Science

Does Facebook Make You Depressed?

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Sorta transcript:

A pair of studies have just been published about mental health and social media, and what good timing considering that everyone I know on any form of social media is super depressed right now! Though to be honest it’s really difficult at this point to tell whether a person is depressed due to mental illness or just due to rationally evaluating what’s happening in the world right now. Like, yes, a lot of Jews probably had severe anxiety and depression in 1933, but is it really the sort of thing that can be fixed with therapy? Probably not.

Luckily, science takes awhile to process so these studies predate the US presidential election, at least. In the first study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers examined the social media habits and mental health of nearly 2,000 young adults. They found a correlation between depression or anxiety and how many different social media networks a person joined. Those who were active on 7 to 11 networks had more than 3 times the incidence of depression compared to people who used 0 to two networks.

If you’re anything like me you’re currently trying to even name 11 social media platforms, so allow me to tell you that in addition to the ones you’re thinking of, the researchers also included LinkedIn, Google Plus, and Vine.

They controlled for factors like income and education, as you might expect, but interestingly they also controlled for the amount of time people spent on social media. They found that total time on social media didn’t matter — a person could spend 12 hours just on Facebook and have way less of a chance to be depressed compared to a person who spent 4 hours on all 11 of the most popular social media networks.

Now, that may be because you MUST have something wrong in your brain to get to the point where you’re spending significant time on LinkedIn, but this paper didn’t establish causation — in other words, there’s no telling if depressed people seek out more social networks, or if signing up for multiple social networks makes you more depressed.

The researchers thought of several hypotheses that could go either way: maybe if you’re depressed, you constantly seek out new avenues to find stimulation. Or maybe multitasking on various networks makes you depressed, since multitasking has been shown to have negative impacts on mental health in other studies.

Speaking of other studies, though, there are a few that suggest it’s social media that makes you depressed. The most recent one was published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking and involved 1,000 Danish Facebook users last year. For one week, half the subjects quit Facebook while the other half continued to use it. The half that quit reported significantly higher life satisfaction at the end of the week, compared to the people who continued to use it daily.

It’s important to note that I’m using the word “significantly” in the scientific sense — it’s greater than chance, but it’s still pretty small. On a scale of 1-10 for how satisfied they are with their life, the quitters reported 8.11 compared to 7.74 for the control group. It was a similar result for negative emotions. So it wasn’t a life-changing result, but it was only a week without Facebook, and there was noncompliance in both groups, meaning that the control group spent less time than usual on Facebook during the experiment, and some people in the quitting group actually did admit to hopping on briefly to check dates or just accidentally out of habit. So it’s a small effect, but it might be much stronger than these results show.

The researchers point out that if you’re depressed, you don’t necessarily have to quit Facebook to make a positive change. The effect was greatest for people who are envious of their Facebook friends, so you could just unfriend the people who are constantly going on tropical vacations or adopting puppies or whatever. It was also increased for heavy Facebook users, so if that’s you, you could just cut back on how much Facebook you use. And it was heavy for “passive users,” so if that’s you, maybe you should post more statuses to remind yourself that people like you. If people don’t like you, maybe just quit Facebook.

Self-care is super important, especially now when our social media feeds are cluttered with super depressing news. I mean my god, did you see what Trump just Tweeted? I didn’t, because I’m taking a break. At least until I get to my parents’ place for Christmas and have absolutely nothing else to do. Let the depressive feedback loop commence!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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1 Comment

  1. December 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm —

    I had a bit of Cassandra Syndrome last fall: Knowing something was going to go wrong, but nobody would listen to me.

    But that seems cleared up.

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