Does using social media make us depressed?
Scientists seem to think so, which is a little…well, depressing.
Writers (and other creatives) are encouraged to use social media, after all, for marketing purposes.
Many of us might have even stayed away completely if not for the gentle nudgings of our editors, agents, writer friends, or “rules of Indie publishing” handbooks. (Commandment number three: thou shalt establish a platform on social media.)
So what does it mean for us if our time on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and all the rest is actually bad for our mental health?
Are we doomed to either let our platforms languish or suffer the darkness of depression and anxiety?
I dug a little deeper into the research, and I’ve come up with seven ways you can avoid either of these negative options, and keep social media where it belongs—as a helpful item in your creative toolbox.
Internet Addiction Is Not a Healthy Thing
Research has been connecting social media and depression for several years now. Back in 2010, for instance, they followed about 1,300 participants from the age of 16 to 51, and found that those who used the internet “excessively,” or who were considered “internet addicts,” were more likely to be moderately or severely depressed than those who used the internet less frequently.
Still, most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves addicts, so we didn’t pay much attention. In 2011, when a new study linked “a great deal of time on Facebook” with an increase in depression in teens, we nodded our heads. Of course those youngsters are on their gadgets too much, we agreed, and parents tried new methods to monitor and limit use.
When in 2012 another study connected high internet use with suicide, again, most of us hoped for prevention and outreach programs, and went on our way. But then some newer studies came to light that we couldn’t so quickly ignore.
Facebook Makes it Look Like Everyone Else Has It Better
This time, researchers tested the effects of Facebook on 82 participants five times a day for two weeks. They looked specifically at two things: how people felt moment-to-moment, and how satisfied they felt with their lives.
Results showed that Facebook produced negative shifts in both of these variables over time. The more people used the social media network, the worse they felt. The more they used it over the two week period, the less satisfied they were with their lives.
Why would this be?
The researchers theorized that we tend to compare when we’re online, and may often conclude that our lives are not as rich and full as those of our “friends” on Facebook.
Oddly enough, those who were most social in real life experienced the worst negative effect—the direct opposite of what we may have suspected. Researchers thought this may be because this group of people was more “sensitized” to social interactions.
Another study about the same time came up with similar results. Researchers found that those who used Facebook for longer periods of time believed others were happier than they were, and that their Facebook friends had better lives than they did.
Online: Is It All a Competition?
In 2015, Charlotte Rosalind Blease from the University College Dublin published an article reviewing the research to date, and concluded that Facebook users may regard themselves as competing with their friends, and often end up feeling inadequate as a result.
She determined four factors that increase risk of depression:
- having a lot of Facebook friends,
- spending a lot of time reading updates,
- frequently reading updates (at various times throughout the day), and
- how many of those updates contain content that suggests bragging.
We didn’t used to have to see how so many other people were doing all the time—particularly those who may be more “successful” or attractive than we are, or at least who portray that image.
Yet another study out of the University of Missouri-Columbia reiterated the same idea: if you’re comparing while online, you’re setting yourself up for the blues.
"Facebook can be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives," said study author Margaret Duffy. "However, if Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship—things that cause envy among users—use of the site can lead to feelings of depression."
More Social Media = Less Happiness for Writers?
So if it’s all about envy, as long as we keep in mind that people are portraying the most positive sides of their lives, and that everyone struggles, we should be fine, right?
Not so fast. Other studies have shown that it can be more complicated than that. One was published as early as 2010, and this time, the researchers focused on older participants—i.e., out of college. They found that participants who used social media the most reported the least bonding and an increase in loneliness.
Stephanie Mihalas, PhD, a psychologist and a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, stated that people spending a lot of time on social media can become victim to their own thoughts as they become less attuned to the world around them.
Recently, a larger study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine got a lot of attention. Researchers studied nearly 1,800 people ages 19 to 32, and again found that the more time the participants spent on social media—this time including multiple platforms like Twitter, Google Plus, and Instagram—the more likely they were to be depressed.
