Social media and depression: what the science says

By

Walter Alejos

|

April 27, 2021

young woman taking selfie for social media potentially leading to depression
There may be a connection between social media and depression, as well as other mental health issues.

On an intuitive level, the correlation between smartphone use and mental health issues isn’t exactly unexpected. But until recently, we’ve lacked the scientific research to prove this connection. That’s changing as current research exposes the link between social media and depression —and the findings may surprise you.

For people with anxiety and depression, purposefully engaging in pleasurable activities can improve mental health.
There may be a connection between social media and depression, as well as other mental health issues.

On an intuitive level, the correlation between smartphone use and mental health issues isn’t exactly unexpected. But until recently, we’ve lacked the scientific research to prove this connection. That’s changing as current research exposes the link between social media and depression —and the findings may surprise you.

The rise of the smartphone

The use of smartphones and social media has increased exponentially within the last decade. In 2019, 81% of all adults owned a smartphone, up from just 35% in 2011. In 2019, 70% of teens reported checking their social media accounts “constantly” throughout the day.

Smartphones and social media are woven into nearly every aspect of our daily lives, forever changing how people communicate, receive information, study, travel, date, and shop. This reality has both positive and negative effects.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has saved countless lives, enabling people to work, communicate, study, and socialize at a safe distance. A study from Ohio State University reports that 1 in 3 Americans say their social media time has increased during the pandemic.

Does social media cause depression?

The rise of smartphone technology and social media has been a rapid and exciting evolution with seemingly endless opportunities for ease and optimization. But questions about technology’s effects on mental health are growing as people make connections between social media & depression.

The same study that reported an increase in social media time also noted that not everyone is happy with the way they’re using technology. 1 in 5 adults says they’ve taken breaks from social media during the pandemic due to rising tensions. Many social media users are noticing a connection between their use of technology and emotional distress.

The chances are good that you’re reading this article on your smartphone. You may even be thinking about the connection between depression and social media in your own life and wondering what kind of effect it’s having on your mental health. Now, let’s look at the science.

What does science say?

Researching the effects of smartphones and social media on mental health is challenging because it’s a rapidly evolving field. Currently, there are many more questions than answers.

But among the top questions is whether social media causes depression. And the short answer is yes—there’s a link.

Multiple studies in the United StatesTurkey, the United Kingdom, and China have found that the more exposure an individual has to social media, the more likely they are to experience the following mental health issues:

2018 study that examined social media use among college students found that those who limited their social media use to 30 minutes per day reported decreased anxiety and less fear of missing out, or FOMO.

research team led by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, looked at a significant rise in depressive symptoms, suicidality, and suicide deaths between 2010 and 2015 among adolescents ages 13 – 18.

The rise was especially significant among females. Twenge found that teens who reported more time on smartphones and social media were more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidality than teens who spent more time doing off-screen and face-to-face activities.

Notably, there were no links to other cyclical factors that usually trend concurrently with depression and suicidality, such as joblessness and economic downturns.

iGen vs. Millennials

Twenge found that “iGen” youth, a term she coined to name the generation born between 1995 and 2012 when compared to their previous generation, known as “Millennials,” are:

  • Dating at a later age.
  • Getting a driver’s license at a later age.
  • More likely to be monitored by their parents on tracking apps.
  • Spending less time with peers
  • Experiencing higher levels of cyberbullying.
  • Less likely to say they are happy.
  • Less likely to be satisfied with life.
  • More likely to feel left out.
  • More likely to enter college with mental health concerns.

It appears that the lives of iGens are dramatically different than generations before them, and the most obvious difference is the availability of smartphones and social media.

Common Sense Media surveyed youth in 2019 and found that tweens, ages 8 – 12, are spending just under 5 hours per day on their smartphones. Teens, ages 12 – 18, are spending approximately 7.5 hours per day on their phones.

This doesn’t include time spent on computers to complete homework or during school.

Of course, the use of these technologies isn’t limited to adolescents. Adults have adopted these devices and integrated them into every aspect of daily life, as well.

Why the negative impact?

While recent studies continue to uncover a connection between smartphone technologies and poor mental health, there’s still a need for more research to determine why. Currently, projections are mostly hypotheticals and anecdotal.

However, given what we know about human psychology, there may be some plausible explanations for why smartphones and social media lead to mental health issues.

Technology addiction

If you feel like you have an addiction to your smartphone, you’re not alone. Tristan Harris, a well-known Silicon Valley insider, and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, is on a mission to stop technology from “human downgrading.”

According to Harris, smartphone technology and social media are designed to keep you coming back. On the surface, you may think that you’re using social media for free, but in actuality, you’re paying to be on the platform with your data. Harris calls this “brain hacking.”

The more you use a social media platform, the more tech companies can predict about you. They know where you shop, what you like to eat, what music you enjoy, and which way you lean politically.

Harris describes the tech companies as “magicians” because they use tricks to keep you engaged. Examples of these psychological manipulations include

  • Push notifications
  • Intermittent variable reward
  • Red dot notifications
  • Likes
  • “Bottomless bowl” news feeds

These techniques are difficult to resist. And this is precisely what the applications were designed to do. But data isn’t the only price you pay.

Breakdown in communication and relationships

Developmental psychologists have found that our physical and emotional well-being as humans depends on secure attachments with other people. If you perceive those people to be nearby, accessible, and attentive, you’re more likely to feel loved, secure, and confident.

