This year has brought an increased awareness about the potential harm that social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok can have on teens’ mental health.
A Facebook whistleblower’s testimony before Congress and leaked internal documents detailed the increased risks for poor self-esteem, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts in some young people using the apps.
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Now new research suggests that social media use may impact mental health in adults as well. Researchers found that social media platforms, including Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok, were associated with an increased likelihood of depressive symptoms in adults who didn’t initially report depression.
More People Using Social Media Since the Pandemic
The pandemic has changed the way we work, eat, shop, and use social media. The average American spent 65 minutes a day on social media in 2020, a nearly 20 percent increase from the year before, according to Statista, a market research company. The most preferred social media platform for COVID-19 updates was Facebook.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression have been higher since the start of the pandemic as well. During August 2020 to February 2021, the percent of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4 to 41.5 percent, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Social Media: Friend or Foe?
The relationship between social media and mental health has been the subject of a lot of debate, says Roy Perlis, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and medical director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who is lead author of the study, published November 23 in JAMA Network Open.
“On the one hand, social media has been a way for people to stay connected to a larger community, and perhaps get information about things that interest them. On the other hand, even before the risks of widespread misinformation on these platforms were recognized, there was a sense that kids and adolescents might be negatively impacted by social media,” he says.
Dr. Perlis and his team set out two related questions: Is social media associated with depression and related symptoms in adults, and which comes first? Does social media use lead to depression, or are depressed people more likely to use social media more?
TikTok and Snapchat More Likely Associated With Depression in Older Adults
Researchers sent out surveys approximately every six weeks from May 2020 to May 2021 to adults in all 50 states that asked questions about a variety of attitudes and behaviors, including social media use. There were a total of 5395 participants with an average age of 55 years old; 65.7 percent female, 76.3 percent white, 10.6 percent Black, 6.1 percent Asian, 4.7 percent Hispanic, and 2.3 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian.
To try to zero in on the impact of social media use on mood, researchers included people who weren’t depressed the first time the completed the survey. “When they completed a later survey, we again asked about depression. This way we could be sure that the social media use preceded the depression symptoms,” explains Perlis.
Investigators found that adults, including older adults, who used specific social media platforms were more likely to report depressive symptoms later. “In some cases these risks were different in younger versus older adults. Most notably, the association between Facebook use and depression risk was greatest among adults under 35. For other platforms, like TikTok and Snapchat, the risk appeared to be greater in older adults,” he says.
By examining the participants’ responses to other survey questions, researchers concluded the higher risk was not a result of other differences like having fewer social supports or interacting with fewer people, says Perlis.
Further Research Still Needed
The study wasn’t set up to determine the reasons why social media use might increase the risk for depression, says Perlis. “I suspect that social media can start to crowd out other activities that might be healthier — exercise, for example — and instead immerse people in stories that negatively impact their mood.”
The next steps for research should investigate if more social media use causes depression, or if it’s just a marker of risk for depression, says Perlis. “Either explanation has implications for public health, given how negatively depression impacts public health. By determining whether social media use is causing depression, or just a marker of risk, we can develop interventions aimed at preventing depression in people who are using more social media,” he says.