The link between social-media and depression has been the topic of studies for years but a causal connection had never been proven. Now researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in the US have through experimental data connected time spent on social media sites, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to decreased well-being.
In the past, studies that attempted to link social-media with harm to a person’s well-being have either place participants in unrealistic situations such as asking them not to use socialmedia sites totally, were conducted in a laboratory environment for a short duration, or were limited in scope and relied on self-report data. The new research set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid. The research team designed their experiment to include the three platforms most popular with a cohort of undergraduates, and then collected objective usage data automatically tracked by smartphones for active apps and not those running in the background.
Each of the participants completed a survey to determine mood and well-being at the study’s start, plus shared shots of their smartphone battery screens to offer a week’s worth of baseline socialmedia data. Participants were then randomly assigned to a control group, which had users maintain their typical social-media behavior, or an experimental group that limited time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to 10 minutes per platform per day. For the next three weeks, participants shared their smartphone battery screenshots to give the researchers weekly tallies for each individual. With those data in hand, the team then looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The study found that using less social-media than you normally would leads to significant decrease in both depression and loneliness.
These effects are particularly pronounced for participants who entered the study already in a depressed state. The researchers emphasize that their study does not suggest that 18- to 22-yearolds should stop using social-media altogether. They point out that the study was designed to avoid any unrealistic goals, however, they admit that the study reveals that limiting screen time on social-media is more helpful than harmful. It might seem ironic that limiting the use of social-media sites actually makes you feel less lonely. But dig deeper and you begin to see why the study results make sense. Existing studies on the use of social-media have shown that an enormous amount of social comparison takes place from engaging on these sites.
When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it is easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours. The researchers cautioned that because their particular work only looked at Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, it was not clear whether it applied broadly to other social-media platforms. They also hesitated to confirm that their findings were equally applicable to other age groups, or in different settings. But the team said they would expand their current findings in an upcoming research. Despite those caveats, and although the study did not determine the optimal time users should spend on these platforms or the best way to use them, the researchers say their findings do offer two related conclusions that would not hurt any social-media user to follow. For one, reduce opportunities for social comparison.
When you are not busy getting sucked into clickbait social-media, you are actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life. And two, because social-media sites are probably here to stay, it is incumbent on society to figure out how to use them in a way that limits damaging effects. Maybe it is time to put the phone down and meet real people in real time.