Social media is a major part of life for many, especially young adults. But as social media use by those young adults increases, should we be concerned about an increase in depression, too? Anecdotally, the answer is already “yes.” A new national study, just published, has also provided an answer.
Dr. Brian Primack, a professor of public health and dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, has authored a new national study on social media use and depression. The study found that increased social media use by young adults significantly increased the likelihood those users would develop depression within six months.
It’s the first large and national study which has shown an association between the use of social media and development of depression over time. It was published recently online and will be included in the February 2021 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Young adults using social media more than 300 minutes a day were 2.8 times more likely to suffer depression within six months, when compared with those who used social media less than 120 minutes a day.
“Most prior work in this area has left us with the chicken-and-egg question,” said Primack. “We know from other large studies that depression and social media use tend to go together, but it’s been hard to figure out which came first. This new study sheds light on these questions, because high initial social media use led to increased rates of depression. However, initial depression did not lead to any change in social media use.”
Working with colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, Primack sampled more than 1,000 U.S. adults aged 18 to 30 years. The survey was weighted so that its findings would reflect the broader U.S. population.
After controlling for demographic factors such as sex, race, age. education, employment and income, they measured depression with the validated nine-item Patient Health Questionnaire. They questioned participants about how much time they spent on various social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat and Reddit.
“One reason for these findings may be that social media takes up a lot of time,” said Dr. Cesar Escobar-Viera, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author on the study. “Excess time on social media may displace forming more important in-person relationships, achieving personal or professional goals, or even simply having moments of valuable reflection.”
Another factor influencing a potential increase in depression is the idea of social comparison.
“Social media is often curated to emphasize positive portrayals,” said Jaime Sidani, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the study. “This can be especially difficult for young adults who are at critical junctures in life related to identity development and feel that they can’t measure up to the impossible ideals they are exposed to.”
The World Health Organization recently stated that depression is the leading cause of disability around the world. It now accounts for the largest number of disability-adjusted life years than any other mental disorder. The impact of COVID-19 on global mental health is also important to remember, say the authors.
“These findings are also particularly important to consider in the age of COVID-19,” Primack said. “Now that it’s harder to connect socially in person, we’re all using more technology like social media. While I think those technologies certainly can be valuable, I’d also encourage people to reflect on which tech experiences are truly useful for them and which ones leave them feeling empty.”
Humans are social animals. Physical, intellectual and emotional connection are critically important to the development and health of the human body, mind and spirit. Social media pretends to try to augment those experiences, making connection easier and more rewarding. At least that’s what the companies who own the platforms say.
In reality, social media is only valuable if it actually makes our lives better. But like any good (or potentially good) thing, we can get too much of it. When that happens, the potential for harm outweighs the usefulness.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
Journal Reference – Brian A. Primack, Ariel Shensa, Jaime E. Sidani, César G. Escobar-Viera, Michael J. Fine. Temporal Associations Between Social Media Use and Depression. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2020.09.014