Using social media can actually help improve mental health in adults


Contrary to popular belief, using social media and the internet regularly could improve mental health among adults and help fend off serious psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety, finds a new Michigan State University study.

Communication technologies and social media platforms make it easier to maintain relationships and access health information, which could explain it, says Keith Hampton, professor of media and information at Michigan State University.

So why the bad rap?

Because until now, adults haven’t been the focus of much research on the subject, Hampton said.

Instead, most studies on social media have focused on youth and college students, and the effects could be explained by life stages, rather than technology use.

“Taking a snapshot of the anxiety felt by young people today and concluding that a whole generation is at risk because of social media ignores more noteworthy social changes, such as the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the rise in single-child families, older and more protective parents, more kids going to college and rising student debt,” he said.

So, Hampton set out to study more mature populations, analyzing data from more than 13,000 relationships from adult participants in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics – the world’s longest-running household survey.

He used 2015 and 2016 data, which included a series of questions about the use of communication technologies and psychological distress.

Immagine correlata

He found social media users are 63 percent less likely to experience serious psychological distress from one year to the next, including major depression or serious anxiety.

The image is in the public domain.

He found social media users are 63 percent less likely to experience serious psychological distress from one year to the next, including major depression or serious anxiety.

Having extended family members on social media further reduced psychological distress, so long as their family member’s mental health was not in decline.

The study, published in the Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication, challenges the notion that social media, mobile technologies and the internet contribute to a mental health crisis in the United States.

Other key findings:

  • Someone who uses a social networking site is 1.63 times more likely to avoid serious psychological distress.
  • The extent to which communication technologies affect psychological distress varies according to the type and amount of technologies people and their extended family members use.
  • Changes to the mental health of family members affect the psychological distress experienced by other families, but only if both family members are connected on a social networking site.

“Today, we have these ongoing, little bits of information popping up on our cell phones and Facebook feeds, and that ongoing contact might matter for things like mental health,” Hampton said.

The first study, carried out at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, asked 140 undergraduates to either continue their regular use of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, or to limit each one to 10 minutes per day (30 minutes total).

The participants also provided data from their phones to show precisely how much time they were actually spending on the apps, rather than relying on memory, which can be unreliable.

Before and after the “intervention,” the participants also filled out questionnaires so the researchers could understand how they were doing psychologically—they were particularly interested in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and the famous “fear of missing out,” or FOMO.

As the researchers expected, people who limited their social media use to 30 minutes felt significantly better after the three-week period, reporting reduced depression and loneliness, especially those who came into the study with higher levels of depression.

Interestingly, both groups reported less FOMO and less anxiety in the end, which the team suggests may just be a resulting benefit of increased self-monitoring.

“Here’s the bottom line,” said study author Melissa G. Hunt in a statement.

“Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”

The results confirm what others have suggested, with the added bonus of being one of the few studies to use a real experimental design, which has the power to show causation. Additionally, it seems to suggest that we don’t need to cut out social media use completely, but just to curtail it.

“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” said Hunt. “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens.

When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”

Indeed, the other new study, from York University in Canada, found that young women who were asked to interact with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards.

The 120 undergraduate women were either asked to find on Facebook and Instagram a peer who they felt was more attractive, or a family member who they did not feel was more attractive, and leave a comment. They reported that they felt worse about their own appearances only in the first condition, with peers, but not family.

“The results showed that these young adult women felt more dissatisfied with their bodies,” said study author Jennifer Mills in a statement.

“They felt worse about their own appearance after looking at social media pages of someone that they perceived to be more attractive than them. Even if they felt bad about themselves before they came into the study, on average, they still felt worse after completing the task.”

What’s also important to point out, but was not studied here, is that making any kind of comparison—not just to people who you think are more attractive or smarter, but also people who you think are less attractive or smart (or anything) than you—is linked to poorer well-being.

A really neat study a few years ago illustrated this, finding that the link between social media and depression was largely mediated by this “social comparison” factor.

And again, this was true in either direction, “upward” or “downward.”

The bottom line is again what researchers – and even some of the developers of social media apps themselves – have been saying for a while now.

Social media, especially spending long periods of time on it, is just not that good for us. We may not need to quit it completely, but limiting our time on social media considerably, and reconnecting with friends and family in real life, is definitely the way to go.

Michigan State University
Media Contacts: 
Kristen Parker – Michigan State University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: The study will appear in Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication.


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