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It remains unknown whether the sour web experiences cause depressive symtpoms or are appealing to those already suffering them.
Social media might feel like it’s been a foundational element of modern life for some time, but it really has not always been that way. In the last decade, Facebook went from 100 million active monthly users to nearly 2.2 billion. Twitter has rocketed from 30 million active to over 336 million since 2010. And Instagram shot up from 90 million users to more than 800 million in just 5 years.
Like it or not, social media’s ubiquity has become an increasingly important consideration for public and mental health experts, and science is responding in kind with a torrent of studies attempting to quantify its effects. The latest comes from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, who wanted to know what impact positive and negative social media interactions had on young people’s likelihood of reporting depressive symptoms.
The team, led by Pitt’s Brian Primack, MD, PhD, surveyed nearly 1,200 students from nearby West Virginia University. The students were aged 18 to 30 and were asked both about depressive symptoms and social media use.
"We found that positive experiences on social media were not related or only very slightly linked to lower depressive symptoms,” Primack said. “However, negative experiences were strongly and consistently associated with higher depressive symptoms.”
The team worked to control for demographic differences (the cohort was 62% female and 72% white) and used a multivariable logistic regression model to tease out associations between social media experiences and depressive symptoms.
Each 10% increase in positive experiences was associated with a 4% decrease in depressive symptoms, though that was not statistically specific. The opposite, however, attained statistical significance and remained evident when adjusted for independent variables: Every 10% increase in negative experiences was associated with a 20% increase in reported depressive symptoms.
Primack noted that the finding is valuable, but cautioned that it was difficult to tell if it was actually causal: Individuals prone to depressive symptoms may be inclined to seek out negative social media experiences, he said. “As with many things in social science, the answer is probably some combination of the two,” according to Primack, and further research will be needed to “disentangle cause and effect.”
But that’s true of all social media research at the moment: Very little of it has been around long enough to concretely understand what it indicates. What health officials can do in the meantime, Primack said, was to keep it in mind when developing strategies for educating the public about social media interactions. Whether negative online interactions are contributing to depressive symptoms or reinforcing them, it’s worth evaluating whether affected patients should be encouraged to spend less time on social media or to seek out more positive experiences when they’re there.
"Certainly, there are many situations in which connecting with others in this way might actually lower depressive symptoms. That just wasn't the primary finding in this particular study,” Primack said.