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Does Social Media Cause Depression? It's Complicated

Does scrolling through Facebook and Instagram make you feel bad about yourself? Does social media cause depression? The answer's not black-and-white.

By
Jade Wu,
Episode #261
social media

Is there a link between social media and depression? Do Facebook and Instagram have a negative impact on your mental health? It's complicated.

Sometimes, scrolling through Instagram just makes you feel bad. You try not to envy your friends, but they always seem to be traveling somewhere cool, eating something fancy, or looking cute in perfect just-rolled-out-of-bed hair.

On the other hand, there are times when you laugh at funny memes, catch up with old friends, and feel happy to belong to fun social media communities. Clearly, social media isn't all bad.

Does social media cause depression? Is it bad for your mental health?

People are increasingly opinionated about the potential problems of social media. Things like cyberbullying, screen addiction, and being exposed to endless filtered images that make it impossible not to make comparisons between yourself and others often make the news.

In July, a big study came out in the uber-prestigious journal JAMA. It was titled "Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence." This big headline seemed to confirm what a lot of people have been saying—that screen time is horrible for young people.

What exactly is the relationship between social media use and depression? It turns out there are several caveats.

The study followed over 3800 adolescents over four years as part of a drug and alcohol prevention program. Part of what the investigators measured was the teens' amount of screen time, including time spent on social media, as well as their levels of depression symptoms. One of their main findings was that higher amounts of social media use were associated with higher levels of depression. That was true both when the researches compared between people and compared each person against their own mental health over time.

Case closed? Not so fast. Before we end the debate once and for all, let's take a closer look at this and other studies. Let's ask ourselves: What exactly is the relationship between social media use and depression? It turns out there are several caveats.

Caveat #1: The association between social media use and depression is, on average, tiny.

In this big JAMA study, the investigators compared social media use and depression between teens and found that those who used social media more had higher depression scores. Specifically, for every hour per day that one teen spent on social media more than her peers, she likely had a 0.64-point higher depression score. Within each teen, increasing their daily social media use by 1 hour was also associated with a .41-point increase to their own depression score.

You may be asking, "But what does a 0.64-point increase mean? How much more depression is that?"

Great questions! Depression was measured on a 28-point scale, so these less-than-one-point increases are tiny.

For comparison, girls had depression scores that were, on average, 2.79 points higher than boys. In this sample of teens, an average boy would need to use social media for 4-5 more hours per day than his female peer for his depression score to catch up to hers. In this context, social media use doesn't seem like the biggest fish to fry when it comes to addressing depression in young people.

Caveat #2: Not everybody has the same relationship with social media.

A different study published in 2018 identified five distinct types of social media users. I won't go into the nuts and bolts of each type, but the take-home finding was that "problematic social media use" was one of the main themes for people whose mental health was affected by social media.

You can have alcohol in your life without it being a problem, or your alcohol use may become problematic. It's the same with social media.

What makes for "problematic" use? The researchers adapted the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale to cover all forms of social media. It includes questions like, "You use Facebook in order to forget about personal problems," "You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more," and "You have tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success."

You'll notice that these sound awfully similar to questions about other types of addiction like alcoholism. You can have alcohol in your life without it being a problem, or your alcohol use may become problematic. It's the same with social media.

Caveat #3: We don't know if it's really social media use causing depression.

There's one important thing to remember about survey research—just because two things happen together, it's not necessarily true that one causes the other.

For example, just because higher social media use co-occurs with higher levels of depression, that doesn't mean social media use caused depression. For all we know, it could be that people who are already more depressed choose to spend more time on social media.

Researchers discovered that having the experience of being mistreated as a child, for some reason, predicted using social media more as an adult.

Another possibility is that something else entirely is causing some people to have both high levels of depression and social media use. For example, one interesting study shows that childhood maltreatment was associated with greater current social media use. The researchers discovered that having the experience of being mistreated as a child, for some reason, predicted using social media more as an adult.

It's not hard to imagine that people mistreated in childhood also had higher levels of depression. In this case, depression may have nothing to do with how much someone is using social media now. Instead, it has everything to do with a totally different set of experiences they had as a child. There could be many other factors like this that we haven't researched yet.

Caveat #4: Social media can be a double-edged sword.

If you think that we shouldn't paint social media with one broad brush, you're on the right track. A 2018 study that reviewed all existing research, specifically on LGB people's social media, use showed that there are both benefits and drawbacks.

On the one hand, LGB participants often described social media as a valuable way to cope with stress. It could also be a safe space where they could come out to a supportive community if they didn't have one in real life. On the other hand, cyberbullying via social media was also a common experience for these participants. Some also said that constantly checking their own social media profile was stressful.

When is social media use a problem?

Red flags for problematic social media use include:

  • Noticing that social media use is interfering with your work or real-life relationships
  • Being unable to enjoy real-life events because you're constantly thinking about your profiles
  • Finding it hard to cut down your social media use

If you notice these red flags, it might be time to put down the screens for a moment, make eye contact with someone, and share a smile—you know, like sending a smiley emoji, except IRL!

The bottom line on social media and mental health

So what's the answer? Is social media use good or bad for mental health? It turns out that, like many other psychological questions, this one isn't black-and-white.

It's certainly possible that experiences like cyberbullying, comparing yourself to idealized images, and constantly monitoring your profile, are bad for your mood. It's also true for many that social media offers community support and positive messages. Given the inconclusive research, I think it's safe to say that at least we shouldn't write off social media altogether.

The key to benefitting from social media may lie in using it in moderation and to stay socially connected, instead of using it as a crutch for coping with other stressors and mental health problems.

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