How much is too much?
If someone asked you if there’s a connection between social media and mental health, you might assume it’s a no-brainer. Logging too much time on social media can contribute to or even spark feelings of depression and anxiety (Dhir, et al., 2018). Instagram can be triggering for people with body image issues (Tiggemann & Slater, 2013). But is that the whole story?
Written by Mindolé Clark
The reality, as in most cases, isn’t as black and white as we might assume. In order for social media consumption to have a negative effect, what other conditions need to be present? Important considerations might include, how much time is spent on social media? Are there any strong personal ties to a particular platform? What are the levels of interaction, and what is the personal significance for the user? Is the user’s work based on social media, and if so, how might pressure, fame, and competitors all play a role? As well, are some social media platforms more denigrating than others? All these questions play a role in how social media affects each of us.
An experimental study from 2018 wanted to find out how cutting back on social media time would affect its users (Hunt, et al.). The researchers recruited 143 undergraduates from an American university and divided them into two groups. The first group had to limit their social media use to 10 minutes per day, while the other group carried on as usual. At the end of three weeks, “the limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression…compared to the control group,” (Hunt, et al., 2018, p. 751). Both groups reported a decrease in both FOMO and anxiety, “suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring,” (p. 751). The fear of missing out may be fueling our constant scroll on FB and IG. However, being aware of one’s time spent on social media can help users limit it. Subjects who reported higher levels of depression symptoms at the beginning of the study also saw the most significant reductions. This hints that people who are prone to depression and anxiety may aggravate their symptoms with uncontrolled amounts of time on social media.
Some researchers are skeptical about social media’s bad reputation. Many studies, such as one by Vuorre, et al. (2021) contend that the fears about adolescent use of social media is similar to fears surrounding all emerging technologies, and reminiscent of the concerns that television initially brought on. Their study included almost half a million participants from the U.S. and the UK, and did not show strong evidence that social media, more than other technologies, is causing a significant increase in mental health problems in adolescents. These researchers urge caution, care, and rigorous science when investigating the topic.
Social media is even helping people by bringing awareness and acceptance about mental health issues to many parts of the world. A study by Yu, et al. (2021) looked at a popular Chinese social media platform called Weibo, and found that sharing information about depression decreased the social stigma surrounding this topic, and that users were able to connect with others who provided support and acceptance. This means that social media could be used “to provide resources and assistance to patients with depression,” as well as “to publicize effective ways of coping with depression and encourage users to share their own or other people’s experiences of depression,” (p.362). A study by Coiera (2021) makes similar claims about the potential of social media to be utilized for good, stating that it can be, “a powerful vehicle to redefine social ties and reshape individual views of conformity and normality,” (p.3). Coiera contends that if social media can be “harnessed” to “change the behaviours that lead to disease, then the medium becomes the medicine,” (p.3, 2021).
While a lot of current research seems to show a negative relationship between social media use and depression and anxiety, our precise understanding of these findings is still incomplete. Online communities share and strengthen insular beliefs, for better or worse, and their influence can be seen in politics as well as in entertainment and medicine. If you’re worried that your relationship with IG might be affecting your mental health, try cutting back, or even deleting the app from your phone. There are even numerous social media trackers available for download that will alert you when you’ve logged too much time on your favorite platform. Don’t become a scrolling victim. Put your phone down. Take care of yourself. Please like and subscribe. Just kidding. For real, put your phone down.