For the study, the researchers sampled 1,787 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using an established depression assessment tool and questionnaires to determine social media use.
The questionnaires asked about 11 popular social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.
Participants who used seven to 11 platforms had 3.1 times the odds of reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms than their counterparts who used zero to two platforms. Those who used the most platforms had 3.3 times the odds of high levels of anxiety symptoms than their peers who used the least number of platforms.
The researchers controlled for other factors that may contribute to depression and anxiety, including race, gender, relationship status, household income, education, and total time spent on social media.
“This association is strong enough that clinicians could consider asking their patients with depression and anxiety about multiple platform use and counseling them that this use may be related to their symptoms,” said lead author and physician Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., director of CRMTH and assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences.
“While we can’t tell from this study whether depressed and anxious people seek out multiple platforms or whether something about using multiple platforms can lead to depression and anxiety, in either case the results are potentially valuable.”
Primack, who also is a professor of medicine at Pitt, emphasized that the directionality of the association is unclear.
“It may be that people who suffer from symptoms of depression or anxiety, or both, tend to subsequently use a broader range of social media outlets. For example, they may be searching out multiple avenues for a setting that feels comfortable and accepting,” said Primack.
“However, it could also be that trying to maintain a presence on multiple platforms may actually lead to depression and anxiety. More research will be needed to tease that apart.”
Primack and his team propose several hypotheses as to why multi-platform social media use may drive depression and anxiety.
One suggestion is that users of multiple platforms would be constantly multitasking — as would happen when switching between platforms — which is strongly linked to poor cognitive and mental health outcomes. Also, they note that there is greater opportunity to commit a social media faux pas when using multiple platforms, which can lead to repeated embarrassments.
“Understanding the way people are using multiple social media platforms and their experiences within those platforms — as well as the specific type of depression and anxiety that social media users experience — are critical next steps,” said co-author and psychiatrist César G. Escobar-Viera, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate at Pitt’s Health Policy Institute and at CRMTH.
“Ultimately, we want this research to help in designing and implementing educational public health interventions that are as personalized as possible.”
The findings are published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.