When was the last time you checked in on your social media? Think about it for a minute. Yesterday? Two hours? One hour? Twenty minutes? Five minutes?

Scrolling through your Facebook and Instagram feeds have become familiar behaviors we engage in. In the United States, approximately 77% of the population have a social media profile of some kind. That experience of continually scrolling, continually comparing your life to everyone else’s as if theirs is better than yours impacts you more than you know. And it impacts others as well. Research on social media and its effects are exploding in corners all over the world because our collective conscious knows something is happening.

Studies are beginning to provide us with insights our intuitions have known for a while. What those studies are showing us is these quasi-social comparisons may be linked to a higher likelihood of depression and in some cases increased anxiety. It’s affecting our friends, spouses, and our kids. Social media is magnifying the toxic comparison paradox problem.  

 

Social Media and Depression Among Youth

The risk of depression among teens associated with social media use could be even greater than it is with adults. New research suggests too much social media does indeed affect the mental well-being of teenagers. The more teenagers watched television and utilized social media the greater the risk of depression was according to a new study by Elroy Boers, a post-doctoral researcher, and Patricia Conrod, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal.

In the study, they included about 4,000 Canadian teenagers between the ages 12 and 16 wherein each year the teenagers submitted information about their individual screen time habits across multiple types: television, video gaming, computer use and social media.  Throughout the four years, these youth answered questionnaires on different depressive symptoms.

Interestingly enough, high levels of video gaming and computer use was not associated with depression. On the flip side and something which should concern parents of youth (this is the part where yellow caution lights are flashing), higher than average levels of social media and television watching were linked with severe symptoms of depression. Furthermore, the higher levels of social media use and higher levels of television watching among teens, the more severe depression symptoms were observed. An increase of as little as one hour of social media interaction from normal levels would result in a measurable increase in depression, the study found. Reread that previous sentence again. An increase of one hour. That’s it.  

The report went on to explain how this association works, “We found an association between social media and depression in adolescence. Based on the upward social comparison, it may be that repeated exposure to idealized images lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time. Furthermore, heavier users of social media with depression appear to be more negatively affected by their time spent on social media, potentially by the nature of information that they select.” Comparison paradox engaged.

“Exposure to idealized images lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time”

Stop and think about that for a moment. Think about how important regulating social media and television habits with teens is. What does that mean to you as a parent? A teacher? A mentor? Dr. Victor Fornari, vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York says this research and its conclusions should be a call to action for parents of teens. He adamantly claims, “adolescents’ social media and television use should be regulated to prevent the development of depression and to reduce existing symptoms.” Social media obsession among teens is rampant and we should feel responsible for sparking change with that social phenomenon.

Although the study does not prove a cause and effect relationship between depression and heavy social media or television use, Patricia Conrod says “many people attribute increasing rates of depression among young people in North America to the recent introduction of mobile digital devices to our society. The study’s findings indicate social media use and television viewing are important predictors of depression in adolescence.” The researchers also reiterated their conclusions do not mean social media use is a bad thing. Krista Howard, the studies lead researcher and professor of psychology at Texas State University, said, “I don’t think it’s always bad. It can be [bad], but it can also provide social support. It can give people an outlet to be around people that are similar to them.” She went on to say she hopes their research can “teach people how to use technology better, rather than taking it away.”

Combine this research with other behavioral shifts among youth and you can begin to see an alarming trend. Teenagers now are beginning to become less independent than in previous generations. Rather than hanging out with friends and dating, they are opting in to tweeting, posting on Instagram and Snapchatting. You could argue our youth are becoming more dependent on technology to fulfill emotional needs.

“Ironically, these social media habits are making them less social and less happy.”

Social psychologist, Jean Twenge for The Atlantic says the statistics are alarming. Today’s twelfth grade students are spending less time out of the home without their parents than eighth graders did in 2009. Only 56% of high school Seniors dated in 2015 compared to 85% for Generation Xers and Baby Boomers. Teens who spend daily time with their friends dropped by 40% from 2000 to 2015. Teens now are working less than (55% of high school seniors today have jobs) compared to 77% during the 1970s.

Does Social Media Affect Girls More Than Boys?

So who’s more at risk with social media use: boys or girls? We know there is some link with social media use and depression. There are studies after studies sounding warnings about the effects of social media on our mental well-being. And among those studies is another one which found a link between social media use in childhood and adolescence. In an interesting twist, the association between social media use and depression is stronger for girls than boys.

In a study conducted by the University of Essex where researchers observed nearly 10,000 families in the U.K. from 2009 to 2015, the mental health of children aged 10 and up to 15 years old was measured for happiness and well-being across multiple parts of their lives along with emotional and social challenges. Results were published in BMC Public Health.

According to the report, girls used social media more than boys did and their mental well-being appeared to suffer the effects of it. At earlier ages (age ten), 7% of boys were on social media for an hour a day vs 10% of girls. But as these teens aged, this gap grew. By age fifteen, 31% of boys compared to 43% of girls used social media at least an hour a day (a growth from 3% disparity to 12% in just 5 years). Additionally, girls at age ten reported lower levels of happiness and more social and emotional difficulties compared to boys as they aged. And again…the comparison paradox engaged.

“Girls used social media more than boys did and their mental well-being appeared to suffer the effects of it.”

In one study which used data from over 10,000 teenagers aged 14 years old, researchers found that 40% of girls admitted being on their social media accounts for more than three hours a day compared to only 20% of boys. Among youth who were on social media for more than five hours a day, girls’ depression measurements rose to 50% while boys only increased 35%. As you can see, it’s not just because girls are using social media more than boys. It comes down to how they use it and how they are interacting.

