Can social media cause depression?

Is using social media making children and young people unhappy? Some of the reported negative impacts of social media on young people’s mental health is enough to make you want to turn off their phones and throw them away. Research suggests that regular social media use can impact sleeping habits, cause low self-esteem and lead to poor mental health - triggering depression or anxiety. Other research suggests that aside from the strain on young people’s mental health, social media can be dangerously addictive.

However, new research from Brock University’s Department of Psychology and the Centre for Lifespan Development Research, Canada, finds no evidence that social media can be used as a predictor of depressive symptoms over time.

"You have to follow the same people over time to come to the conclusion that the use of social networks predicts increased depressive symptoms," says the study's lead author, Taylor Heffer.

"By using two large longitudinal samples, we were able to empirically prove that assumption.” continue Heffer.

The study argues that association with social media does not mean that its use leads to future depression in either males or females.

The impact of social media on mental health 

Heffer’s longitudinal study focused on two independent participant groups of students. One group included 594 teenagers in Grades 6 to 8 in Ontario, Canada. The other group consisted of 1,132 undergraduate (university) students.

The team surveyed the first group once per year for 2 years. The second group (older students) were surveyed annually for a total of 6 years, beginning with their first year of university.

The questions in the survey focused on how much time the students spent on social media during the week and at weekends, along with how much time they spent on activities such as watching television, exercising and doing homework.

They also looked at the symptoms of depression. For undergraduates, they measured these symptoms using the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale. They used a similar but more age-appropriate version for the younger participants.

The researchers then analysed the data, separating them by age and sex. The findings, which have been published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, revealed that the use of social networks did not lead to depressive symptoms. These finds were true for both participant groups.  

The scientists also found that teenage girls who displayed higher symptoms of depression were more likely to turn to social media for support. Heffer points out that women of this age "who feel depressed are likely to look to social media to try to make themselves feel better”.

Reducing fear of social networks

This study suggests that excessive use of social media does not lead to depression. It is of course important to monitor social media usage to ensure that it is not impacting on other daily activities. However, this study could help to relax fears around the impact of social media on children and young people.

As Heffer explains, "When parents read media headlines about 'Facebook depression,' there comes an immediate assumption that the use of social media is literally the cause depression.” 

It is important to note that differences in personality, socialisation and genetics are all important factors when considering the impact of social media on well-being. For example, some young people may approach social media with a negative mind-set, using it to compare themselves to others (consciously or unconsciously), while others may simply use it to keep in touch with friends or interesting events going on in the world. In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of social media on mental health, it is important that more research is done to explore these impacting factors to gauge an idea of the best way forward. 

Reference: Clinical Psychological Science The Longitudinal Association Between Social-Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among Adolescents and Young Adults: An Empirical Reply to Twenge et al. 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702618812727 

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