how bad is social media for mental health?

Depending on how you spend your social media time, you may well feel worse after using it. Plenty of studies have found correlations between higher social media use and poorer mental health, including depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and isolation, lower self-esteem, and even suicidal tendencies.

But two new studies underline this reality by showing not just correlation, but causation – in other words, that tweaking your time on social media actually has measurable effects on mental health.

The first study, carried out at the University of Pennsylvania and published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, asked 140 undergraduates to either continue their regular use of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, or to limit each one to 10 minutes per day (30 minutes total). The participants also provided data from their phones to show precisely how much time they were actually spending on the apps, rather than relying on memory, which can be unreliable.

Before and after the ‘intervention’, the participants also filled out questionnaires so the researchers could understand how they were doing psychologically – they were particularly interested in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and the famous ‘fear of missing out’, or FOMO.

As the researchers expected, people who limited their social media use to 30 minutes felt significantly better after the three-week period, reporting reduced depression and loneliness, especially those who came into the study with higher levels of depression. Interestingly, both groups reported less FOMO and less anxiety in the end, which the team suggests may just be a resulting benefit of increased self-monitoring.

“Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for people who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
says study author Melissa G. Hunt

The results confirm what others have suggested, with the added bonus of being one of the few studies to use a real experimental design, which has the power to show causation. Additionally, it seems to suggest that we don’t need to cut out social media use completely, but just to curtail it.

“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” said Hunt. “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. 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.”

Indeed, the other new study, from York University in Canada, found that young women who were asked to interact with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards. The 120 undergraduate women were either asked to find on Facebook and Instagram a peer whom they felt was more attractive, or a family member whom they did not feel was more attractive, and leave a comment. They reported that they felt worse about their own appearances only in the first condition, with peers, but not family.

What’s also important to point out, but was not studied here, is that making any kind of comparison – not just to people you think are more attractive or smarter, but also people you think are less attractive or smart (or anything) than you – is linked to poorer well-being. A study a few years ago illustrated this, finding that the link between social media and depression was largely mediated by this ‘social comparison’ factor. And again, this was true in either direction, ‘upward’ or ‘downward’.

Again the bottom line is what researchers – and even some of the developers of social media apps themselves – have been saying for a while now; social media, especially spending long periods of time on it, is just not that good for us. We may not need to quit it completely, but limiting our time on social media considerably, and reconnecting with friends and family in real life, is definitely the way to go.

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