Some commentators have claimed that the use of digital technologies – and, in particular, social media – harms mental health. But what does the science say on the matter?
The University of California San Diego’s Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis found that increased use of Facebook in a sample of 5,208 people was negatively associated with mental health. These researchers suggested that greater focus on online relationships may have led to a decline in offline relationships.
A separate study led by the University of Pittsburgh’s Brian Primack found that adults who used a greater number of social media platforms had worse mental health than those who used fewer. Among 1,787 adults, individuals who used between seven to 11 different social media platforms had more symptoms of depression and anxiety than other individuals who used between zero to two platforms.
But both these studies are only correlational in nature, and cannot distinguish between cause and effect. It may indeed be the case that social media usage causes mental health issues. However, it is impossible to rule out that people who feel anxious or depressed may use social media more to seek solace.
In scientific trials, the best way of determining the effects of anything is to conduct what’s known as a randomised controlled trial. For example, if researchers wish to test the effects of a new medicine, diet or psychological therapy, they would randomly assign volunteers to either an experimental group (in which the participants are exposed to the medicine or other intervention) or a control group (in which they either take a placebo or continue with their lives as normal).
One of the few randomised controlled trials to be conducted with regards to social media was published last year by researchers headed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Melissa Hunt. After a week of baseline monitoring, 143 undergraduates were randomly assigned to either limit their use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to 10 minutes per platform per day, or to continue using social media as usual. The experimental participants who limited their use reported feeling less lonely and less depressed than those in the control group who carried on as they wished.
Young and old
This suggests that limiting social media use may benefit psychological well-being. However, this study was conducted with relatively young undergraduates who may have used social media primarily for entertainment. There is a lack of research looking at effects on, for example, older, employed adults using social media more for learning or communication at work.
Firm conclusions about the effects of social media are not yet possible – not enough studies have been conducted. And discussions of simple cause and effect are too crude. They ignore the different ways in which individuals use social media. Researchers such as Lancaster University’s David Baker and Guillermo Perez Algorta have pointed out that length of time spent on social media, quality and type of engagement may matter more.
For example, one investigation led by Edson Tandoc Jr of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found no overall association between Facebook use and psychological well-being. However, people who reported feeling the emotion of envy while on Facebook – for example, feeling inferior to their friends or worrying that others had better lives – did experience worse psychological well-being.
Clearly, using social media to follow the movements of friends, ex-partners or even celebrities is very different from using it to keep abreast of world affairs or your favourite pastimes. Try to develop a level of self-awareness about your use of different social media platforms. By all means continue if you are using social media to learn, maintain relationships or even beat boredom occasionally. However, be careful when you notice that its use engenders envy, loneliness or other negative emotions – or if using social media is distracting you from real issues or opportunities that you should be tackling.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace