Recent studies suggest a direct link between social media use and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Social media is a familiar part of modern life. Some examples of popular social media include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Spotify, Tumblr, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google+, Skype, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Myspace, Nextdoor, Vine and Meetup, to name a few. These platforms offer users the ability to create accounts or avatars (online characters of themselves) and participate in these active online communities. While social media is not new, more people are starting to talk about the link between social media and depression.
Recent research on depression and social media suggests that adolescents and teenagers, who generally use social media more than the population at large, are particularly vulnerable to developing mental health conditions.
The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health
What are the impacts of social media use on mental health? According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, adults most often use YouTube (73%) and Facebook (68%). Additionally, over 60% of adults visit Facebook (74%), Snapchat (63%) and Instagram (60%) at least once per day. These statistics are staggering and suggest that the time spent on social media websites in the United States is tremendous.
Unfortunately, spending so much time on social media (or even a little time, depending on the content) can have extremely negative effects on mental health. Overusing social media has been associated with various mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and even sleep deprivation. Research on the impacts of social media on the brain has led to some scientific insights on these mental health conditions.
In recent years, more published studies have established a direct link between social media use and depression. Depression can be caused by many factors, including excessive use of social media. It is likely that depression can also lead to increased social media use as well. Some tell-tale signs that an individual may be experiencing social media depression include:
- No longer seeking pleasure in activities an individual used to enjoy, and instead deferring to social media
- Increased sleep disturbances including lethargy from staying up too late on social websites
- Feeling decreased self-esteem after going on social media
- Having trouble concentrating or performing everyday tasks
- Using social media to escape an individual’s reality
Like depression, several studies have linked anxiety to social media use. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), social media anxiety disorder is a recognized mental health condition. This disorder is characterized by severe anxiety caused by not being able to check or have access to one’s social media accounts. Some symptoms of social media anxiety disorder are very similar to addiction and include:
- Increasing social media use has a negative impact on relationships with others
- Dishonesty about how much time an individual spends on social media accounts
- Withdrawing from loved ones in order to spend more time on social media
- Not being able to stop using social media despite the strong desire to do so
- Poor performance in work or school as a result of too much social media use
- Feeling withdrawal symptoms after an individual loses access or cannot check their social media accounts
- Spending an excessive amount of time on social media accounts per day (6 or more hours)
- Only feeling validated when your social media accounts have been updated
Does social media create isolation? A 2016 study showed that adults who spend more than two hours per day on social media platforms were twice as likely to feel socially isolated than their counterparts who spent half an hour or less online per day.
In a 2017 study on social media use, individuals also reported feeling more socially isolated despite being virtually connected. Individuals who visited social media sites nearly 60 times per week or more, were three times more likely to feel socially isolated than their counterparts who visited these websites less than nine times per week.
However, current research has not determined causation. We don’t yet know if social media directly creates isolation, or if feeling isolated causes an individual to increasingly use social media. One thing is clear, that using social media in excess can make individuals feel lonely.
Social media and self-esteem is another hot topic in social media research. In a study conducted in 2018, there was a negative association between self-esteem and more time spent on Facebook for males, but not for females. The researchers also found that females with lower self-esteem tended to spend more time on Facebook comparing themselves to their peers.
These results indicate the complexities and many variables associated with social media research and determining if social media has an effect on self-esteem.
An association between social media use and sleep disturbances was found in a 2016 study of adults in the United States. In young adults ages 19-32, there was a strong correlation between 60 minutes of social media use per day and medium to high levels of sleep disturbances. Again, this study did not address causation — e.g. whether social media use affects sleep directly or whether sleep disturbances lead to greater amounts of time spent on social media outlets.
Social Media and Depression Studies
Linking social media and depression has been an evolution. In a study conducted in 2013, college-aged students were asked about their Facebook use and depression. The majority of study participants were female (58%) and Caucasian American (91%). This study concluded that there was no direct link between social media use and moderate or severe (clinical depression).
