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, prompting mental health experts to investigate if 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.

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 found that people who check Facebook late at night were more likely to feel depressed and unhappy.
  • A 2018 University of Pennsylvania 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.

Limiting your time on social media and prioritizing one's real-world connections can be beneficial to mental health.

Causation or Correlation?

Some studies about social media and mental health reveal that there’s a correlation between networking websites 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 causal 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 causal 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.

And 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 networking sites.

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 not comparing oneself to others and, by extension, 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. Cliques of mean girls and boys can swarm a peer’s social media page, leaving negative comments or spreading misinformation. In some cases, bullies have convinced their victims to kill themselves. 

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. 

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 exposure to nonstop news, including bad news. Headlines related to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, political strife, celebrity deaths, and the COVID-19 pandemic 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.

This prevented people from being inundated with news around the clock or feeling like they were missing out if they didn’t get word about a news story exactly when it broke.

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 anxiety or depression symptoms to develop or heighten. 

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.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Amelia Aldao told NPR in July 2020 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, which can make 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.  

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Article Sources
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