How Does Social Media Play a Role in Depression?


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By some estimates, roughly 4 billion people across the world use networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This usage has prompted mental health experts to investigate whether the enormous popularity of social media plays a role in depression.

Research suggests that people who limit their time on social media tend to be happier than those who don’t. Studies also indicate that social media may trigger an array of negative emotions in users that contribute to or worsen their depression symptoms.

Defining Depression

Clinical depression or major depressive disorder is a mood disorder characterized by ongoing feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities that an individual once enjoyed. Depression can be mild or severe and make it difficult for those with the condition to concentrate, sleep or eat well, make decisions, or complete their normal routines.

People with depression may contemplate death or suicide, feel worthless, develop anxiety or have physical symptoms such as fatigue or headaches. Psychotherapy and medication are some of the treatments for depression. Limiting time on social media and prioritizing real-world connections can be beneficial to mental health.

The Facts on Social Media and Depression

  • Social media has never been more popular, with more than half of the world's population active on these networking sites that roll out nonstop news, much of it negative.
  • A Lancet study publbished in 2018 found that people who check Facebook late at night were more likely to feel depressed and unhappy.
  • Another 2018 study found that the less time people spend on social media, the less symptoms of depression and loneliness they felt.
  • A 2015 study found that Facebook users who felt envy while on the networking site were more likely to develop symptoms of depression.

Causation or Correlation?

Some studies about social media and mental health reveal that there’s a correlation between networking sites and depression. Other research goes a step further, finding that social media may very well cause depression. A landmark study—“No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression”—was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2018.

The study found that the less people used social media, the less depressed and lonely they felt.

This indicates a relationship between lower social media use and emotional wellbeing. According to the researchers, the study marked the first time scientific research established a causal link between these variables.

“Prior to this, all we could say was that there is an association between using social media and having poor outcomes with wellbeing,” said study coauthor Jordyn Young in a statement.

To establish the link between social media and depression, the researchers assigned 143 University of Pennsylvania students to two groups: one could use social media with no restrictions, while the second group had their social media access limited to just 30 minutes on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat combined over a three-week period.

Each study participant used iPhones to access social media and the researchers monitored their phone data to ensure compliance. The group with restricted social media access reported lower severity of depression and loneliness than they had at the beginning of the study.

Both groups reported a drop in anxiety and fear of missing out (FOMO), apparently because joining the study made even the group with unrestricted access to social media more cognizant of how much time they were spending on it.

Less Social Media, Less FOMO 

It’s not certain why participants who only spent 30 minutes daily on social media experienced less depression, but researchers suggest that these young people were spared from looking at content—such as a friend’s beach vacation, grad school acceptance letter, or happy family—that might make them feel bad about themselves.

Taking in the photos or posts of people with seemingly “perfect” lives can make social media users feel like they just don’t measure up. A 2015 University of Missouri study found that regular Facebook users were more likely to develop depression if they felt feelings of envy on the networking site.

Social media can also give users a case of FOMO, for example, if they were invited on their friend’s beach vacation but couldn’t go for some reason. Or if the friend didn’t ask them on the trip at all, users might feel hurt and left out to see that others in their social circle were. It can lead them to question their friendships or their own self-worth.

Social media users who visit an ex’s social media page and see pictures of their former partner wining and dining a new love interest can also experience FOMO. They might wonder why their ex never took them to such fancy restaurants or lavished them with gifts.

Ultimately, limiting one’s time on social media can mean less time spent comparing oneself to others. This can extend to not thinking badly of oneself and developing the symptoms that contribute to depression.

Why Young People Are at Risk

Prior to social media and the internet, children only had to worry about bullying on school grounds, for the most part. But social media has given bullies a new way to torment their victims.

With just one click, bullies can circulate a video of their target being ridiculed, beaten up, or otherwise humiliated. People can swarm a peer’s social media page, leaving negative comments or spreading misinformation. In some cases, victims of bullying have committed suicide.

While many schools have anti-bullying policies and rules about online student conduct, it can still be difficult for educators and parents to monitor abusive behavior on social media.

Worsening matters is that the victims of bullies often fear that the bullying will increase if they speak to a parent, teacher, or administrator about their mistreatment. This can make a child feel even more isolated and go without the emotional support they need to handle a toxic and potentially volatile situation. 

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Bad News and ‘Doomscrolling’ 

One in five Americans now get their news from social media—a larger proportion than those who get their news from traditional print media.

For heavy social media users, people who log in for multiple hours at a time or multiple times a day, this means frequent exposure news, including bad news. Headlines related to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, political strife, and celebrity deaths frequently top lists of social media trends.

Before the advent of social media and the internet generally, one’s exposure to bad news was limited. The public got news from broadcasts that aired at certain times of the day or from newspapers.

The habit of binging bad news on social media sites or elsewhere online is known as “doomscrolling,” and it can adversely affect one’s mental health, leading to development or heightening of anxiety or depression symptoms. 

A 2018 Lancet Psychiatry study of 91,005 people found that those who logged onto Facebook before bedtime were 6% likelier to have major depressive disorder and rated their happiness level 9% lower than those with better sleep hygiene did.

Psychologist Amelia Aldao told NPR that doomscrolling locks the public into a “vicious cycle of negativity.” The cycle continues because “our minds are wired to look out for threats,” she said. “The more time we spend scrolling, the more we find those dangers, the more we get sucked into them, the more anxious we get.” Before long, the world appears to be an altogether gloomy place, making doomscrollers feel increasingly hopeless.

Safely Using Social Media

Using social media comes with mental health risks, but that doesn’t mean it should be completely avoided. Experts recommend using these networking websites in moderation.

Set a timer when you’re on social media or install an app on your phone or computer that tracks how long you’ve spent on a networking site.

Without these timers or apps, it’s easy to spend hours on social media before you know it. To limit your time on social media, you can also plan real-world activities that help you focus on your immediate surroundings and circumstances. Read a book, watch a movie, go for a stroll, play a game, bake some bread, or have a phone conversation with a friend. Make the time to enjoy life offline.  

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares effective ways to reduce screen time.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Nadra Nittle
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author. She has covered a wide range of topics, including health, education, race, consumerism, food, and public policy, throughout her career.