Anyone who regularly uses social media will have had the experience of feeling envious of the fun their friends are having together – or at least, the fun their friends are appearing to be having together. This might especially be the case if you’re are sitting at home on a cold wet evening, feeling bored while everyone else is partying or having a glamorous holidays in the sun. But is it possible that these feelings could be the start of something worse? Could using social media actually make you depressed?
Depression is a mental illness, one with a range of potential triggers, and it’s vital not to simplify or minimise it by simply branding it the result of too much Facebook. Does social media cause depression? That’s probably far too blunt a conclusion. But according to a recent US-based study, sponsored by the National Institute for Mental Health, scientists have identified a “strong and significant association between social media use and depression in a sample of American young adults”. The study concluded that levels of depression increased with total amount of time spent using social media and number of visits to social media sites per week. The new study also suggested that reducing social media use might help those who already have the illness feel significantly less depressed — and cutting down can have a similarly major impact on loneliness.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania targeted Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat for their study, looking at the usage of 143 participants between the ages of 18 and 22. Before their overall social media use was assessed, each participant completed a survey on their mood and wellbeing. They also provided a screenshot of their iPhone battery usage screen, in order to determine their typical time spent on the three social media apps.
Then, the study participants were equally divided into two groups. In the first, a control group, participants didn’t alter their social media usage; in the second, the subjects were asked to limit their time on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 10 minutes on each app every day. The study lasted for three weeks, during which all participants provided a battery usage screenshot and completed the mood survey on a weekly basis. To determine the wellbeing of the participants, the researchers looked at seven categories: social support (or how strong an offline social network someone has), fear of missing out, loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and autonomy and self-acceptance (how much someone worries about what others think of them, and how comfortable they are with themselves).
The study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, found a distinct link between social media usage, depression, and loneliness. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness,” said study author and psychologist Melissa G. Hunt. The participants with the most severe depression at the beginning of the study saw the greatest improvement by the end.
The subjects in the experimental group also saw a decline in their anxiety and fear of missing out. “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens,” Hunt said. “When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
Hunt has also stressed that more research has to be done on the topic. However, the study does provide a new motion to cut down the time you might spend on your phone.
“When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life,” said Hunt. “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”