Does social media really cause poor mental health?

Social media is heavily criticized for causing poor mental health. Indeed multiple studies have found relationships between social media usage and decreased wellbeing, depression, loneliness [1][2], worse sleep and reduced attention span. At the same time, multiple researchers have called into question whether social media itself is the cause of poor mental health. Perhaps instead the link between social media and mental health can be explained by confounding factors. Simply put, are people depressed because they’re on social media? Or on social media because they’re depressed?

Does social media really cause poor mental health?

Attention span

A report by Microsoft titled “attention spans” from 2015 makes some strong claims.

  • “Long-term focus erodes with increased social media usage.”
  • 65% heavy social media users report getting side tracked from what they’re doing by unrelated thoughts or day dreams. Compared to 45% of the general population.
  • “Social media can reduce the ability to allocate attention.”
  • Most extraordinary claim: the average attention span reduced from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, one second less than the attention span of goldfish. 

While the last claim has been highly criticized as being unscientific, misleading and outright wrong, the former claims may not be entirely incorrect. 

Research does show that social media, and media in general does indeed reduce our collective attention span [3]. In fact, even just having your cell phone in your possession can impair your learning, reduce attention and subsequent memory during lectures [4].

Indeed, many productivity-gurus recommend putting away your phone while you’re trying to focus.

Loneliness

Social media is infamously claimed to be, ironically, often bad for social life. Social media’s relationship with loneliness is complicated.

Studies report that social media usage directly, positively and significantly predicts loneliness [5][6][7], however other studies find no “statistically significant association between loneliness and Social media use” [8][9][10]. The most interesting is the ones with mixed results [11][12][13] – these studies point out that feelings of loneliness may depend on the user and the platform.

For instance, image-based platforms like Instagram may reduce loneliness, whereas text-based platforms have little to no effect on loneliness.

Furthermore, personality traits are also important. For example, people who tend to compare themselves to others often, called social comparison orientation, may be more prone to loneliness from social media use. There is also a difference between browsing social media and posting on social media: whereby posting has a strong association with poor mental health and loneliness [13][14]. Moreover, social media improves loneliness for older adults [15] but does not for young men [11].

When it comes to social media usage and feelings of loneliness, it all depends on who is participating and how.

Well-being

Social media may affect well-being, and in the extreme may even be tied to depression.

In a study of 1,787 adults between 19 and 32, it finds a significant relationship between depression and social media usage. Specifically, the more social media someone uses the more likely it is that they suffer from depression [16]. Other research supports this [17]. Social media decreases well-being [18]. By contrast, other research indicated that social media use was not predictive of impaired mental health functioning [19], and may actually improve well-being [20].

One paper states that “there is, on average, no relationship between the amount of time spent on [social media] and happiness. However, we find a negative association between the numbers of hours spent on [social media] and happiness for [social media] users who feel socially disconnected and lonely. The results hold when we control for socio-demographic characteristics, trust, hours spent on other Internet sites and household income. Hence, [social media] are not a substitute for real-life social connections and, at most, complement them.

Sleep

A consequence of social media addiction is late night phone usage, often reducing sleep quality and length. 

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh asked 1,700 18- to 30-year-olds about their social media and sleeping habits and found that higher social media use volume and frequency had significantly greater odds of having sleep disturbance [21].

This is significant because, as discussed in my video “Sleep is more important than you think”, poor sleep quality is associated with a host of physical and mental health problems.   

Self-esteem

Social media, with its filters, lighting and clever angles, paints an unrealistic picture of reality. 

A survey of 1,500 people found that half of 18- to 34-year-olds say it makes them feel unattractive [22]. Even positive appearance related comments on Instagram led to greater body satisfaction in one study [23].

Another study suggested that viewing other people’s selfies lowered self-esteem, because users compare themselves to photos of people looking their happiest [24], at the same time, participants taking and posting selfies to social media also feel less confident, and less physically attractive afterwards, even when participants could retake and retouch their selfies [25].

Even online dating is associated in lower self esteem [26].

Conclusion

It’s clear that in many areas, not enough is known to draw strong conclusions. However, the evidence does point one way: social media affects people differently.

Perhaps it is best for you to make your own judgement.

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