Social media. Is it bad for you or good for you? That is a question actively debated by psychologists, mental health advocates, parents, teachers, and even those in Silicon Valley.
Certainly social media has profoundly changed the way people communicate and how they interact with others. Numerous studies have reported that those heavily engaged in social networking were more likely to feel depressed and lonely. Some social networking engagement has been associated with feelings of low self-esteem, especially in teenagers.
The UK publication, The Week reported on a number of studies that have found an association between social media use and depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating issues, and increased suicide risk according to researchers from the University of Melbourne’s National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.
The CDC recently revealed the suicide rate in the US has grown nearly 25% since 1999, with a story in CNN reporting part of the blame lies with the rise of social media.
A 2015 study by the University of Missouri found that regularly using Facebook could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user.
However, that same study also found that people who use the platform primarily to connect with others do not experience negative effects. “In fact, when not triggering feelings of envy, the study shows, Facebook could have positive effects on well-being,” Psychology Today reports.
The story in The Week went on to report that there is also compelling evidence that social media can benefit people already dealing with mental health issues by helping them build online communities that provide a source of emotional support. The UK Mental Health Foundation says it is “undeniable” that online technologies can be used to reach the most vulnerable in society, as well as helping to reduce the stigma attached to seeking treatment.
Social media is “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better”, says Professor John Powell, a public health researcher at Oxford University, who has researched how social media can be used to support people with chronic illnesses.
These positive findings correspond to those reported by Facebook itself, although Facebook certainly has some self-interest to such positive findings.
Facebook found that in general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward. In one experiment, University of Michigan students randomly assigned to read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than students assigned to post or talk to friends on Facebook. A study from UC San Diego and Yale found that people who heavily engaged in social media – clicking on about four times as many links as the average person or who liked twice as many posts – reported worse mental health than average.
On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well being.
Recently, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted the first causal study on social media to address the theory that social media usage increases depression and anxiety. Their findings, as reported in No More FOMO; Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, showed limiting social media usage to 10 minutes per day brought significant reductions in loneliness and depression. Interestingly, both their test and control groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out, suggesting a benefit simply from increased self-monitoring.
The old saying, “everything in moderation” reportedly dates back to the Greek poet Hesiod around the year 700, but it seems to be as relevant today in regard to social media as it ever was in the past. Furthermore, how social media is being used – whether it’s to interact with friends and family or for other purposes – will impact whether engagement in social media is ultimately bad for you or not.
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