A valid explanation could involve the idea that boys and girls interact differently on social media and consume digital media in different ways associated with their genders. Some also posit that girls are more likely to make comparisons between themselves and polished versions of images they constantly see on social media. As mentioned above, the comparison paradox is toxic (and seems to affect girls more than boys). These studies suggest it’s the how we are using social media which is the most important facet of the conversation.

Social Media Habits Are Associated With Depression

It would stand to reason that if social media use was associated with depression among teens, it would likely have the same effect among adults. In another study which was presented at an annual meeting of the Association of Psychological Science in San Francisco, researchers studied and analyzed data from hundreds of undergraduate students who regularly used Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram. Students then answered an online survey to examine social media behaviors as well as depression symptoms.

Researchers found that reasons for using social media (boredom, news, entertainment, etc.) were not linked with depression, but how people were using social media was in fact linked to symptoms of depression. Participants in the study were more likely to compare themselves to others, say they were bothered by being tagged in photos and were less likely to post pictures of themselves with others, and have more than 300 followers on twitter.

“How people were using social media was in fact linked to symptoms of depression”

Even though this particular study found an association between social media habits and depression, the research did not determine if these behaviors contributed to depression OR if people with pre-existing depression symptoms are more likely to engage in these behaviors. As with most studies, more research is needed to unlock the answers that we collectively seek out in trying to understand technology and its relationship to people.

Social Media and Anxiety

What about anxiety? Is social media use linked with increased levels of anxiousness? Take a moment and deconstruct the process of checking in on our social media. We log on to the app (or through the desktop version) and what do we see? Friends, co-workers, and family engaged in not everyday reality, but a polished, idealized image of what they want you to see: Selfies at the pool, their child making the winning shot, a glamorous, breath-taking view of the Grand Canyon while on vacation, happy faces on a hike with their friends, the latest update on a job promotion, and the before and after pictures of look-how-much-my-kid-has-grown-this-year-in-the-4th-grade. One can see how a constant barrage of images like that can add to social media anxiety.

According to experts, 20% of us cannot go more than three hours without checking social media. And the algorithms these social media platforms have engineered (no seriously…Facebook had addiction experts weigh in on how to build their platform) have been designed to capture and keep our attention while only feeding us things like wedding announcements, baby births, and those high-status social behaviors which are desirable. And because of that, we enter into a mindset of social comparisons, creating a gap in our minds of fiction vs reality.

There’s a great line in Will Storr’s book which sums up this social media psychological process so well. Storr says, “We are living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. Whether it’s social media or pressure to be impossibly perfect twenty-first century iterations of ourselves, or pressure to have the perfect body, or pressure to be successful in our careers, or any of the myriad ways in which we place overly high expectations on ourselves and other people, we’re creating a psychological environment that’s toxic.” Perhaps we should call it “Comparison Toxicity Syndrome”. This comparison paradox can lead to anxiety.

“Perfection is the idea that kills…”

There’s also something else happening in this process: FOMO. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is another social anxiety trigger that social media has cleverly capitalized on. Facebook was designed and built on this concept. We see pictures of the wedding, party, or friend get together. And because we weren’t able to attend, this can impact our self-esteem. It can also create the dynamic of “I have to keep checking social media so I don’t miss out on that next thing.” One can see how the FOMO concept and just being away from your social media account for a few moments can trigger anxiety.

“Facebook was designed and built on this concept”

Consider a moment these behaviors associated with social anxiety disorders and how they relate to social media: loss of interest in other activities, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when we are unable to access social media, incessant need to share things with others on social media, nervousness when you are not able to check in on a social media app, lying to people about how much you use social media, or trying to reduce the amount of time using social media without being successful. This is just a small list of attitudes and behaviors associated with social media and anxiety. At the very least, when we engage in social media we need to be mindful and aware of what we are feeling while actively using it as well as when we are away from it.

Does Social Media Cause Depression?

We’ve all heard the old adage of correlation does not imply causation when it comes to science and research. A lot of the studies referenced above directly come out and say it. You would be hard pressed to find serious research that would make the bold claim that social media causes depression. The whole point of research isn’t to set out on a quest to find what causes something else. The aim for most researchers is to find and explain the way our world interacts and is affected by our environments. It’s about understanding behavior and seeking to find some semblance of making the world better.

This is important now more than ever, especially with the pervasiveness of social media and digital devices and the role and influence they have on people and communities. The question we ask shouldn’t be: “Does social media cause depression?” Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is reflective and intrinsic in nature such as: “What is my relationship with social media?” and “How can I make social media improve my relationships with others?

“What is my relationship with social media?”

We all know social media is addictive. There’s even something in our collective guts telling us, “something is happening, and it isn’t good.” That’s not to say nothing wholesome can come from social media. But it is saying social media is addictive and too much of it left without checks and balances is causing something. Social media is the ultimate open loop, kinda like our favorite weekly television shows we watch on steroids. Why? Because that open loop never closes and is more addictive than your favorite binge-worthy show on Netflix (Stranger Things fan here). It’s because that lavish, I’m-only-going-to-show-you-the-good-stuff posts on our timelines are binge-worthy moments rooted in what we believe is reality. The reality of our friends, celebrities, co-workers, and family. What’s worse is we believe it. We compare our lives and our relationships every time we flip through the fictional scroll with our thumbs. 

So now what? What are we to do? At GetScreenSmart.org, we aim to help people develop a healthier relationship with screens and what is happening on those screens. We understand connection is the key to healthy relationships and more peaceful homes. GetScreenSmart.org creates tools and activities that improves digital health for families with children of all ages.