In a 2016 study, over 1,700 adults were surveyed about their social media use and depression. A majority of the study participants were Caucasian Americans (57.5%) and half were women (50.3%). When accounting for all other variables, a correlation was found between the amount of time spent on social media and increased odds of developing depression. Thus, from this study, it would appear that social media can cause depression in adults.
Finally, a more recent study conducted in 2018 looked at college-aged students from the University of Pennsylvania. In this study, a direct link was found for the first time between increased social media use and depression/loneliness. The researchers used a different approach to come to these conclusions by using a control group versus a group of students that were forced to limit their time on social media to less than a half hour per day. The study found that the individuals who spent less time using social media were less lonely and depressed compared to their counterparts who spent more time on social media.
Thus, depending on the study, the methods of questioning used by researchers and the characteristics of study participants (age, sex, ethnicity, etc.), there may be different results. This is not to say that one study is more or less true over another. As social media use continues to grow and evolve, even more definitive research will likely be conducted.
Social Media and Teenage Mental Health
In a recent survey, the most common social media platforms used by teenagers include YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%) and Snapchat (69%), compared to their adult counterparts who mostly use Facebook and Youtube.
Other striking statistics about teen social media use include that:
- 95% of teenagers have access to a smartphone
- 41% of teens report constantly being online or on a social media platform
- About one-third of surveyed teens think that social media has a positive impact on their lives
- 45% of surveyed teens think social media has neither a positive nor negative impact
- Nearly one-quarter of surveyed teens think that social media has a negative impact on their lives
In most of the studies involving social media use and adolescent depression, similar patterns emerge as in studies involving adults. Just as adults can experience depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and loneliness from overuse of social media, adolescents can experience the same conditions as well.
Risk of Cyberbullying
One frightening reality of teen social media use is the risk of cyberbullying on social media. Both adults and adolescents can be affected by cyberbullying. Adolescents that find that social media has a negative impact on their lives report the following reasons:
- Cyberbullying and rumors (27% of surveyed teenagers)
- Decreased person-to-person interactions and meaningful relationships (17%)
- Provides a “fake” or unrealistic view of other people’s lives (15%)
- Causes distracting and addictive behavioral patterns (14%)
- Leads to peer pressure (12%)
- Leads to the development of mental health problems (4%)
- Causes unnecessary drama (3%)
How to Minimize the Negative Effects of Social Media
Parents, adolescents, teenagers and other adults all have choices when it comes to how social media impacts their lives. Simple behavioral changes, creation of new habits and various other factors can help individuals decrease the negative effects of social media use. While it may not be easy at first, studies have shown sound evidence that spending less time on social media improves relationships with others, lessens depression/loneliness and helps people become more in tune with themselves and their environment, rather than in a virtual world.
Tips for Parents
For parents and others who care for children and adolescents, there are mental health tips and information to keep them safe, happy and healthy. Some tips on mental health include:
- Share available research: Share research and information you find with your children so they can understand that using social media has both positive and negative effects
- Create healthy boundaries around social media use: Fair, safe and reasonable social media boundaries should be well-established between parents and their children well before an account is created
- Turn off notifications: Since most adolescents have access to smartphones and the internet, it can be advantageous to disable both social media and push notifications on everyone’s phones
- Talk openly about mental health: Parents should focus on creating an open and honest environment in order to break the stigma of mental health. A child should never feel afraid to discuss their mistakes and their mental health with their parents
- Be available to listen: Make yourself available for discussion as much as possible and establish yourself as an outlet or someone who listens without judgment or punishment
Getting Help for Depression
Today, there are many resources available for getting help with depression, as well as many effective treatments options including:
- Psychotherapy (talk therapy)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Prescription medication
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
- Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)
If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and depression from social media overuse, The Recovery Village can help. Contact a representative today to discuss treatment options for depression and co-occurring addiction.
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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.