woman on computer at table
December 21, 2016

Study links social media use to depression and anxiety

If you spend a lot of time on multiple social media sites, bouncing back and forth between your Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat accounts, you may face a higher risk of anxiety and depression, according to new research published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

As part of the new study, Brian Primack from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health and his colleagues surveyed young adults and found that men and women who said that they used between seven and 11 social media platforms had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than those using two or fewer platforms.

In 2014, Primack’s team asked approximately 1,800 Americans between the ages of 19 and 32 about their usage of 11 of the most popular social media websites at the time, and measured their mental wellbeing using an established depression assessment tool known as the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS).

They found that those using the most social media platforms were 3.3 times more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and 3.1 times more likely to show signs of depression than those who used the fewest number of platforms. The researchers controlled for other possible factors known to contribute to anxiety and depression (race, gender, relationship status and household income) and the findings held true even after adjusting for total time spent using social media.

Researchers unsure why there is a link, or what can be done about it

“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,” Primack, who is also the assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, said in a statement.

“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,” he continued. “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,” added Primack, who is also a professor of medicine at Pitt. “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.”

Based on their analysis, the study authors have come up with several theories as to why the use of multiple social media platforms could potentially lead to anxiety or depression. It may be due to a previously established link between multitasking (which would be needed to juggle several different social media accounts) and poor mental health outcomes, or negative emotions resulting from the different unwritten rules and idiosyncrasies of each different platform.

When using different types of social media, the researchers explained, people face an increased risk of committing potentially-embarrassing social media faux pas. The next step, they said, will be to better understand how people are using these various platforms, what kinds of experiences they have on social media, and how they could develop and implement personalized educational public health interventions to prevent or limit social media-driven anxiety or depression.

-----

Image credit: Thinkstock