We have all been there. In an idle moment, you instinctively reach for your smartphone to browse your social media feed. The goal is simple: an easy distraction. But the effect is sometimes complicated. Many of us enjoy social media to stay connected with friends, family, colleagues, or groups of individuals with similar interests, but there is inherently an ugly side too. That side where you see something—the perfect family photo, the vacation picture, the promotion of a work accomplishment—and think, “I wish that were me,” can have negative mental health effects.
These double-sided reactions to social media are critical to understand given the high rates of exposure so many people around the globe have to social media each day. In 2018, average daily social media use among internet users worldwide was 2 hours and 16 minutes.1 And, while user retention for most apps over the first 90 days is estimated between 10% and 30%, many social media apps have retention rates ranging from 60% to 98%.2,3 But are they good for us or are they just addictive? Perhaps they are the social-emotional equivalent of eating fast food every day for lunch.
Several lines of research may be relevant in answering this question. For example, social comparison theory would have us speculate that when we are offered highly curated pictures of other people’s lives, we tend to feel worse about our own.4 Similarly, mindfulness, or focusing on the present moment on purpose without judgement, has been found time and time again to be linked to emotional wellbeing. To the extent that social medial calls for a focus on documenting our most precious moments rather than living them, we might expect that users focused on posting pictures or videos of these moments may be a little less present in those moments.
The difficulty in answering this question is that most of the studies evaluating the social and emotional impact of social media have been cross-sectional. They only look at one point rather than how engaging with social media affects users over time. From cross sectional studies, we know some things. For example, more than 1 hour of screen time daily has been associated with worse psychological well-being (Figure).5 Findings from another large national study of young adult social media users indicates that those who used a large number of platforms (7 to 11 different social media platforms) were 3 times more likely to have symptoms consistent with a mood or anxiety disorder.6
The challenge of these studies is that they do not tell us whether use of social media makes people unhappy. Cross-sectional studies focus on describing patterns observed (for example, that individuals with high amounts of screen time or who use more platforms are more often unhappy), but not why those patterns are observed. From these findings two different scenarios are entirely possible. First, it may be that people who are more depressed use social media more often in an attempt to feel better. Second, it may be that people who use social media more often become more depressed because they are less mindful in their day-to-day lives or are more engaged in destructive social comparison practices. Either explanation, and may others, could be true. A 2019 study analyzed cross sectional data from over 350,000 youths about their well-being and digital technology use. The researchers concluded that the actual negative effects could be much smaller than projected (0.4%).7
A study from 2018 looked beyond cross-sectional data.8 The researchers recruited 200 students: 100 were assigned to an app-based intervention intended to reduce use of social networking apps; the other 100 were not assigned an intervention. The app included education on the use of social networking and allowed students to create limits on how often they could use smartphone social networking platforms. The results showed that among students who received the intervention, use of online social networking platforms as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety decreased. Conversely, the group that did not receive the intervention showed no difference in the use of online social networking platforms or in symptoms of depression or anxiety.
The tentative conclusion from this study: less social media use improved emotional health. As scientists, we have to point out that this study was far from perfect. Most notably, there was no comparison between the intervention and control group—which is a key aspect of establishing what caused the observed changes. Also, while the authors reported that the only criteria for participation was being a student at the host university, they imply that the study recruited participants who perceived their use of online social networking to be an addiction. If participation was skewed toward people who viewed their use of online social media negatively, that alone could certainly explain results. The bottom line is that we will need replication of these kinds of longitudinal studies to draw any firm conclusions. Nonetheless this study represents a promising step toward understanding the impact of social media.
So, is social media your best bet for a relaxing way to pass time between meetings or on your morning bus ride? Should parents allow their impressionable teenagers to use social media? We will certainly need more studies to answer this. But it is looking more and more like the answer may be that social media is not particularly beneficial for most of us.
Dr Lipschitz is Associate Director, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Digital Behavioral Health and Informatics Research Program, Boston, MA. Dr Torous is Director of Digital Psychiatry, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, and Chair, American Psychiatric Association, Health Information Technology Committee.
This articles was originally posted on February 7, 2020, and has since been updated. -Ed
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