In-person social contact may help buffer against symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the same is not true of contact on Facebook, according to a new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
“When we look at a head-to-head comparison of time spent socializing on Facebook vs. face-to-face, it is the time spend in-person with our friends and family that probably matters most to reducing symptoms of depression and PTSD in veterans,” said Dr. Alan Teo, lead author on the paper and a researcher with the Veterans Administration.
Previous studies have found that social isolation is closely tied to negative mental health outcomes. It is believed that social support may act as a buffer against stress factors that exacerbate depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems.
But while in-person social contact is associated with better health, it has remained unclear whether this link also applies to social media interaction on the internet.
For the study, researchers from the Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System and Oregon Health and Science University issued an online survey to 587 veterans who had served since September 2001.
Participants were recruited through Facebook ads, meaning that all participants were Facebook users. The survey asked participants how often they had social contact with family and friends both in-person and on Facebook. Each participant was also screened for major depression, PTSD, alcohol use disorder, and suicidality.
The findings reveal that participants who had in-person contact at least a few times per week had about 50 percent lower chances for both major depression and PTSD symptoms, compared with those who saw friends and family infrequently.
The researchers emphasize that the results do not necessarily mean a direct cause and effect between social contact and better mental health. Because while this study and others suggest that social relationships may directly impact health, it may also be that mental health problems can lead to more social isolation.
The frequency of social contact through Facebook did not affect risk for depression or PTSD. Neither in-person nor Facebook interaction frequency affected risk for alcohol use disorder or suicidality for the study group.
The findings line up with previous research. A 2015 study led by Teo found that in-person social contact reduced the risk of developing depression, but contact via phone, writing, or email did not.
Although Facebook contact did not seem to directly affect mental health one way or the other, keeping in touch over social media could have other benefits. The findings show that participants who interacted with other Facebook users more frequently tended to have more in-person social contact.
Of those who used Facebook at least daily, 37 percent also met up with family or friends several times a day. Only 19 percent of participants who used Facebook less than daily saw people in-person several times a day.
The researchers say this finding contradicts the prevailing notion that frequent Facebook users engage in less face-to-face social contact than those who only use it occasionally.
Social media use has become increasingly common in recent years. The average Facebook user spends 50 minutes per day on the platform.
“In today’s world, communication with friends and family online — and particularly through social media — is part of daily life,” say the researchers.
While the findings suggest that frequent Facebook users are also very social in real life, it is their in-person interactions that seem to protect against psychiatric problems.
The researchers conclude that lack of face-to-face time with family and friends may pose “a unique and specific risk” to the mental health of veterans, who tend to have higher rates of depression and PTSD than the general population. Social contact over the Internet is no substitute for in-person interaction, say the researchers.
“I think the excitement in the VA and other health systems about the opportunities associated with online interventions is great,” said Teo.
“But at the same time, this study is a bit of a reminder that the foundation to good mental health care probably starts with promoting good, old-fashioned social connections.”