Social media – the websites and applications through which people participate in social networking – moved into the mainstream with Facebook in 2004. Other options quickly followed, including Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Snapchat’s tagline – “The fastest way to share a moment!” – points to the concept underlying most social media: communicating quickly and remotely, potentially with millions of people across the world.
The platforms are popular. About 69% of U.S. adults use Facebook, 73% use YouTube, and 22% use Twitter, according to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center. A higher percentage of people ages 18 to 29 report using these platforms: 79% for Facebook, 91% for YouTube, and 38% for Twitter. Social media usage patterns remain similar to rates found in 2016, Pew reported, although differences emerge among some demographics and platforms. Younger people, for example, use Instagram and Snapchat at higher rates than adults.
About 74% of Facebook users visit the online site daily, and about 50% visit several times a day, according to Pew. About 80% of Snapchat users ages 18 to 29 visit the site daily, and 68% of that group visits several times a day.
So what? We’re just using modern technology to inform, connect, and entertain, right? What’s the big deal?
Well, it may not be that social media always promotes healthy social interaction and robust mental health. A growing chorus of critics, including some mental health practitioners, say potential negative effects of social media include low self-esteem; increased social anxiety, low mood, and depression from FOMO (fear of missing out); sleep disruptions; and poor body image.
Research suggests young Americans may be more vulnerable to depression, distress, and suicidal thoughts or attempts than their parents’ generation, a troubling development that some have linked to social media use, WebMD reported. Researchers reviewed 10 years of data and found that, beginning in the mid-2000s, people under age 26 started reporting increases from 55 to 70%. They did not find similar increases among people over 26.
Teens “spend less time with their friends in person, and less time sleeping, and more time on digital media,” study author Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, told Web MD. “The decline in sleep time may be especially important, as not getting enough sleep is a major risk factor for depression and suicidal thoughts.”
The trend worries some people. More than one in three adults (38%) see social media usage as harmful to mental health, according to a national poll released in May 2019 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). According to the survey, 45% see social media usage as having both positive and negative impacts on mental health, and only 5% see it as having a positive impact.
The poll (conducted April 6-10, 2019, with 1,005 U.S. adults) found people say social media can both help connect people and cause feelings of isolation. More than two-thirds of adults (67%) say social media usage is related to feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Millennials (born 1981-1996) are more likely (73%) than baby boomers (born 1946-1964) (62%) to agree with the connection between social media and loneliness.
Nearly nine in ten adults (88%) think social media activity among kids/teens is concerning. The level of concern was similar among people with children and those without children, the survey found.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania noted that most studies thus far on the topic point only to a correlation between social media use and mental health. The literature review in their December 2018 article in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology cited research that found:
- Self-reported Facebook and Instagram usage has been found to correlate positively with symptoms of depression.
- Higher usage of Facebook has been found to be associated with lower self-esteem cross-sectionally. It has also been found to be association with greater loneliness.
- Higher usage of Instagram is correlated with body image issues.
- Time spent on screen activities was signiﬁcantly correlated with more depressive symptoms and risk for suicide-related outcomes.
- Facebook use predicts less satisfaction with life over time.
The researchers randomly assigned 143 undergraduates either to limit Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to 10 minutes per platform per day, or to use social media as usual for three weeks. They found that the limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group. Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out) over baseline measurements, which they said suggests a benefit of increased self-monitoring.
A York University in Canada study found that young women who were asked to interact with a social media post of someone they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards. The study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, found that people who limited social media use to 30 minutes felt significantly better after the three-week period, reporting reduced depression and loneliness. This was especially true for those who came into the study with higher levels of depression.
The young women “felt worse about their own appearance after looking at social media pages of someone that they perceived to be more attractive than them,” ,” study author Jennifer Mills told Forbes. “Even if they felt bad about themselves before they came into the study, on average, they still felt worse after completing the task.”
The topic is ripe for research on long-term effects – positive and negative. The 2019 APA survey also asked about the use of social media to support mental health. About one in seven adults (14%) and nearly a quarter of millennials (24%) say they do so. (Only 3% of baby boomers report using social media for this purpose.) That’s a trend worth watching.