Social support helps mental health, but not if it's coming from social media: study

April 23, 2021

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

Support offered on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms does not provide the same mental health protections as real-life support from friends and family, according to a new paper that surveyed college students to examine the connections between problematic social media use, mental health challenges and the safety net of relationships. 

"Many studies have demonstrated that real-life social support is protective against depression and anxiety and isolation," Dar Meshi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and first author of the study, told The Academic Times. "We replicate that here: The less people have social support in real life, the greater their symptoms." But students who reported more problematic social media use said they got more support from social media, and they did not appear to benefit from those interactions in terms of mental well-being.  

In the study, published April 10 in Addictive Behaviors, 403 undergraduate students at Michigan State University filled out a survey about their past year of social media use; their levels of depression, anxiety and isolation; and their social support both online and in real life. Though far from representative of the broader population — the average age of the participants was just over 20 years old — the sample focused on a group that used social media very frequently, which, as the authors argue, made understanding the students' online habits important. 

A researcher in Michigan State University's department of advertising and public relations, Meshi, through lab experiments with mice, has previously studied how lived environments can contribute to depression and anxiety. He has also conducted neuroimaging research designed to better understand how we make social decisions. And his curiosity recently led him to the relatively new subject of how social media affects mental health. 

"It was invented in our lifetimes," Meshi said. "Due to evolution, we have these social drives and social rewards that our brains are trained for. Humans who were more predisposed to find social interaction more rewarding or valuable ended up getting the benefits of society" — basically, safety, food, shelter and sex. "You end up passing on your genes more," he added. That means we're hardwired to find social interactions rewarding. Scientists have discovered that we enjoy sharing information about ourselves and like it when people nod in agreement with us, Meshi said. Now, we seek the same sort of acknowledgment from likes and shares and positive emojis. 

For the study, the researchers used path analysis — a computer-aided statistical method used to compare variables — to examine the relationships among the students' levels of support, social media use and mental health struggles, revealing a dichotomy in their social lives. "The more problematic your social media use is, the less you're getting real-life social support," Meshi said.

Causality was not established by the study, because it did not measure people's social media use and mental health symptoms over time. But separate meta-analyses have found a positive correlation between heavy social media use and mental health difficulties, supporting the paper's conclusions. "This is a very hot topic in research right now — mental health in relation to social media use," Meshi said. "The question is the direction of the relationship: Are people more depressed, so they're going on more social media? Or is what people are doing on social media depressing them?" 

The participants' problematic use of social media was measured by using the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale, which is aimed at six core aspects of substance use disorders — preoccupation, mood modification, tolerance, conflict, withdrawal and relapse. "These six components are shared across all kinds of addictions," Meshi said. "Think about a heroin addict being preoccupied with where they're getting their next hit. People develop a tolerance, and there's mood modification. If you quit, you can have withdrawal symptoms and also relapse."

Questions included, "Do you become restless or troubled if you're prohibited from social media?" and responses were based on a five-point scale, with 1 being "very rarely" and 5 being "very often." The researchers excluded responses from students who filled out the survey after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, reasoning that the isolation caused by the shutdown measures could have influenced the data. 

Researchers are just beginning to understand how problematic social media use — unrecognized as a disorder in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — could be associated with worse mental health. Meshi is comfortable making one firm observation, however: lurkers suffer. 

"It appears how people use social media is the important thing," he said. "Some people use it in an active way; they're posting and interacting with people a lot. Other people who are lurking are engaging in social comparison. The literature shows us that the more you're lurking, the more you're comparing, and that leads to worse mental health." 

The study, "Problematic social media use and social support received in real-life versus on social media: associations with depression, anxiety and social isolation," published April 10 in Addictive Behaviors, was authored by Dar Meshi, Michigan State University; and Mogan E. Ellithorpe, University of Delaware. 

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