Lots of social media accounts? No wonder you’re depressed
The number of social media accounts you have says a lot about your mental health.
Young adults who use more than seven different social media platforms are more than three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than those who are happy with just one or two.
For a start, the more accounts you have, the more time you needs to be spent checking them – the more accounts you operate, the more complex the multitasking exercise becomes. Trying to maintain a presence on multiple platforms will inevitably lead to stress and anxiety – it’s hard work maintaining a credible presence on multiple platforms. Worse, multitasking is known to be associated with poor cognitive and mental health.
This is according to a team of researchers led by Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health and assistant vice chancellor for health and society at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health Sciences.
There are unwritten rules and cultural assumptions special to each platform, which also makes them more complicated to navigate. The more platforms you engage with, the more likely will be the irritation all the minor frustrations of having to understand and follow different rules, inevitably leading to negative feelings and emotions.
Social media platforms are risky places – even the most minor faux pas will be stored forever and could lead to embarrassment in the future. Another danger is that many users may be searching for safe and accepting environments online. People who already suffer from depression and anxiety will feel worse because they are searching for genuine social fulfilment on social media, which is the exact place it doesn’t exist.
Physicians should be asking patients with depression and anxiety about their social media use and making them aware that this may be related to their symptoms.
In 2014 Dr Primack and his team surveyed 1,787 adults between the ages of 19 and 32 using an established depression assessment tool as well as questionnaires designed to assess social media use. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Google Plus, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Vine.
After reviewing the data, researchers found that the participants spent an average of 61 minutes a day on social media and visited their social media accounts 30 times a week.
Participants who used from 7 to 11 platforms reported 3.1 times higher levels of depressive symptoms than those who used 0 to 2 platforms. Those who used the most platforms were 3.3 times as likely to report high levels of anxiety symptoms than others who used the least number of platforms. Over a quarter of the participants were classified as having high indicators of depression.
The researchers controlled for factors that may contribute to depression and anxiety, including race, gender, relationship status, income, education and total time spent on social media.
The bottom line is… the more time spent catching up on social media, the greater the likelihood of serious mental problems. For instance, some users run the risk of experiencing feelings of rejection, exacerbating pre-existing negative thoughts and emotions. Worryingly, this is especially true for young adults, some of whom may go on to suffer from Internet Addiction, now a recognised psychiatric condition closely linked to depression.
There is also the risk that depression could lead to increased social media use. Further, there is the danger that exposure to falsely idealised representations of others on social media platforms could cause feelings of inadequacy or even worthlessness because of a distorted belief in the success and happiness of others. This is especially true in the case of youngsters who can develop feelings of inadequacy if their peers appear to be living better and more exciting lives on Facebook!
Often, users feel much of what they see and read on social media is shallow and pointless – and meaningless doesn’t help depression. And then there’s the problem of cyber-bullying, all too often unreported but nonetheless a major cause of depression and anxiety.
Around 92% of 16 to 24 year-olds use social media. Most sites stipulate a minimum user age of 13, but a survey carried out for BBC children’s channel, CBeebies, found that more than 75% of 10 to 12 year-olds have social media accounts. Most worrying, the NSPCC cite social media as a major cause of the dramatic increase in the number of children admitted to hospital because of self-harming.
Just one hour a day spent on social media is enough to adversely affect children’s happiness, and the effect is worse for girls, who mostly worry about their appearance.
The longer children spend chatting social media sites, the less happy they feel about a number of aspects of their lives, such as their school, their schoolwork, their appearance, their family and their lives compared with their friends and peer group.
Girls were more at risk because they worry more about their appearance and their school life. They can feel miserable by criticism of their appearance on photo-sharing sites.
Children – especially teenagers – can sometimes feel inadequate when they view photographs of their peers having fun without them. However, children who invest time in interacting with others online did feel happier about their friendships.
Online social networking is the one aspect of childhood that has changed dramatically in the last decade. Rather than social media being the great inclusive miracle of the modern age, in many instances it has the opposite effect.
This is causing concern among policy-makers and bodies responsible for safeguarding children. Some NGO’s think that the time children spend on social media should be regulated, but no one has been able to come up with any practical suggestions as to how this could be enforced.
We now have Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, and doubtless there will be more devices with human-like voices to help us through the day. New research has shown that conversations with these devices can offer short-term relief from feelings of loneliness. But researchers from the University of Kansas have warned that in the long-term, spending time with personal assistants could stymie social interaction.
People who feel socially excluded will normally take steps to address this, but they did not feel the need to get back into society after interacting with ‘anthropomorphic’ devices. The research could help firms design products that can increase the wellbeing of people who feel lonely, without sacrificing genuine social interaction, but a computerised voice can never be a real substitute for personal interaction.
Over the course of four experiments, a group of volunteers were made to feel socially isolated and the researchers monitored their responses. To establish feelings of loneliness, the team asked the participants to write a few sentences about a time in their lives when they felt isolated or socially excluded. Maybe they had been stood-up on a date, or not invited to a party.
They also played a computerised game of ‘catch’ in which other participants stopped throwing them the ball and instead threw it to other ‘players’ after a few initial throws. Participants believed they were playing with real people online, but their teammates were actually computer programs designed to leave them out of the game.
They were then asked to use a vacuum cleaner that had been specially designed to look as if it was smiling. And they were also asked to think about their phone in human-like terms, considering questions like ‘how much it helps you.’
Rather than seeking out normal human interaction, participants who had engaged with the devices were content with the comfort they offered and became less interested in seeking out the real thing.
Those that felt they were talking to Siri directly experienced fewer feelings of loneliness. But as lead author Dr James Mourey said, Alexa can’t be a perfect replacement for your friend Alex, but the virtual assistant can affect your social needs. However, the team found that there were limits to how far this effect would extend. As soon as people were told that it only appeared the vacuum cleaner was smiling, they seemed to understand it was only a machine and not a person. It was then that the effect diminished.