On average, the participants used social media for about an hour a day, and checked their accounts about 30 times a week. More than a quarter of them had “high” indicators for depression (two hours a day or more). Other results included:
- Those who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression.
- Those who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had 1.7 times the risk of depression.
- Exposure to “highly idealized” representations of peers on social media elicited feelings of envy and the belief that others lived more successful lives.
- Engaging in social media for extended amounts of time backfired—participants felt they had wasted their time, which negatively influenced their mood.
Ironically, time on social media can also lead people to assume they have little social support. We know that face-to-face interaction helps increase our sense that we are supported, and also decreases the risk of depression. One might think social media would extend the same benefits, but apparently not.
The same researchers mentioned above measured feelings of social support in their participants, and found that users reporting two hours a day or more on social media were less likely to feel like they had emotional support.
7 Ways to Keep Social Media from Ruining a Writer’s Mood
So far, scientists can’t prove cause and effect where all this is concerned. Some debate that we don’t know yet if people who are depressed already may be more likely to spend more time on social media, thus skewing the results.
The numbers keep coming in, though, and the evidence is piling up. From what we’re seeing so far, it looks like social media can be beneficial up to a point, but that we need to be careful how much we’re using it.
“Ultimately, it appears that the way social media is used, rather than the amount social media is used, leads to maladaptive outcomes,” says Lindsay Howard of the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology in Norfolk.
How do we reduce the risk that our browsing may turn sour? Try these tips:
- Limit your time on social media: This is the best method we have so far for making sure social media doesn’t bring us down. Limit it to no more than one hour at a time (for all sites), and try to take at least one day off each week.
- Approach it carefully: If we approach social media as a business, and use it to build a platform and network with other creatives, we’re likely to be better off than if we fall into the temptation to compare lifestyles (and number of five-star reviews). Try to avoid comparisons in general, remembering that we all move at our own pace. If you see a post about someone’s bestselling book, for example, and you feel that twinge of envy, turn it around by using the post for inspiration. Share your “friend’s” success, check out the story yourself, or use the post as motivation to keep going after your own goals. If you feel this way often, consider steps that will limit how many of these types of posts you see.
- Don’t allow negative stuff: Some research has suggested that emotions can be contagious online. When we see negative posts, we tend to post similarly negative responses, and vice versa. Try to keep your feeds positive by interacting with positive people. If one of your “friends” posts something sad or negative, feel free to offer your support, but realize the post may bring you down. Counteract the feeling with a few videos of puppies and kittens, or do something else to help yourself feel better. We all want to offer online support when we can—just be aware that it can have a contagious impact on your emotions, and you should take care to limit your exposure.
- Create a schedule: Some research has indicated that the more we use social media, the more we can feel pressured to be on it more often. That can create anxiety and depression. Reduce your risk by setting specific times in the day when you will check social media, and block your access the rest of the time either with willpower or computer apps that refuse to allow you to log on.
- Be aware of your feelings: Try to tune in to your feelings more often. Notice how you feel before you get on social media, and after. Consider keeping a diary about it for a week or so. If you’re noticing a negative effect, make some changes.
- Limit your “friends”: In some studies, people with higher numbers of “friends” or connections were more at risk for depression. Most folks seem to be after big numbers of followers these days, but if you’re noticing negative effects, reconsider. Are you really engaging positively with all those people? Use lists and other methods to limit who you’re actually interacting with to those key folks who matter in your network.
- Focus on your creativity: Sometimes we get too caught up in “consuming” social media, rather than using it to share our creativity. But we’re creatives! Bring your focus back to what you can create and share with your connections. Think about how you can brighten the lives of others, and keep your focus there. It will help you feel empowered and will remind you of your uniqueness—both great shields against depression.
Have you found that social media leaves you depressed sometimes?
Colleen M. Story writes imaginative fiction and is also a freelance writer, instructor, and motivational speaker specializing in creativity, productivity, and personal wellness. Her latest novel, Loreena’s Gift, was released with Dzanc Books April 12 2016. Her fantasy novel, Rise of the Sidenah, is a North American Book Awards winner, and New Apple Book Awards Official Selection (Young Adult). She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creatives. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.
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