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Does Social Media Cause Depression?

Social media is obviously a large part of our society. People have a lot of differing views of it, what its good for and not so good for. There’s been a lot of research on the possible effects social media can have on us. Specifically looking at whether or not it can cause depression or depressed moods. At this point there is strong evidence to suggest such a link between depression and social media usage but there are still some things to consider. The big question with any type of research is whether or not the link is that of causation or simply correlation. One study I found shows a very linear association with the amount of time someone uses social media and depression, meaning the more they used it, the more depressed they were. When the data shows a very linear result it would be easy to assume a causation relationship.

It may also be that those who use increased amounts of social media subsequently develop increased depression. Multiple studies have linked social media use with declines in subjective mood, sense of well-being, and life satisfaction.[17, 21, 34] For example, passive consumption of social media content—as opposed to active communication—has been associated with decrease in bonding and bridging social capital and increase in loneliness.[42] One explanation may be that exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and/or more successful lives.[43, 44] Consequently, these envious feelings may lead to a sense of self-inferiority and depression over time.[45] It is also possible that the feeling of “time wasted” by engaging in activities of little meaning on social media negatively influences mood.[34] Additionally, the substantial rise in the amount of time young individuals spend on the Internet—particularly on social media—has led some to call for the recognition of “Internet addiction” as a distinct psychiatric condition that is closely associated with depression.[46, 47] Finally, it is possible that increased social media exposure may increase the risk of cyber-bullying, which may also increase feelings of depression.[48, 49]

However it may not be social media causing the depressed state. It may be in some cases that depressed people seek out social media more so than people that are not depressed.

It may be that individuals with depression tend to use more social media. For example, depressed individuals with a diminished sense of self-worth may turn to social media based interactions for validation.[37, 38] Subsequently, individuals may suffer from continuous rumination and guilt surrounding Internet use, while feeling compelled to continue the cycle due to low self-efficacy and negative self-appraisal.[37, 39] Due to the high accessibility of social media and the possibility of socialization in a controlled setting, individuals with underlying depression and anhedonia may be more drawn to social media interactions rather than face-to-face interactions.[40, 41] 

Another study looked at the different ways social media can be used to see if that can have differing effects on mood. For example you may assume that someone that posts mostly negative thoughts may be more likely to be depressed when compared to someone that typically posts positive experiences. There are also many passive users that simply scroll through their newsfeed without interacting with other friends posts. They data suggests that passive users are just as likely to experience depression as active users. It also suggests that those with a larger number of friends suffer from more depression. The thought is that the larger number of “friends” is actually mostly strangers or distant acquaintances and because of the lack of face to face interaction does not for the user to distinguish other users actual life vs what is presented on social media which can enhance feelings of envy.

While most of the studies focused on young adults, it was also suggested that research should be directed more toward teens and preteens, as this may be a more at risk demographic because they are often much more prone to comparison and envy of their peers as they are discovering who they are themselves.

The social media sites are aware of the potential risks of depression and have tried to take appropriate action.

The teams behind some social media sites have already begun to reach out to users who show signs of serious depression.When one searches blog site Tumblr for tags indicative of a mental health crisis such as “depressed,” “suicidal,” or “hopeless,” the search function redirects to a message which begins with “Everything okay?” and provides links to pertinent resources.[51] Similarly, in early 2015, Facebook tested a feature by which users’ friends could easily and anonymously report worrisome posts.[52] Authors of problematic content received popup messages on their next visit to the site voicing concern and encouraging them to speak with a friend or helpline worker. Although this button has since been removed, Facebook still accepts reports of suicidal content via an online form.

The authors did acknowledge that there are positive uses of social media and that it is a very prevalent way of life so more research on the subject is needed. Also that education on how to positively navigate social media and how avoid behaviors that may lead to depression. This is where the difficulty lies because there is not clear evidence as to what exactly that is. For now we can take away the knowledge that more social media use does show a strong relationship to higher rates of depression. If you are feeling depressed, maybe try avoiding Facebook and Instagram for a day, go enjoy some time outside and maybe leave the phone in the house. Being aware of this can also help us parents to be more vigilant at paying attention to our children’s social media usage. Whether or not using it causes depression, or maybe if they are using it a lot, it could be a sign that they are feeling depressed, either way, if they are using it a whole lot we should probably help them make some changes. What’s considered a lot? In the paper I’ve referenced, over 2-3 hours a day (cumulative with multiple visits each day), 3-4 times a week were the higher usage levels that showed higher rates of depression.

-Dr. Mark

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