Whether I’m standing on the tram, sitting in a café, or walking down the street, I’m struck by the sight of so many people looking down at their phones, scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or a myriad of other social media platforms.
I immediately ask myself, in this increasingly technological age, what is the impact of constant social media use on our mental health?
On one hand, it allows us to stay up-to-date and connected. I can find out what friends in America and around the world are doing at any time of day or night.
On the other, it’s hard to carry on a normal conversation without someone compulsively checking their feed, rendered paranoid by FOMO (fear of missing out). A person might have thousands of “friends”, but feel completely alone.
So is social media good or bad for us? In a new study published in the Journal of Mental Health, PhD student Elizabeth Seabrook, Dr Nikki Rickard from Monash University and myself found that it is not as clear-cut as you might think.
We reviewed 70 studies that have examined how social network use relates to depression, anxiety, and subjective wellbeing. Results were mixed. Some studies found social media users were happier and more connected with other people.
But other studies found that social media users had more signs of depression or anxiety. So we also looked at various factors that had an impact on when it is beneficial or harmful.
Studies were conducted between 2005 and 2016, mostly with adolescents and young adults. Most focused on Facebook, with a few studies centred around the use of Twitter, MySpace, or social media in general.
These studies examined a variety of themes, including how much time people spent on social media, the number of friends they had, and whether or not they liked and felt accepted by their friends.
Also examined were the words they used, how much personal information they shared, whether they compared themselves with others, and how much they felt addicted to social media.
Across the studies, it appears that it’s not so much that social media causes anxiety and depression, but that people have different ways of using social media, which may be more or less helpful.
For example, Chris, who reported high levels of wellbeing, liked to use Facebook to catch up on the latest gossip and share with others fun things that happened during the day.
Meanwhile, Carey, who suffers from depression, spent hours browsing the newsfeed, and bemoaning how nice everyone else’s life seems.
For many, social media appears to have a range of benefits. It provides a way for many of us to connect with others. We can support other people and feel supported by them. It may even be a useful way for those with social anxiety and those who have a hard time with face-to-face interactions to connect with others.
But for those with depression or anxiety, it could make their symptoms worse. Indeed people who often compared themselves to their friends, ruminated about life, or had negative interactions with others, were at greater risk of depression and anxiety.
Notably, the number of hours that people spent on social media didn’t make a clear difference – it was more the feeling of being addicted to it. It seems like what a person writes about is more indicative of their state of mental health than the number of hours spent online.
Those with symptoms of depression were more likely to be jealous of their friends, compare themselves to others, and use negative language when using social media. This is similar to what I’ve seen in some of my other research, which points to the power of the words that we use.
A growing number of studies suggest that we might be able to use data from social media use to identify people suffering from depression or anxiety, thereby providing the possibility for offering support and resources for those who might not otherwise get the help they need.
So what can we take away from the study? We each have unique patterns in how we use social media, in terms of the language we use and how we behave when we are using it.
Do you keep your friends updated on your activities? Post pictures of your family? Complain about work or other people? Passively browse news feeds without commenting? Do you feel like it helps you connect with others, or do you feel addicted and controlled by it?
As a whole, our review suggests that it is valuable to pause and consider what our behavioural patterns are. By understanding them better, we potentially can make better choices about how to best use social media, as well as use it to promote good mental health.