This week’s question would appear to answer itself: It is the rare person who emerges from an hour’s scrolling feeling healthy, rejuvenated, and better-prepared to take on the vicissitudes of the day. The general consensus among the terminally online would seem to be that the internet is a miserable place just barely made tolerable by the idiots and well-meaning naifs whose screw-ups at least provide something to ridicule. But is there a scientific basis for this generalized feeling? How has social media actually impacted mental health, per the research? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.
Professor, Psychology, Washington State University, whose work focuses on adolescent self-perception and social media engagement in adolescents and young adults
It’s somewhat difficult to determine cause and effect with social media. It could be that social media impacts mental health, but it also could be that certain people who are feeling distressed and lonely seek out social media. So it’s a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation.
That said, there are two things we see consistently in the research. The first is that social media can negatively impact sleep. People will stay up late at night, scrolling their feeds; or will contact people on social media late at night; or will have a notification go off in the middle of the night. The second negative impact is the extent to which social media activates negative social comparisons—you see what other people post, and then you feel inadequate.
Some of the work I’ve done with adolescents shows that being more engaged with social media—for instance, checking it more often—is related to anxiety and depression, especially for teens who are prone to a fear of missing out on things. It makes them hyper-aware of what they’re missing out on.
Assistant Professor, Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University, who conducts research on the role of social media in adolescents’ mental health and development
For many years, researchers tried to answer this question by testing whether there was an association between the overall amount of time people spent using social media and their mental health. But this method of addressing the question leaves out two important facts.
First, social media is not just one thing. There is an incredible range of behaviors a person can engage in and experiences that they can have on social media. Some of these may have a very negative impact on mental health, and some may have a positive impact. For example, research suggests that certain experiences may be particularly harmful, such as cyber-victimization (i.e., being harassed or bullied online), whereas other experiences may be beneficial, such as using social media to strengthen connections with friends and family.
Second, people are unique! Each person comes into their social media use with different strengths and vulnerabilities. What is harmful on social media for one person may actually be helpful for another. For one person, scrolling through others’ positive posts may be inspiring and fun, for another, that same behavior may lead to harmful social comparisons.
Professor, Information & Computer Sciences, UC Irvine, who focuses on children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications
At the Connected Learning Lab, we’ve been doing studies of how social media can both support wellbeing for young people as well as detract from it. On the plus side, most young people will say that social media and networked games are a lifeline to supportive connections with friends and loved ones. This was critical during the pandemic when schools and sports were off limits. Social media can also be a way for young people to connect with others with shared interests and identities, which can be a lifeline for youth with marginalized or stigmatized identities such as LBGTQ+ youth or racial and religious minority youth. On the negative side, depending on the spaces they frequent, youth can encounter harassment or unhealthy body image expectations.
Quantitative researchers are engaged in healthy debate over whether it’s possible to isolate and identify the effects of social media on youth mental health, given the wide variability in ways that the platforms are taken up. Some studies have found relationships between some kinds of social media use and mental health problems. However, larger and aggregated studies have not been able to find these relationships generically across all youth and all forms of social media use.
It is safe to say that social media can contribute to both healthy and unhealthy behaviors when it comes to mental health, and just as with offline social life, we need to be mindful of what kinds of relationships and content contributes or detracts from our wellbeing.
Professor, Media and Information, Michigan State University, who has spent over 20 years studying new media and community
It is not cut and dry. The science is far weaker than most admit. Researchers sometimes report small “statistically significant” findings, but this is not the same as a substantive connection to mental health problems, such as clinical depression or anxiety. Some have found problematic uses of social media with experiments on university students. Others have used brain scans, which look at blood flow in the brain in response to short, contrived experiences. And still others use blunt questions like “Do you become troubled if you are prohibited from using social media?” But this is no more a sign of a “social media addiction” than asking if you feel uncomfortable when you are not allowed to talk with your friends. None of these approaches tell us much about real-world experiences related to social media and mental health.
Yet, social media is different from other forms of communication, and there may be reason for concern. Social media provides for a heightened awareness of experiences in the lives of friends and family. This “pervasive awareness” has a mixed relationship to mental health. Knowing that acquaintances are experiencing problems, such as lost jobs or sick children, increases people’s stress. When connected through social media to someone who experiences a major decline in mental health, depression and anxiety can be contagious. This can be especially problematic if algorithms work to increase engagement with this type of content. Fortunately, it works the other way as well. Awareness of desirable events disclosed through social media leads to improved reports of well-being.
When examined along with the other ways that people meet and communicate, social media use is generally protective against declines in mental health. It does not substitute for in-person contact. Relationships that might previously have gone dormant now persist over time. As such, social media users tend to report that they have access to more social support and have lower psychological distress.
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