Young adults spending five to six hours a day or longer on social media are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than others, according to a new study by a UA dean and his colleagues.
Dr. Brian Primack, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions and his four colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, are the first researchers to find a direct relationship between long-term social media use and depression in a large, national study. The study followed 1,000 subjects of diverse backgrounds.
“We looked at people who were not depressed at time one, and then looked at who became depressed (by time two) and it was the amount of social media that they used at time one that was very strongly correlated with who became depressed,” Primack said.
The study began in 2018 when Primack and the other researchers organized a panel that included individuals from across the country. They finished the analysis, “Temporal Associations Between Social Media Use and Depression,” in 2020, concluding that there is a clear association between social media use and depression.
Although the respondents were members of various demographic groups, their personal identities did not affect their likelihood of becoming depressed, Primack said. Instead, the researchers found that social media usage was more directly linked to depression among individuals. Those who used social media more often than others, or an average of five to six hours a day, were 2.8 times more likely to become depressed, regardless of their background, Primack said.
While other studies have shown a relationship between social media and depression, this is the first to examine the pattern of that relationship, Primack said. The relationship between social media use and depression found in the study was linear, meaning that when the two variables were graphed, the resulting graph resembled a straight, upward line.
John Treat, director of interdisciplinary and curricular learning for the Honors College, said he has observed an increase in mental distress among students since the start of the pandemic. Treat credits such distress to isolation and a less personal schooling environment, which have led to an increase in social media use.
Treat encourages students to unplug in order to avoid feeling inadequate compared to the seemingly perfect lives people display on social media, he said..
“Negative messages stick in ways that positive messages don’t,” Treat said. “With so many negative and divisive messages on social media from a thousand things a day, telling you how perfectly you should look or how set you should be on your career path, to all of the divisive social and political messages that are out there, I think it is very easy to feed a downward spiral.”
For Nick Lange, a senior, the social and political aspect of social media can be especially damaging. Lange suffers from severe anxiety, which he thinks stems from the false reality depicted on social media, he said.
“I am on social media a lot, and just hearing the stories, sometimes I wonder ‘Is this really true?’ and ‘Why am I worrying about this?,’”Lange said.
Primack said awareness of this study could serve as a warning for students at the UofA, potentially protecting them from becoming victims of depression spurred by the stress of social media.
Lange is taking a break from Instagram and Facebook after observing an overwhelming number of false stories related to recent events in Washington D.C., he said. He previously spent an average of five to six hours per day on social media, and he thinks it can be very easy to get attached to.
Consciousness of the connection between depression and social media use can cause individuals to recognize the importance of balance in their personal and social lives, Primack said.
“We can sort of make a plan for ourselves about how we are going to use social media just as much as we need to for it to help us,” Primack said. “But, if it starts to get in the way of things, or if it starts to take on a life of its own, and use us instead of having us use it, then I would much rather our students be empowered to do things that are going to really help them achieve their life missions.”
A variety of therapy and support group options for students struggling with their mental health are available through Pat Walker Health Center's Counseling and Psychiatric Services. CAPS can be reached at 479-575-5276, and all appointments will take place remotely until further notice. Those experiencing a mental health emergency can call any time, 24/7.