Research Links Heavy Facebook And Social Media Usage To Depression

Amit Chowdhry ,

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently conducted a study about the effects of social media habits on the moods of users. The research determined that the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. The findings from this study could potentially help clinical professionals aid depressed patients.

“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 Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., a senior author of the research project and the director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, in a statement.

Dr. Primack and the research team polled 1,787 adults in the U.S. between the ages of 19 and 32. And the questionnaires given to the participants requested details about social media usage. From there, the answers were coordinated with a depression assessment tool. The social media platforms analyzed in the questionnaires included Facebook FB -0.08%, YouTube, Twitter TWTR +1.48%, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

According to the questionnaire results, the participants used social media 61 minutes per day and visited various social media accounts 30 times per week on average. What made the study alarming was that more than a quarter of the participants were classified as having “high” indicators of depression. There were significant and linear associations between social media usage and depression whether social media was measured based on total time spent or frequency of visits.

Compared against users that viewed social media less frequently, participants that use social media very frequently have 2.7 times the likelihood of depression. And compared to people that spent less time, participants that spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had 1.7 times the risks of depression. The researchers also accounted for other possible factors of depression including age, gender, race, relationship statuses, living conditions, education levels and household incomes in the study.

It is possible that people who are depressed use social media to fill a void, according to lead author Lui yi Lin. However, exposure to social media can cause depression — which leads to more social media usage.

Why would heavy social media usage cause depression? The 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,” says the study. People that engage in activities of little meaning on social media makes them feel like they are wasting time. Spending more time on social media increases the exposure to cyber-bullying, thus causing feelings of depression. And social media fuels “Internet addiction,” which is considered a psychiatric condition linked to depression.

One of the hopes of the study is to encourage clinicians to ask depressed patients about social media usage while assessing behaviors. And the findings could be used as a basis for “public health interventions leveraging social media.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the April 1st issue of the Depression and Anxiety journal. University of Pittsburgh staff and students Jaime E. Sidani, Ariel Shensa, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller, Jason B. Colditz, Beth Hoffman and Leila M. Giles also contributed to the research.

A number of social media companies have been proactive at helping users that appear to be depressed. If a user searches for tags on Tumblr such as “depressed” or “suicidal,” then the blog platform will show helpful resources and ask if everything is OK. Facebook also allows users to report status updates that indicates depression by tapping on the down arrow of the box and clicking “I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook” > “It’s threatening, violent or suicidal” > “Choose a type…” > Offer help or support by telling that person you are there for them, ask for help or discuss this with someone that you may trust or ask Facebook to look at the post and offer support.

Facebook knows that its social network feed tremendously affects the moods of its users. For example, Facebook’s data scientists conducted a controversial human behavior experiment back in January 2012 where the News Feeds of 689,003 users were manipulated by having either all positive posts or the negative posts removed to see if it affected the moods of those users. It turns out the experiment worked as expected. Users that saw more negative content shared more depressing content and vice-versa.

This was not the only study conducted in regards to the influence of social media in depression cases. Last year, a study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology conducted by researchers at the University of Houston found that an increase in Facebook usage has a correlation with depressive symptoms and leads to a psychological phenomenon known as “social comparison.” In August 2013, researchers at the University of Michigan published a study called “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults” — which concluded that the more people used Facebook during one time period, the more their happiness declined. And co-authors Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer at the University of Innsbruck in Austria published a research report in June 2014 called “Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it” determining that Facebook activity negatively correlates with the moods of its users. And there are many more studies at other universities connecting heavy social media usage to depression.

What should you do if heavy social media is causing you to feel more depressed? It is highly recommended that you work with a mental health professional. And you should limit your social media screen time every day in favor of other activities.

What are your thoughts about this study? Leave a comment with your thoughts?

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