Logging in to your favorite social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to catch up on what’s new can border on obsession, especially among adolescents and children. Whether social media exposure has a negative mental health effect is still unclear though, according to two new studies.
Lancaster University researchers analyzed 30 quantitative studies on the link between mental health and social media exposure. Results were mixed, showing that effects of social media can be positive and negative.
However, Seton’s child and adolescent psychiatrist Julie Alonso-Katzowitz, MD, said social media can ironically lead to social isolation for some people if they are using it as their main form of interaction with others, instead of having face-to-face exchanges. Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.
“Interactions on social media tend to be more in snippets and small doses, while in person, people can talk more in depth, sense other people’s emotions and give support to each other,” Alonso-Katzowitz said. “Some people who are on social media may often not seek out these personal interactions and may see social media as a substitute for in-person relationships.”
Research adds a new piece to the social media and mental health puzzle
The new review adds to previous research on “Facebook depression,” originally published in 2011 by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the effects of social media on young people.
The report defined the phenomenon as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.
In the British review, researchers suggest that the relationship between social media and depression is complex and could be associated with multiple psychological, social, behavioral and individual factors.
“The impact of online social networking on well-being may be both positive and negative, highlighting the need for future research,” according to the review.
In Hungary, similar research was published Jan. 9 and examined the effects on teens. Nearly 6,000 adolescents were included in the study and 4.5 percent of them reported low self-esteem and depression when they had elevated social media use.
According to the study, “it is concluded that adolescents at risk of problematic social media use should be targeted by school-based prevention and intervention programs.”
When greener grass is just an illusion
Some people tend to present their lives in the best light possible on social media sites like Facebook. Consequently, Alonso-Katzowitz said, social media contacts can have the impression that other people’s lives are more fulfilling, happy or exciting.
“They may misinterpret that their friends on social media are more successful than they are. This can lead to some symptoms of depression, low self-worth or jealousy of what others have in relationships, financially or in other areas,” she said.
People who already have a tendency to be depressed or have low self-esteem are more likely to experience negative feelings as a result of their exposure.
Children and teens may also have a harder time because they may not be able to distinguish the difference between an over-exaggerated self-portrayal and reality.
Building healthy social media habits
Social media can have positive effects if a person uses it and has meaningful personal relationships. It can help families and friends who are far away from each other to keep in touch and to help provide support and encouragement during difficult times.
Children and adolescents can benefit from social media by enhancing their communication, social connection and technical skills, according to AAP.
“Facebook can also help facilitate connecting groups of people with common interests, goals or shared values, which can, in turn, develop into relationships and advocacy outside of social media,” Alonso-Katzowitz said.
Here are some ways to practice healthy social media habits:
- Don’t rely on social media for your social needs. Instead, use sites as a supplement to everyday interactions with friends, family and co-workers.
- Avoid contact with people who may cyberbullying or putting others down.
- Use social media to make social plans like meeting new people or going to local events in your community.
Alonso-Katzowitz said the data is mixed on studies of whether Facebook and other social media cause depression or have positive effects on mental well-being. The effects may vary from person to person, but should be studied more.