Greater time spent on social media linked to higher risk of depression

December 18, 2020

Support offered on social media doesn't have near as much benefit as that offered in person.

Extensive social media use appears to be a contributing factor in the development of depression among young adults, according to a new national study, with those who use social media the most each day being up to nearly three times as likely to become depressed as their peers who spend less time online. 

The study, which was published online on Dec. 10 and is scheduled for the February 2021 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, is the first to show a directional link between the amount of time spent using social media and depression over time, the researchers said.

Led by Brian Primack, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, researchers recruited more than 1,000 adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 30. The survey, conducted over the course of 2018, included a measurement of baseline depression, and looked at the amount of time participants used major social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among others. The same measures were then reassessed six months later.

The findings noted that participants who reported using social media for 300 minutes or more per day at the start of the research were 2.8 times as likely to develop depression over the following six months as those who reported spending 120 minutes or less per day on social media. 

Notably, individuals who reported depressive symptoms at the start of the survey did not report an increase in social media usage over the following six months, leading to a better sense of directionality on this issue, Primack said.

“Because all the prior studies had been cross-sectional, we were able to say that people who tend to use more social media tend to be more depressed, but we really didn’t know what came first,” Primack said. “In the past, we really had this chicken-and-egg conundrum that was not solved. We actually expected both directions to be contributory, so this was somewhat of a surprise.”

This specific study did not delve into the particular type of social media that the participants were using, instead focusing on the quantity of time they spent on such platforms. As to why an increased amount of time spent on social media outlets could lead to the development of depression, Primack said that at the core of the issue is the idea of “social comparison,” and that people online have a tendency to post the best moments of their day while neglecting to provide the same spotlight on potentially less savory moments.

“The bottom line is that we’re all seeing very curated versions of people’s lives that make it look like we can’t necessarily measure up,” Primack said. “At the same time, there’s this interesting paradox, because it feels like it’s real life, because these are people that we really know. That combination can be particularly problematic.”

In addition, the displacement of time caused by extensive social media usage can also contribute to the development of depressive symptoms, Primack said.

“If you’re spending five hours a day on social media, you’re not spending those five hours a day with more potentially valuable in-person relationships, or with artistic pursuits that might be more meaningful and valuable to you as a human,” Primack said. “You might come off … social media and say  — my gosh, I just spent five hours that I could have been writing my novel, or doing that craft or that real goal that I have. This displacement effect is also an issue.”

However, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic leading many people to increase the amount of time they spend online, Primack noted that the specific circumstances created by COVID-19 and social isolation measures may have created their own separate situation.

“There are reasons to think that, potentially, the advent of all of us increasing our social and digital media footprint over the past year, unavoidably because of COVID, may be contributing to more problems,” Primack said. “[But] we might not be able to have as valuable in-person relationships and so maybe, transitioning some of that to meaningful and valuable digital or social media time might actually be useful.”

To counteract the kind of mental health impact that such extensive time on social media can create, Primack said that the first step is understanding more of the nuances that come with time spent online in order to create what he calls a “social media food pyramid.” The creation of such a system would enable people to better understand the positive aspects of social media and emphasize those things.

“Decades ago, when all of a sudden people started finding out — oh my gosh, food is bad for you! Trans fats are bad, saturated fats are bad, carbs are bad, this has been linked to this kind of cancer — the answer was obviously not to stop eating,” Primack said. “The answer was to sort of look at all the data, categorize it really well, and then create a system that people could understand and which was feasible to implement.”

“It’s not just passive or active use — it’s what platforms are they using. Are they clicking ‘like’ on pictures of puppies or are they violently, aggressively attacking people who have different religious views than their own?” Primack said. “Social media use is so multifaceted that we have no shortage of work ahead of us.”

Primack said that the next step in research into social media usage will be aimed at better understanding the nuances of how people choose to spend their time on social and how that plays a role in their mental health, in order to enable individuals to have more consistently positive interactions online, and that the answer to the social media problem is “almost certainly not to throw it out the window.”

“Right now, I think we’re using it in ways that don’t necessarily benefit ourselves, that are more related to habit, more related to how compelling the marketing is, and how people are sort of using it as a knee-jerk reaction and not in ways that really serve them best,” Primack said.

The study, Temporal Associations Between Social Media Use and Depression, was first published online on Dec. 10 and is scheduled for publication in the February 2021 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. It was authored by Brian Primack of the University of Arkansas, Ariel Shensa, Jaime Sidani and Cesar Escobar-Viera, all of the University of Pittsburgh, and Michael Fine of the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion.

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