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Social media impact on the mental health of young people and practical strategies to mitigate its worst effects

Social media impact on the mental health of young people and practical strategies to mitigate its worst effects
Social media. Image: Nathana Reboucas / Unsplash

As social media use has increased, researchers in the US are finding that mental health among young people has become worse.

Over the past decade, as social media use has become ubiquitous, researchers have continued their contribution to the body of research on the effects of social media, especially on young users, from adolescents through to thirty-somethings. While the results are sometimes mixed, an overwhelming amount of published studies point to a positive correlation between an increase in social media use and an increase in incidences of anxiety and depression. 

Digital media and the mental health crisis

Specifically looking at what she refers to as a “mental health crisis among adolescents in the United States” over the past decade, Dr Jean M Twenge from the San Diego State University’s Department of Psychology, authored a paper in 2019, titled Increases in Depression, SelfHarm, and Suicide Among U.S. Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Technology Use: Possible Mechanisms, in which she writes:

After remaining stable during the early 2000s, the prevalence of mental health issues among U.S. adolescents and young adults began to rise in the early 2010s. These trends included sharp increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, selfharm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide, with increases more pronounced among girls and young women. There is a growing consensus that these trends may be connected to the rise in technology use.” 

Taking into consideration the existing body of research, she broke down the ways that digital media use, including social media, can influence mental health trends into six categories. The first two focus on how digital media displaces in-person social interaction for individuals as well as for groups. 

“Heavy digital media use may displace time that might otherwise have been spent in inperson social interaction, an activity with established links to better mental health and happiness,” Twenge writes. 

Beyond displacement, she also notes how the presence of digital media devices during social interactions affects them.

“Unlike previous technological innovations, such as television, smartphones are portable and are often present during social interactions. A series of studies has demonstrated that the presence of a smartphone during social interactions lessens enjoyment of the activity and decreases pleasant interactions among people.” 

And with regards to the content adolescents are exposed to on digital media, Twenge highlights the negative effects of cyberbullying, toxic online environments, as well as access to information about self-harm and suicide techniques. Lastly, she cites studies that show shorter and compromised sleep after digital media use, and notes: “Shortened and poor quality sleep are known risk factors for mental health issues, especially depression.”

An anxious generation

More recently, in October 2021, a team from the University of Arkansas and the University of Pittsburgh published a study specifically looking at social media use rather than digital media in general, titled Social media use and development of anxiety: A national, longitudinal study. Over a period of six months, they studied a nationally (US) representative sample of 1,338 individuals aged between 18 and 30 years. Seventy-four percent (990) of the participants were not considered anxious at the beginning of the study. After six months of regular social media use, the authors reported that 13.3% of the 990, 132 in total, had developed anxiety; and the levels increased the more social media they had used. However, those who were already considered clinically anxious did not show an increase due to social media use. 

The team concluded: “There is a strong temporal association between exposure to social media and subsequent development of anxiety. However, there was no association between initial anxiety and later increases in social media use. Taken together, these findings suggest directionality of the association between social media use and anxiety.” 

Does everyone agree?

In 2019, a study from the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology was covered extensively in the press, due to its findings that technology use does not really contribute “to rising mental health problems, on the basis that technology use and mental health are not associated in a meaningful way among individuals”. 

One particular sentence in the study received a lot of attention: “The association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use and wearing glasses was more negatively associated with well-being.”

Soon after publication, the headlines followed. “Screen time no more harmful to teenage mental health than eating potatoes, study shows,” the UK’s Independent newspaper proclaimed; “Screen Time May Be No Worse For Kids Than Eating Potatoes,” Forbes shared; “Screens Might Be as Bad for Mental Health as … Potatoes,” the technology magazine and website Wired, told its readers; “Is screen time really bad for kids?” The New York Times asked.

The public interest in the findings led numerous researchers, including Twenge, to interrogate the findings and methodology behind the study. Some of the elements of the study they questioned included the way in which its authors had lumped together different kinds of interaction with technology, including watching television, playing video games, talking on the phone with friends, or simply owning a computer. Additionally, Twenge and Co also separated the findings between boys and girls. 

