People today are more connected than ever before. Social media networks  such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are currently being used by 1 in 4 individuals worldwide. Despite this, rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers have increased by 70% in the last 25 years.

Many believe social media can have a negative impact on our lives. This has manifested in the popular trend of “detoxing” from social media by abstaining from use for extended periods of time or quitting altogether. But is there any evidence backing this belief? Indeed, many recent studies have concluded that increased social media use is linked to greater feelings of loneliness, which has important health implications. Not only has loneliness been linked to issues in psychological processes affecting emotion, behaviour and quality of sleep, loneliness is also associated with an increased risk of impaired cellular immunity, morbidities such as cardiovascular disease, and mortality.

tree-200795_1920A 2014 report linking social media use with heightened feelings of loneliness caused an uproar in the media, sparking allegations that social media platforms are directly causing depression and exacerbating mental illness in our generation. This study evaluated the usage of 11 social media sites by adults aged 19-32 in the US. Through a series of web-based surveys, they were able to measure perceived social isolation (PSI) and found that, compared to people who used less than 30 minutes of social media per day, people who used 2 or more hours of social media per day were twice as likely to experience increased PSI. Additionally, people who logged into social media 58 times or more per week were 3 times more likely to feel greater PSI compared to those who visited less than 9 times a week. They suggested that increased social media use may generate feelings of missed opportunities and popularity comparisons with online friends, leading to a belief that others are leading happier and more successful lives.

However, social media platforms may not all have equal impacts on mental health. Another study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in 2017 surveyed young adults aged 14-24 in the UK regarding their use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube. They were asked to evaluate each platform based on how they felt it impacted their personal health and wellbeing. This included questions about each site’s contributions to an individual’s anxiety, depression, loneliness, lack of sleep, and access to emotional support. From this information, the RSPH ranked each social media platform based on the net impact it had on the health and wellbeing of young adults and found that the most positively viewed social media platforms were YouTube and Twitter, whereas the most negatively viewed platform was Instagram, closely followed by Snapchat.

Although studies have connected social media use to depression and loneliness, this does not necessarily comment on causation. We cannot say whichtwitter-292994_1920 came first, the loneliness or the increased social media use. Since most of these studies rely heavily on self-reported outcomes, there are potentially many biases involved in these results. Additionally, the way in which you engage with these social media platforms likely changes the way it affects you. In general, the data currently available seems to suggest that limiting social media use may be beneficial, but determining the extent to which social media impacts us requires more research.

At the end of the day, we would do well to remind ourselves that the content uploaded to social media platforms is highly intentional. It is an idealized version of reality that few can relate to. Therefore, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the online presence of our peers, as the person you see presented on social media is likely, in part, fictional. For now, while we await further results in regards to social media use and mental health, just do what makes you happy.

References:

  1. Controversial 2014 study: http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30016-8/fulltext
  2.  2017 RSPH study: https://www.rsph.org.uk/our-work/policy/social-media-and-young-people-s-mental-health-and-wellbeing.html
  3.  Young people 70% depression increase: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/lifetime_impacts.pdf  & https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15482496
  4.  Social media and depression: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26783723
  5.  Impact of loneliness on health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20652462
  6.  Loneliness and a compromised immune system: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6701251
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Lisa Hung

Lisa is an M.Sc. student at the University of Toronto in the Department of Immunology. She is currently doing research on the mechanisms of food allergy and anaphylaxis. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, baking and listening to podcasts.

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