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:
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:
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:
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.
“Excessive internet use linked to depression, study says,” The Guardian, February 3, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/feb/03/excessive-internet-use-depression.
David D. Luxton, et al., “Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective,” Am J Public Health, May 2012; 102(Suppl 2):S195-S200, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3477910/.
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, et al., “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families,” Pediatrics, April 2011; 127(4): 800-804, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/4/800.
Rebecca Savastio, “Facebook Causes Depression, New Study Says,” Guardian Liberty Voice, August 15, 2013, http://guardianlv.com/2013/08/facebook-causes-depression-new-study-says/.
Ethan Kross, et al., “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults,” PLoS One, August 14, 2013, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069841#s3.
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Romeo Vitelli, “Exploring Facebook Depression,” Psychology Today, May 25, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201505/exploring-facebook-depression.
Blease, C. R., “Too many ‘friends,’ too few ‘likes’? Evolutionary psychology and ‘Facebook depression’.” Review of General Psychology, May 2015; 19(1):1-13, http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/gpr0000030.
“If Facebook use causes envy, depression could follow,” University of Missouri-Columbia, [Press Release], February 3, 2015, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/uom-ifu020315.php.
Moira Burke, “Social network activity and social wellbeing,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2010, ACM New York, NY, USA, ISBN: 978-1-60558-929-9, http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1753613.
Liu yi Lin B. A., et al., “Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults,” Depression and Anxiety, April 2016; 33(4): 323-31, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.22466/abstract;jsessionid=3B6153E7AEBE22CD49AC2289D5924603.f04t02.
Ariel Shensa, et al., “Social Media Use and Perceived Emotional Support Among U.S. Young Adults,” Journal of Community Health, June 2016; 41(3):541-549, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10900-015-0128-8.
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