Excessive Social-Media Use Linked to Depression in Young Adults

New study suggests heavy users are nearly three times more likely to be depressed.

Social Media and Depression

Log on to one of your favorite social-media channels and you’re likely to find something that brightens your day. But despite all the uplifting posts, tweets, and images, new research suggests that social media can also have a dark side — especially for young adults who spend too much time in its grasp.

In the first major study of its kind, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers found higher incidences of depression among young adults who were heavy social-media users when compared with those who logged on less frequently and for shorter periods of time.

Senior author Brian Primack, MD, PhD, and his research team queried 1,787 people, ages 19 to 32, on their use of 11 popular social-media channels — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn — and evaluated each of the participants with a standard depression-assessment test.

They found their study subjects spent, on average, 61 minutes a day visiting various channels, logging on 30 times a week. More than 25 percent of the participants exhibited “high” indications of depression.

And those who reported the most frequent social-media usage (58 or more visits per week) were almost three times as likely to be depressed compared with those who visited least often (eight or fewer visits). Similar patterns emerged when researchers looked at overall time spent on these platforms: Those who spent the most time (two or more hours per day) were almost twice as likely to exhibit depression symptoms compared with those who logged off most quickly (less than 30 minutes).

Researchers controlled for other factors that may cause depression, including age, sex, race/ethnicity, relationship status, living situation, household income, and education level. The results were published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

The cross-sectional-study results do not prove that excessive social-media use causes depression, said lead author Lui yi Lin, BA. “It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void.”

But it’s also likely, she added, that the emotional and psychological effects of even moderate social-media use — peer envy, online addiction, cyber-bullying — could trigger symptoms of depression that lead to increased usage.

“Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use,” Primack said in a statement released by the university.

The findings could offer healthcare providers another tool in their treatment of depression, which the World Health Organization estimates will be the leading cause of global disease burden by 2030. And Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, said he hopes the study’s findings will boost initiatives that Tumblr and Facebook have already begun to implement to intervene on behalf of users who exhibit symptoms of depression when using their platforms.

“Our hope is that continued research will allow such efforts to be refined so that they better reach those in need,” he said. “All social-media exposures are not the same. Future studies should examine whether there may be different risks for depression depending on whether the social-media interactions people have tend to be more active versus passive or whether they tend to be more confrontational versus supportive. This would help us develop more fine-grained recommendations around social-media use.”

For more insights on depression’s causes and possible cures, see “Free Yourself From Depression” in our March 2015 issue and “A Path out of Depression” in our May 2011 issue.

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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