Depression is forecast to become the leading cause of disability in high-income countries by 2030.
According to a new study from the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, the more young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.
The researchers say that depression is forecast to become the leading cause of disability in high-income countries by 2030, so it’s extremely important to understand the various causes and contributors to the disorder.
The researchers sampled nearly 1,800 American adults ages 19 through 32 in 2014 by using questionnaires to determine the amount of social media use as well as an established depression assessment tool.
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Previous studies have been limited by small or localized samples, or have focused primarily on one specific social media platform, but this study asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.
This was the first large, nationally representative study to investigate the links between a broad range of social media outlets and depression, according to the press release.
“Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use,” says senior author Brian A. Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health.
The results, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, revealed that, on average, participants used social media for 61 minutes a day and visited various accounts 30 times a week. Additionally, more than a quarter of the participants were classified as having “high” indicators of depression.
To quantify the link between social media use and depression, the researchers found that the participants who reported the most frequent social media checking throughout the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression. Further, compared to those who spent less time on social media, those who spent the most time throughout the day had 1.7 times the risk of depression.
The researchers controlled for a number of other factors that can contribute to depression, including age, sex, race, ethnicity, relationship status, household income, living situation, and education level; however, they weren’t able to establish a clear cause and effect.
“It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void,” said lead study author Lui yi Lin.
Or perhaps it’s a two-way street — exposure to social media causes depression, which in turn fuels more use of social media, the researchers suggest. Constantly looking at social media can elicit feelings of envy and distorted beliefs that other people have happier and more successful lives. It can also give people a feeling of “time wasted,” which can take a toll on an individual’s mood. Social media can contribute to “internet addiction,” which is a proposed psychiatric condition that’s already linked with depression, and constantly being online increases the risk of being faced with cyber-bullying.
The researchers say that some social media platforms have already taken preventative measures against depressed or suicidal posts. For instance, if a Tumblr user searches the site for tags like “depressed,” “suicidal,” or “hopeless,” they are redirected to a message that says “Everything OK?” and provided with links to helpful resources.
Facebook has taken matters into its own hands as well — a year ago, the site tested a feature that allows friends to anonymously report posts that seem troubling. The person who posted the worrisome post would then receive pop-up messages encouraging him or her to speak with a friend or helpline.
“Future studies should examine whether there may be different risks for depression depending on whether the social media interactions people have tend to be more active vs. passive or whether they tend to be more confrontational vs. supportive,” said Primack. “This would help us develop more fine-grained recommendations around social media use.”
The researchers hope that continued research will help scientists develop better ways to reach those who are either at risk of or already suffering from social-media-centric depression.
A recent study from the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark found that people who quit Facebook are happier, so maybe taking a break from the addictive site wouldn't be the worst thing afterall.