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Does Facebook Have Positive Mental Health Potential?


Plenty of research has explored whether social media makes people more anxious. A team from the University of Mississippi sought to find out if Facebook could do the opposite.

Plenty of research and writing has been devoted to exploring whether social media makes people more lazy, anxious, and lonely. A new report out of the University of Mississippi, however, sought to find out if Facebook could be useful in improving anxiety and increasing physical activity—and despite limitations, results were promising.

The new report, published in JMIR Mental Health, split university students into 2 groups to test how tailored wellness messages could influence feelings of anxiety and levels of activity, and to also determine if the nature of their delivery would have an effect. In total, 39 students were studied: 21 went into the “static” intervention group while 18 others went into a “dynamic” group.

The 8-week study featured 96 unique statuses, and the students were invited separately to private static and dynamic Facebook groups. The static group contained all of the messages from the outset, while the group exposing students to dynamic messaging posted the statuses once or twice a day throughout the intervention.

The messages, based on the theoretical model of behavior change, began by focusing on “cognitive processes of change” like self-evaluation, environmental evaluation, consciousness raising, and social liberation, before moving into “behavioral process of change” through messages geared towards self-liberation, reinforcement, stimulus control, and counterconditioning.

The researchers hypothesized that because the static group was given all of the statuses upfront, their potency would be “diluted.” And they did find a statistically significant difference in student-reported anxiety in the static intervention group. Both groups accessed the intervention page about as many times per day: 1.45 times in the dynamic group and 1.43 times in the static group.

On the Overall Anxiety Severity and Impairment Scale (OASIS), delivered to both groups at baseline and follow-up, the dynamic group posted large improvements. On the 5-point scale, higher scores indicate greater reported anxiety. At baseline, the dynamic group exhibited a mean score of 4.91 and the static group exhibited a mean of 4.14. At follow-up, the dynamic group’s mean score had fallen dramatically to 1.36, while the static group only came down to 3.57.

While the study did also observe a drastic increase in weekly reported physical activity for the dynamic group, it folded that finding into its handful of limitations: the majority of students recruited turned out to be exercise science or health promotion students already engaged in physical activity, so “such extensive exposure to information specifically targeting initiation of positive health behaviors may have been less impactful in this sample.”

The researchers could not control for student exposure to other wellness messages or university exercise programs. Also, the research was not fully blind, as students in the invite-only Facebook groups were still able to see others in their cohort.

Despite limitations, the authors consider the work exploratory, and also suggestive of the potential power of dynamic messaging delivered through social media.

“Communication hubs including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube are powerful modern research tools,” they wrote. “These sites offer the novel potential for rapid dissemination of tailored messages, which may revolutionize the field of psychological and behavioral health promotion.”

Related Coverage:

Facebook and the Intertwining of Mental Health, AI, and Social Media

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