Another Look at Social Media and Mental Health

Reconciling the differences between how we speak and how we feel on Facebook

Not an accurate model. (When life hands you Flickr creative commons images…)

The link between social media use and mental health is a hot topic among everyone who uses social media or knows someone who uses social media, which, let’s be honest, is all of us. It’s also a hot topic among researchers who study communication technology, human behavior, and mental health. In just the past few years, thousands of research papers have explored whether media use can make depression, anxiety, and other types of psychological distress worse, and how signs of distress can be detected.

In recent years, surveys have found that people with depression report that they have lower quality interactions on social media than people without depression do. But when researchers try to compare social media posts from depressed and non-depressed people, they find subtle effects that are sometimes contradictory. They’ve looked at language style, post content, the number and type of comments, and often come up empty.

One clue might lie in a common gripe that we all have with social media sites: the pressure to constantly present our best selves. We see others posting about positive events and experiences, and we feel the need to post positively too. That pressure can be difficult for a lot of social media users to handle. However, it can be even more difficult for people with depression and anxiety, who may be less able to find positive things to post.

Impression management — controlling how others see us — is a big part of how we use Facebook. Activities like updating profiles, checking in to locations, and managing lists of friends all help us control what our Facebook friends think of us. Some researchers have found that people who are more depressed tend to do these kind of impression management activities more often. This suggests that there might be a link between mental health concerns and the pressure people feel to always present their best selves.

To test this, we asked research participants to share a few of their most recent Facebook status updates with us, and asked them questions about how they felt about their posts and the responses they got. We also asked them about depression or anxiety symptoms they might be feeling. After removing personally identifying information from the data, we compared the content of peoples’ posts, how they felt after posting, and their reported levels of psychological distress.

To understand how mental health and social media use interact, we also need to understand two different types of experiences people have online. First, there’s communicative experiences, or what we say and what people say in response. Then there’s psychological experiences, or how we decide how to present ourselves and how we react to the responses we get.

We found that people with psychological distress have communicative experiences that are basically no different from those of people without them. Both groups get the same types of comments and the same numbers of likes. Neither group’s posts are more negative than the other’s. So how do we explain the fact that people with psychological distress report that social media use has a negative impact on their mood?

One possible answer might lie in psychological experience. We looked at psychological experiences on Facebook —concerns when posting, satisfaction with a post, a post’s impact on mood, and the like. We found that people who report depression or anxiety worry more about how they present themselves when they write status updates. They’re less satisfied with the comments they get on their posts. And the responses they get have a greater impact on their mood for the rest of the day.

Taken together, it looks like people with depression and anxiety make the same types of posts and get the same types of responses — their communicative experiences look similar on the surface. But they differ in psychological experiences — how they decide what to post and the responses they get to their posts. This suggests that people in distress worry more about managing others’ impressions of them, even going so far as to self-censor in order to not appear overly negative.

These findings help researchers understand how people with and without psychological distress use social media. A deeper understanding of the varying ways people use these sites can help designers create experiences that are beneficial for people with depression, anxiety, and other kinds of psychological distress.

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The original paper, Psychological Distress and Emotional Expression on Facebook, is forthcoming in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. You can find it here.