In February 2022, Twenge, together with New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and Kevin Cummins, an assistant professor of public health at California State University, penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post, directly addressing the findings of the abovementioned study. 

They wrote: “In a new paper, we used the same advanced statistical technique and found that the link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for ‘screen time.’ A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.

“The new study shows that, for girls in particular, the correlation between mental health and social media use is larger than that between mental health and binge drinking, early sexual activity, hard drug use, being suspended from school, marijuana use, lack of exercise, being stopped by police, and carrying a weapon. That does not mean these unwise activities are safer than social media use. But it does mean that if we’re going to dismiss social media for small statistical associations, we’ll also have to dismiss a long list of activities routinely targeted for public health interventions.” 

What now? Mitigating social media’s harmful effects

Considering how big a part of daily life social media has become, researchers are looking at ways in which individuals can mitigate its more harmful effects. Two strategies in particular have come up in a number of studies. One focuses on managing the time spent on social media, and the other on how users can curate their activity on social media. 

One was published in February 2021, titled Too Much of a Good Thing: Who We Follow, What We Do, And How Much Time We Spend on Social Media Affects Well-Being. After an initial survey to see who the participants were following on social media, as well as a weeklong monitoring of their social media activities, they were randomly assigned to do one of three things: “To either limit Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat use to 30 minutes in total per day and increase their active use, just limit their use to 30 minutes per day, or continue to use social media as usual for three weeks.”

Based on the initial survey, the researchers found that following friends rather than strangers was linked to decreased experiences of loneliness, while following strangers was positively correlated with depression. The highly depressed participants also showed “significant reductions in depression” when they reduced social media use. 

“Our findings suggest that following friends rather than strangers and limiting time spent on social media may lead to significant improvements in well-being, and that moderately active engagement may be the most adaptive,” the researchers reported. 

Public health researcher, author, and dean of public health and human sciences at Oregon State University, Dr Brian Primack, expanded on this notion during a recent interview with the website Self. 

Says Primack: “We already know the friends we’ve met in person as ‘complete people.’ So, when you see their photos from that lavish-looking vacation in the French Riviera, you’ll be able to paint a realistic mental picture of how they got there (‘Oh, they finally took time off work!’ instead of ‘Oh, they’re obnoxiously loaded!’). This can help you feel happy for them, which is healthier than, say, feeling inadequate or resentful as you scroll through their beautiful photos.”

Yet another more recent study, published on 10 May 2022, titled Taking a One-Week Break from Social Media Improves Well-Being, Depression, and Anxiety: A Randomized Controlled Trial, looked specifically at taking a one-week break from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.

As per the title of the study, the researchers indeed concluded that the break “can lead to significant improvements in well-being, depression, and anxiety”. They also looked at how different platforms might have varying effects. 

First, quoting previous studies, they write that a break from Facebook in particular, “had positive effects on life satisfaction and emotions”. They also found that their results “indicated that reducing time spent on Twitter and TikTok may mediate the effect abstaining has on reductions in symptoms of depression, whereas only TikTok mediates reductions in anxiety”. But they acknowledge that: “This could be an artifact of ‘doomscrolling’, a term used to describe the phenomenon of the negative effect people can experience after viewing pandemic-related media.” 

While this particular study focused on social media abstinence, the authors also shared the findings of a 2018 study that required a significant reduction in social media use. That study, performed on undergraduates from the University of Pennsylvania, found that “limiting undergraduates’ social media usage to just 10 minutes per platform per day for three weeks led to a clinically significant reduction in depression”. Its authors concluded: “Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.” 

According to market research company GWI’s latest report on social media trends, the global average of the amount of time spent on social media in 2021 was two hours and 26 minutes per individual per day. In South Africa, that number was significantly higher, at three hours and 37 minutes. The only other countries with higher usage were Colombia, at three hours and 41 minutes; Nigeria, at three hours and 42 minutes; and the Philippines, at four hours and eight minutes. DM/ML

Interested in this story? You might enjoy Facebook’s war on civilisation by Yvonne Jooste.

Facebook’s war on civilisation

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