At least in affluent societies, the smartphone has been part of social life for more than a decade and online social networking is older than the web itself. But while no one could foresee the mental health consequences of constant connectivity, studies have begun to document the effects. Here are some of the findings.
Social media stress comes from caring about others
A study of 1801 Americans, done by Pew Research Center found that there is no significant connection between increased use of social media and heightened stress levels. In addition, women seem statistically less stressed with increased social media use.
However, what digital technologies and especially social media does really well is to scale the reach and intensity of engagement. This means that they also amplify offline stressors as well such as when you witness people you care about go through stressful situations.
“The relationship between stress and social media use is indirect. It is the social uses of digital technologies, and the way they increase awareness of distressing events in others’ lives, that explains how the use of social media can result in users feeling more stress,” writes the Pew researchers.
So, digital technology does not in itself seem to cause significant stress. However, if you care about other people, stressful events in their lives will increase your stress level as well, and you are more likely to learn of these events the more you connect with them using social media.
A case where digitally mediated stress can reach dangerous levels is among young people that are victims of bullying, stalking, sharing of nude photos without consent, and other forms of online harassment. In these cases as well, the technology is not the cause of the stress, but social media acts as an enabler, enhancing the impact of malicious behavior often coordinated by a group of peers.
Targets of such online attacks often develop low self-esteem, depression and suicidal ideation besides the general emotional responses of fear, shame and anger.
The magnitude of online harassment is not well established. In the EU, estimates of how many young people become targets of online harassment vary between one in ten at the low end and one in two at the high.
Does social media use impact mental health?
While several studies have shown a correlation of higher levels of anxiety and depression with increased social media use, there is no evidence that either causes the other.
But even though there is so far no scientific evidence that digital technologies cause or even exacerbate these disorders, speculations about ‘Facebook depression’ abound in the research literature. Correlations in small studies in turn gets swallowed up and regurgitated in news headlines as cause and effect.
Sloppy science reporting aside, it cannot be ruled out that social media use can negatively impact your mental health. There is just no evidence for the case. It is just as plausible an explanation that people with anxiety or depression disorders tend to use social media more than average rather than engage socially with other people in physical settings.
As a researcher behind one of these studies, Dr Catriona Morrison, acknowledges, “Our research indicates that excessive Internet use is associated with depression, but what we don’t know is which comes first — are depressed people drawn to the Internet or does the Internet cause depression?”
It is also just as plausible that a third factor or a confluence of factors unbeknownst to the researchers have causal effects on both mental health as well as social media use.
In short, the science is not there to say anything conclusive or even particularly meaningful on the effect of social media on mental health.
Smartphones and social media are still such novel phenomena that scientific research documenting their impact is still very much in its infancy, attention grabbing media headlines notwithstanding.
Facebook is still likely to put you in a bad mood
Facebook specifically has been shown in a study to adversely impact the mood of its users. Compared to browsing the internet outside of Facebook, scrolling through the news feed and interacting with friends will actually put you in a worse mood, and this effect correlates with time. The longer you are logged into Facebook, the worse your mood gets. Part of this effect, the researchers write, is the feeling of having wasted your time.
There is so far no evidence that this effect has any long term consequences. A survey of 1011 Swedish Facebook users concludes that, “the amount of time spent on Facebook had no relationship with self-esteem when controlling for gender, age, education and income.”
Additionally, a study of more than a billion updates from over 100 million Facebook users suggests that mood also has an epidemiology on Facebook. Good and bad moods are contagious, so to speak. According to the study, happy moods are more viral than unhappy ones.
Can you be addicted to Facebook?
While behavioral addiction has recently been officially established as a category for psychiatric diagnosis, the only officially recognized behavioral addiction is ludomania, that is being addicted to gambling, while online gaming is being studied as a potential second candidate for an actual behavioral addiction.
A literature review on whether social media addiction is a real phenomenon sums up a range of mental problems associated with heightened social media use. But the authors write that, “… no causal inferences can be drawn with regards to whether the excessive use of [social media] is the causal factor for the reported negative consequences.”
According to the authors of the review, the amount of empirical studies investigating potential social media addiction is extremely small. Just three studies had been published at the time of their publication. And the quality of these studies were not up to the task of establishing that addiction to social media is real. “Initially, the mere assessment of addiction tendencies does not suffice to demarcate real pathology,” they write.
The idea of being addicted to social media is currently a hyperbolic metaphor at best. Compared to a real addiction, characterized among other things by having negative effects on the physical, mental, social or financial well-being of the addict, the toll of using Facebook a lot hardly qualifies.
Of course, if someone feels that their excessive social media use causes them distress, they should be taken seriously and given the necessary care. But while the science is still out on social media addiction, it is probably better to regard excessive use of Facebook and other social media not as a symptom of addiction. Labeling something an addiction when it does not carry the same negative consequences and other characteristics as being addicted to e.g. drugs or gambling runs the risk of pathologizing perfectly ordinary behavior.