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3 Reasons Real-Life Social Support Is Best for Mental Health

Online social networks fall short in comparison to real-life support systems.

Key points

  • Many people rely on social media platforms for social support.
  • New research suggests that social media social support (SMSS) doesn't have a negative impact on mental health.
  • However, real-life social support (RLSS) can reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness; RLSS has a positive effect on mental health.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Although using social media for support during difficult times doesn't appear to impact mental health negatively, new research suggests that it doesn't have a positive effect, either. A recent study (Meshi & Ellithorpe, 2021) compared the pros and cons of social support using real-life contacts versus social media platforms. Their findings were published online on April 10 in the peer-reviewed journal Addictive Behaviors.

Real-Life Social Support (RLSS) vs. Social Media Social Support (SMSS)

In this comparative analysis between RLSS and SMSS, Dar Meshi of Michigan State University and the University of Delaware's Morgan Ellithorpe investigate how overusing social media may affect mental health based on associations with anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

Meshi and Ellithorpe describe excessive social media use as "problematic social media use" or PSMU, which may have symptoms similar to a substance use disorder. "This problematic social media use has been associated with poorer mental health," the co-authors write.

"Problematic social media use has been associated with depression, anxiety, and social isolation, and having a good social support system helps insulate people from negative mental health," Dar Meshi said in a May 3 news release. "We wanted to compare the differences between real-life support and support provided over social media to see if the support provided over social media could have beneficial effects."

For this study, the researchers conducted an online survey that measured varying degrees of PSMU along with mental health markers for anxiety, depression, and social isolation using the Patient-reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS). They also compared individual amounts of RLSS versus SMSS. Then, Meshi and Ellithorpe analyzed all their data.

"Our analysis revealed that problematic social media use was significantly associated with decreased real-life social support and increased social support on social media," the co-authors write in their paper's abstract.

RLSS Reduces Social Isolation, Anxiety, and Depression. SMSS Doesn't.

When people spend excessive amounts of time using social media platforms, they miss out on real-world social support that could help improve their mental health.

The researchers' analysis suggests that excessive social media use took away from the time and energy people invested in real-life support systems. In terms of promoting better mental health, relying heavily on social media apps for social support could be problematic. As mentioned, this research suggests that SMSS doesn't significantly reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms, or loneliness.

"Importantly, real-life social support [was] associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and social isolation, while social support on social media was not associated with these mental health measures," Meshi and Ellithorpe explain. "Our findings reveal the value of real-life social support when considering the relationship between problematic social media use and mental health."

"Only real-life social support was linked to better overall mental health," Meshi reiterates in the news release. "Typical interactions over social media are limited. We theorize that they don't allow for more substantial connection, which may be needed to provide the type of support that protects against negative mental health."

LinkedIn image: garetsworkshop/Shutterstock


Dar Meshi and Morgan E. Ellithorpe. "Problematic Social Media Use and Social Support Received in Real-Life Versus on Social Media: Associations With Depression, Anxiety and Social Isolation." Addictive Behaviors (First available online: April 10, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2021.106949

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