‘Weak’ Evidence That Social Media Worsens Adult Mental Health

Researchers studied the link between social media use and depression in adults, including the elderly.
They found that the use of some, but not all, social media is associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms.
Along with expert commentators, the team urges caution in interpreting the results due to the limitations of the study and the uncertainty surrounding causation.
Social media use has correlations with decreased well-being and increased anxiety and depression in adolescents and young adults.

A Trusted Source review highlighted a study that found that using the internet to communicate and play games for more than 4 hours a day predicted depressive symptoms 1 year later. Research has also found that depressive symptoms predict increased internet use and decreased participation in screen-less activities.

Another study involving 990 participants in the United States found a link between the use of social media and the development of depression. However, pre-existing depression did not predict social media use.

However, the accuracy of these studies can be questionable, as many of them rely on self-reported social media use. A Trusted Source review of 47 studies examining the accuracy of self-reported digital media use raised concern that self-reported metrics rarely correlate with recorded metrics.

Additionally, studies often do not include adults in their samples, so the effects of social media on older groups are relatively unknown.
Finally, whether there is a causal relationship between social media use and depression – and who comes first – is still unknown.

Recently, researchers investigated the link between the use of social media and the development of depressive symptoms.

The results suggest that some uses of social media preceded the worsening depressive outcomes. The results appear in JAMA Network OpenTrusted Source.

However, some experts doubt the extent to which these results can be interpreted.

The researchers analyzed the results of data from surveys taken between May 2020 and May 2021 among people aged 18 and over. The survey sample included quotas for sex, age, race, and ethnicity from each of the 50 states in the United States to ensure it was representative of the nation’s population.

The survey questions included the Nine-Item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) to assess depressive symptoms. The questions asked whether participants had “little interest or pleasure in doing things” and whether they “felt depressed, depressed or hopeless” on a four-point scale.

The researchers also asked participants about:

their use of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok
if they consumed any COVID-19 related news sources in the past 24 hours
the number of social supports they have available to discuss issues
the number of face-to-face meetings they have had with members outside the household in the past 24 hours.
Unknown mechanisms
The researchers say that due to the observational nature of their study, they cannot determine why social media use may be linked to depression. However, they identify possible mechanisms.

“One possible explanation for our results is that people at risk for depression, even if they are not currently depressed, are more likely to use social media,” Roy H. Perlis, MD, M.Sc., senior author of the study, Medical News Today told.

“Another is that social media actually contributes to this heightened risk. With our conception of the study, we cannot distinguish between the two. What we can rule out is the possibility that depressed people are more likely to report social media use, which was a limitation of some previous studies, ”he added.

When asked to explain what could be behind this association, Sara Makin, M.S.Ed. NCC., LPC., And founder and CEO of Makin Wellness, which was not involved in the study, pointed out that when they are isolated, people can turn to social media to feel more connected. However, it can have the opposite effect and therefore lead to depressive symptoms.

She also noted the effect of social comparison: “Social media often only shows people living their best lives or the positive things that happen like buying a new home, getting a home. new job, graduation from college, etc. Most people compare their failures to the successes of others, which can cause us to think negatively about ourselves.
Questionable cause
While it appears that rates of depression have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, some wonder if the use of social media has played an occasional role.

“The large limits make it difficult, if not impossible, to conclude anything valid from the results,” Craig JR Sewall, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study, told MNT. study.

“The item they used to measure use of [social media] platforms is a simple ‘yes / no’ answer to this question: ‘do you ever use any of the following social media sites or apps ? So, a person [who] used Instagram, for example, 5 years ago and a person [who] used Instagram 5 hours ago would both answer “yes”.

“It’s a big deal and it makes this finding practically meaningless: In the fitted regression models, the use of Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok in the first survey was significantly associated with an increased risk of increased symptoms. self-reported depressive, ”he continued.

“Because the question about [social media] use was framed that way, even if they found an association between [social media] use and depression, they would have no way of determining whether that use [ social media] was recent or a long time ago, whether they visited the platform frequently [social media] or whether it was an “all-in-one” situation [or both ]. As a result, it is difficult to conclude that the increase in participants’ depression between May 2020 and May 2021 had anything to do with the fact that they used certain [social media] platforms, ”he said. Explain.
At the same time, people had to rely more on digital technology like [social media] to connect with friends, colleagues and loved ones. So people who became more depressed as a result of the pandemic may have relied more on [social media] as a coping mechanism, ”he concluded.

“Explaining the links between the use of social media and depression requires careful thought and precise methodology,” said Dr Fisher. “In my opinion, this should be done in a way that moves away from cross-sectional self-report measures like those used in this study and towards measures that consider the individual (sometimes called idiographic methods) and those that measure society. using media more objectively (such as using device logs or a data donation framework).

“I just don’t know that we have enough evidence from this article to conclusively conclude that there is a link between social media use and depression, much less that the causal directionality here is that the use social media [leads to] depression. It’s also possible that those who were more depressed during the pandemic made more use of social media (for example, to connect with friends). The methods used here do not allow us to conclude anyway, ”he added.

Researchers conclude that we need to better understand the relationship between social media use and mental health.

Implications for public health?
When asked how these findings are expected to influence public health, Ms Makin said, “On the one hand, limits for the amount of social media one consumes should be set. This can be easily done by going to your settings on your [smartphone], so once you have reached your limit for the day, you can no longer access the app.

Likewise, research may be needed to determine what is the appropriate amount of time to spend on social media where it makes us feel good but doesn’t cause us to become fixated on other people’s lives and induce feelings of depression. It can also be helpful to suggest changes in the way we interact and react on social media with others. Teens and teens who have social media accounts may need to be monitored more closely to ensure that they are not victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying, ”she added.

However, Dr Sewall believes these findings should not influence public health recommendations, given the “weak” evidence:

“If the hope is to help people improve their well-being in these very difficult times, I think it would be a waste of time and resources to focus on how people use [social media]. . [It would] be much better to focus on some of the many other issues that have been affected by the pandemic, such as financial security. ”

Dr Fisher agreed that these findings should not directly influence public health recommendations, “at least not in an extreme way.”

Dr Fisher added: “I hope findings like these generate some momentum to pressure social media companies to share their data with independent researchers, because that’s probably the only way. for us to find really conclusive evidence regarding the links between social media use and depression.

“I’m all for increased accountability for social media platforms, but the point is that using social media is very idiosyncratic, and for some people it’s positive, and for others it’s is negative, like many other behaviors. ”

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