Like it or not, social media has become a constant in our lives, and it is getting harder to unplug. But, is social media actually causing harm?
To examine its impact, Texas State University researchers conducted a study of 1314 adults who reported actively using social media.1 Their goal was to identify specific social media behaviors related to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Psychiatric Times invited two of the authors, Krista Howard, PhD, and Natalie Ceballos, PhD, to reflect on their work.
Psychiatric Times (PT): Your study found that two social media behaviors were associated with GAD. Would you tell our readers about those?
Dr Howard: In our study, we found that individuals with GAD were more likely to make upward social comparisons. This is not surprising, since research has shown that when individuals perceive themselves as worse off than others through these upward social comparisons, their response often increases negative affect. Individuals with GAD commonly exhibit symptoms of excessive worry, and they often ruminate. What is unfortunate about social comparisons on social media is that these images are often enhanced and unrealistic.
Dr Ceballos: We were not too surprised to see an association between GAD and posting on social media while drinking alcohol. Anxiety disorders and alcohol misuse are often comorbid, and findings from previous research suggest that merely being on social media may make some people more anxious. Since alcohol is often (but incorrectly) perceived as a stress reliever, it is not too surprising that people might try to relax by having a drink while on social media, especially if they have noticed that social media tends to increase their anxiety.
PT: Is this s a chicken versus egg situation? Are patients with GAD are more likely to have issues with those behaviors, or do you think those behaviors cause or exacerbate anxiety?
Dr Howard: Different mental health disorders can predispose individuals to be more susceptible to making upward social comparisons, which then can exacerbate their symptoms. But there is no evidence that making upward social comparisons causes depression or anxiety disorders. Various social media platforms are known for impression management, that is, presenting yourself in the best possible way via filters and photoshop applications. And while users know these pictures may not be credible, they still have the tendency to compare themselves with these unrealistic images.
Dr Ceballos: In terms of the association between alcohol use and anxiety, it is a bit of a vicious cycle. Much like some antianxiety medications, alcohol acts as a sedative on the nervous system. So at least acutely, it can make people feel more relaxed, and this can be a desirable effect, especially for someone with an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, some studies suggest that chronic alcohol misuse may change the nervous system, making it more difficult for someone to cope with anxiety in the future.
Dr Howard is Associate Professor of Psychology and Dr Ceballos is Professor of Psychology, Texas State University-San Marcos. They report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. Bonnette A, Robinson A, Dailey S, et al. Upward social comparisons and posting under the influence: Investigating social media behaviors of US adults with generalized anxiety disorder. October 29, 2019.