If you perceive them to be inaccessible or detached, you’ll feel anxiety, despair, and depression. Factors contributing to the perception of a secure attachment include facial expressions, physical touch, and tone of voice.

While convenient tools for communication and information, smartphones don’t provide the complete sensory experience we need as humans.

Think about the experience of text messaging. When was the last time you held a conversation via messenger or social media where there was a miscommunication or a blowup? Without the nuances of vocal inflection and facial expression, it can be difficult to discern tone, intent, and feeling.

When we relate over smartphones or social media, the empathy of human-to-human connection is sometimes lost in translation.

Plus, the hurtful texts or comments are ever-lasting.  It’s hard to move on when you have the option to revisit painful conversations. It’s easier to “unfriend” than resolve conflict or seek understanding.

With more and more interactions occurring via text and social media, there are fewer face-to-face interactions. The next time you’re out in public, look around and take notice of how many people are engrossed in their smartphones, oblivious to the world around them.

It may not seem like much at first glance, but over time the cumulative impact is significant. Without the face-to-face connections humans need to develop secure attachments, anxiety, depression, and social phobia occur at much higher rates.

FOMO and low self-esteem

Another psychological phenomenon known as Social Comparison theory is at play when it comes to smartphones and social media use. This theory states that people learn to evaluate their personal values, opinions, and abilities through comparison to others.

As you probably already know from your own experience, social media is a virtual black hole of social comparison. As a result, the link between Facebook & depression is coming into focus.

It’s common for us to sit alone and scroll through seemingly endless images of vacations, parties, and other special events to which we weren’t invited. Plus, social media means people can create online personas and curate their accounts to present the illusion that they’re fit, fashionable, and living their best lives.

You may think you’re immune or don’t care, but over time it can be hard to escape feelings of FOMO or low self-esteem. This can be extremely damaging for tweens and teens because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and vulnerability to peer pressure.

What’s your relationship with technology and social media?

Smartphones have become so integrated into daily life that you may not be conscious of your use. Here are some questions to help you look at your smartphone and social media use:

  • How often do you find yourself reaching for your phone to check out the number of “likes” you’ve received?
  • How much time do you spend scrolling through video or news feeds?
  • When was the last time you interrupted a conversation to look at your smartphone?
  • Is it difficult to watch an entire movie or television show without checking your phone?
  • Do you hold important or intimate conversations via text rather than in person?
  • Have you ever engaged in a heated debate on social media with someone who shared a different political belief and wrote things you would never say in person?
  • Do you experience FOMO while comparing yourself to others on social media?
  • Is your social media feed filled with perfectly edited and curated selfies?
  • How many hours a day do you spend on your device?
  • When was the last time you sat in a class, meeting, or seminar while secretly glancing at your smartphone?
  • Do you compare yourself to others on social media?

How to have a healthy relationship with social media

Smartphones and social media are neither all good nor bad, but they certainly aren’t neutral. Plus, it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. If you understand the pitfalls, you can be more thoughtful about how you engage with social platforms on your devices.

With informed consideration, it’s possible to enjoy these tools while maintaining your emotional and psychological well-being. Try these tips for mindful smartphone and social media use.

Limit your time on social media.

Aim for 30 – 60 minutes max each day spent on social platforms. Set a timer when you log on or download (another) app that will lock you out of your social apps after a set amount of time. You can try OfftimeMomentSpace, or AppDetox (Android only).

Track your screen time.

Most smartphones do this for you. If you have an iPhone, you can find your usage by going to Settings > Screen time. On an Android, go to Settings > Digital Wellbeing. You can monitor your smartphone use from one day to the next and see your use for the week.

Have important conversations face-to-face.

We conduct so many conversations we ought to hold face-to-face over text. Plus, we lose many aspects of human communication when we use text alone. Having these conversations in-person or using video chat can minimize misunderstanding and prevent conflict.

Refrain from online debates.

To the best of your ability, don’t put yourself in situations where you’d type something you’d never actually say out loud to someone’s face. It seems okay to do this online because online forums like social media can dehumanize us and others. Social media makes it easy to “get away” with behavior that can cause harm to you and other people.

Put away your smartphone in social situations.

Try to be with other people when you’re with them in person. When engaging with friends or loved ones on video chat, see if you can refrain from multitasking on your device. It is an act of love and respect to just be with the people right in front of you.

Turn off push notifications.

Push notifications keep you looking at your devices. If you’ve managed not to pick up your phone in a while, a push notification can quickly hook you. You can create a greater sense of agency by turning these notifications off and picking up your smartphone when you choose to rather than when it tells you.

Observe “no tech” days.

Taking a day away from your devices can do wonders for your mental and emotional health. For added accountability, see if any friends are interested in doing a no-tech challenge.

Remove social media from your smartphone.

Finally, you can try deleting all of the social apps on your phone instead of using social media from your computer only. It’s not as final an action as deleting all of your social apps, and it can help you feel more present with yourself and others.

Takeaway

  • Research shows a connection between the amount of time you spend on your smartphone and social media with higher levels of anxiety, depression, and other issues.
  • Reducing time on social media leads to improved overall mental health and well-being.
  • Spending face-to-face time with others also leads to better mental health and well-being.

By

Walter Alejos

|

April 27, 2021