A new study finds that negative experiences on social media have more impact than positive interactions when it comes to the likelihood of young adults reporting depressive symptoms.
University of Pittsburgh researchers believe the findings may contribute to interventions and clinical recommendations to reduce the risk of depression.
The study appears in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
“We found that positive experiences on social media were not related or only very slightly linked to lower depressive symptoms. However, negative experiences were strongly and consistently associated with higher depressive symptoms,” said lead author Brian Primack, M.D., Ph.D.
“Our findings may encourage people to pay closer attention to their online exchanges. Moving forward, these results could assist scientists in developing ways to intervene and counter the negative effects while strengthening the positive ones.”
In August 2016, Primack and his team surveyed 1,179 full-time students ages 18 to 30 at the University of West Virginia about their social media use and experiences. The participants also completed a questionnaire to assess their depressive symptoms.
Each 10 percent increase in positive experiences on social media was associated with a 4 percent decrease in odds of depressive symptoms, but those results were not statistically significant, meaning that the finding could be due to random chance.
However, each 10 percent increase in negative experiences was associated with a 20 percent increase in the odds of depressive symptoms, a statistically significant finding.
“It is valuable to know that positive and negative experiences are very differently related to depression,” said Primack.
“But we don’t know from our study whether the negative social media interactions actually caused the depressive symptoms or whether depressed individuals are more likely to seek out negative online interactions.
“As with many things in social science, the answer is probably some combination of the two, but more research will be needed to disentangle cause and effect.”
Other characteristics also were linked to the participants having depressive symptoms. For example, compared with men, women had 50 percent higher odds of having depressive symptoms.
Identifying as non-white and having only completed “some college,” rather than completing a degree, also were associated with higher odds of depressive symptoms. All of these characteristics have previously been shown to increase a person’s likelihood of depression.
While the findings still need to be replicated, Primack said public health practitioners could start using them to educate the public of the risks of negative social media interactions.
Primack also points out that cyberbullying occurs not only among adolescents, but also among adults. Universities, workplaces and community spaces could use the findings to increase awareness around positive and negative social media experiences.
Researchers believe that health care professionals working with depressed patients could suggest strategies to improve the quality of online experiences. For example, recommendations to restrict time spent on social media could reduce the number of negative interactions and also having the confidence to “unfriend” people or groups that tend to enable negative experiences.
Although the finding was not statistically significant, Primack said that increasing the opportunities for positive experiences on social media is still likely to be worthwhile.
“In other studies, engaging in certain forms of social media use has been shown to enhance communication and social connection,” he said.
“Certainly, there are many situations in which connecting with others in this way might actually lower depressive symptoms. That just wasn’t the primary finding in this particular study.”