CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

You check Facebook while in line at the grocery store. 

You glance at Twitter while waiting at a stop light.

While working on your computer, social media alerts pop up in the corner of the screen.

Social media is a constant presence in the lives of billions of people across the globe. Facebook alone boasts of nearly 1.8 billion users.

As this cultural trend expands, researchers are asking how social media impacts users – and specifically their mental health.

A new systematic review by researchers in the United Kingdom distills the evidence on the connection between social media and depression. Clinical psychologists at Lancaster University reviewed nearly 800 articles and selected 30 with the strongest methodologies. They examined data that included more than 35,000 participants between the ages of 15 and 88 from 14 countries.

Their analysis offers a mixed bag of conclusions and helps to explain the intricacies of technology and communication in our culture today. Of the studies included in the review, 11 of them provided simple correlations between online social networking and depression. Of those 11 studies, 45 percent identified a link between online social networking and depression. Eighteen percent found that online social networks have a positive impact on mental health, and 36 percent found no significant conclusions either way.

How can so many high quality studies draw completely different conclusions?

The review authors unpack the data to help explain when social media is harmful to mental health, and when it is helpful.

Their review found that study participants were more likely to feel depressed when they spent time comparing themselves to others on social media. Research shows that these comparisons lead to rumination – or continuously thinking about negative social interactions.

The data found social media users were more likely to suffer from depression when they:

  • Felt envy triggered by observing others’ social media posts.
  • Accepted former partners as social media friends.
  • Posted frequently on social media, and especially with negative status updates.
  • Obsessed over their virtual identity.

It’s no surprise that people are more likely to develop depression from comparing themselves to others on social media than when they make comparisons in real life. That’s because it’s easier to present a polished – and unrealistic – version of your life in a snapshot or snippet of text. Think of a mother who posts a photograph of an intricate meal she has prepared and displayed on a beautifully set table. But just out of the frame is a stack of dirty dishes and whining children waiting for their mother’s attention.

The review also underscores evidence that social media platforms can actually help people improve their mental healthy by enhancing their social support networks and helping them connect to mental health resources.

What’s important is to use social media  in positive ways, explained Janis Whitlock, a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Transnational Research and Director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.

“In a world saturated by communications technology, comparing your off-line life to what we think we can see about other people’s perfect on-line lives is problematic, “ she said. “Worrying excessively about your on-line ‘look’ has become increasingly normalized. Helping people recognize this tendency and redirect social media time to enhance wellbeing is a critical skill for parents and educators.”

The bottom line is that the risks and benefits of social media use depend on how you interact online. Using Facebook to keep in touch with former colleagues or schoolmates spread across the globe can add value to your life. But constantly comparing yourself to others or going to extreme lengths to improve your social media image is likely to take a toll on your mental health.

References

Baker, David A., and Guillermo Perez Algorta. "The Relationship Between Online Social Networking and Depression: A Systematic Review of Quantitative Studies." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 19.11 (2016): 638-48

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