Social media: love it or hate it, addicted or not, it’s hard to argue that it is here to stay. Whether it’s tracking down your old school acquaintances on Facebook to see who has more hair (spoiler; it’s never me), or Instagramming your Sunday brunch, social media has pervaded almost every element of our lives.
If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’ll have heard that there is a dark new side to social media. Not only is Facebook tracking your every mood: it’s also making you lonely and depressed.
Fortunately, the cure is easy! Just cut social media out of your life, and you’ll go back to your regular, non-depressed self almost overnight.
Sadly, the evidence is not nearly that clear. The reality is that social media has pros and cons, and whether or not it causes depression — or potentially even prevents it — is much more in the air than the tabloids would have you believe.
Social media probably isn’t making you depressed.
The recent study that has caused all of these waves was looking at whether social media affects a variety of depression and anxiety markers. The scientists enrolled a group of undergraduate psychology students into either a normal or limited use group, and then followed them for a month. Normal users were instructed to continue to use Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat as usual, with limited users told to only spend 10 mins a day on each site. Participants filled in surveys at the beginning and end that scored them on loneliness, depression, anxiety, FOMO, social support, autonomy, self-acceptance, and self esteem.
Over the course of the experiment, limited users cut back significantly on their use of these sites. They also improved on a measure of loneliness, and in some cases depression as well. The researchers argued that this was evidence that social media was causing issues with well-being, and that limiting it was “strongly” advised to improve people’s mental health.
Cue the media hysteria.
Fear And Facts
The reality is actually much less scary. There currently isn’t good evidence that social media directly causes depression or loneliness, and this study adds almost nothing to that conversation anyway.
Confused? I’ll explain.
Firstly, this study was small. There were 143 students enrolled, total, and based on the statistical analyses at least 30% of them dropped out before completing the study. The researchers also said that they couldn’t do their final follow-up analysis because the dropout rate hit 80% by the end of the semester, which makes the results much less impressive.
It’s also hard to conclude much from this study because the published paper leaves out enormous chunks of important information. The study doesn’t appear to have been randomized, for example, and we don’t get any information on the baseline characteristics of the participants. There isn’t even a statistical analysis section in the methods, which is vital to understand what the numbers that they found actually mean.
It’s also worth pointing out that, while the researchers did find some improvements for people who cut back on their social media, they also found no change whatsoever for anxiety, FOMO, social support, autonomy, self-acceptance, and self esteem. The improvements in depression were also only seen in a tiny group of very depressed people who also used a lot of social media, which means that they aren’t really that applicable to the rest of us. Moreover, while the improvements were statistically significant, it’s not clear whether there would be a clinically significant improvement in cutting back on social media.
This study also only looked at one very specific sample of people — American university students — and only three social media platforms. It might be that all these people were switching from Facebook to Tumblr, or Instagram to WhatsApp, and that was causing the reduction in symptoms. It’s really hard to generalize these findings even to other social media platforms, never mind diverse groups of people across the world.
Basically, the study only showed small improvements in a couple of variables, and none in most of the others. This could’ve been due to random statistical variation, but even if it wasn’t it’s hard to tell if these results mean anything at all.
In some ways, it’s inevitable that we will fear social media. It is a change, and changes are always scary. It’s also based on people, and if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that people have both good and bad sides.
But what does the evidence really show?
Overall, not all that much. A systematic review looking at dozens of studies in the last decade found that in some situations social media might exacerbate underlying mental health problems, but in others it might help prevent them. There’s some evidence linking social media with depression, but there’s also evidence that it can reduce depressive symptoms and feelings of social isolation.
It seems that social media is very similar to other human interaction: if you’re interacting with decent people, it can be good. If you’re interacting with jerks, not so much.
If you’re worried about social media overuse, or the impact that social media is having on your mental health, the best advice is to see a health professional. They are best placed to help you decide what is best for you online.
But don’t worry too much about this newest study. Small improvements in psychometric test scores for 100 American undergrad students look good in a study, but almost certainly mean very little to your life.
Don’t believe the hype.
Social media probably isn’t making you lonely or depressed.
Note: I am aware of the irony of me publishing this article on a social media site. Suffice to say that we all have biases, but there is still reasonable evidence that it isn’t social media that is the issue, except in more extreme cases. This also does not address the issue of targeted harassment and bullying, both of which have almost certainly been facilitated by social media. Here we are simply talking about whether people do or do not use social media platforms — the picture might look very different in marginalized groups.