Ever since sites like Facebook and Instagram became part of daily life, scientists have wondered whether they contribute to mental health problems. In fact, research has hinted at a connection between social media use and depression for several years.
A new study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, has added more evidence to the theory.
The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania designed their experiment to be more comprehensive than previous studies on the topic. Rather than relying on short-term lab data or self-reported questionnaires, they recruited 143 undergraduate students to share screenshots of their Phone battery screens over a week to collect data on how much they were using social media apps - Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.
Subjects were told either to maintain their typical social media behaviour, or limit it to 10 minutes per day. Alongside the screen shot data, the researchers also looked at how much the participants experienced fear of missing out, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
"Here's the bottom line," said Melissa G. Hunt, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the study. "Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study."
She added 18-to-22-year-olds shouldn't stop using social media altogether, but cutting down might be beneficial.
"It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely," she said.
"Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there's an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people's lives, particularly on Instagram, it's easy to conclude that everyone else's life is cooler or better than yours."
People tend to show a more glamorous, positive, and envious lifestyle on their social media. In fact, over half of millennials admit they portray their relationship as better than it really is.
This is a problem because your social media life can become like a negative feedback loop - wanting others to be jealous of your life, while constantly comparing yourself to those on your feed.
"If you spend most of your time scrolling through your newsfeed checking out other people's lives and compare them to your own, you become more at risk of developing [or having worsening] symptoms of depression or anxiety," psychologist Allison Abrams told Business Insider. "This is especially so in those with low self esteem."
A study earlier this year found teens who spend too much time looking at screens are more unhappy. But, if they spent just less than an hour using the technology, the opposite was true.
The results suggest social media and screens should be used in moderation, just like most things. But they are probably not as bad for us as we've been led to believe.
In fact, one expert - Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute - told Business Insider that much of our bias against social media may simply be a projection of our own fears. We talk to each other about how smartphones are decreasing our intelligence and ruining our real friendships, but in reality, we may just be worrying that this is true.
Looking at screens isn't a good idea if you're doing it in lieu of any physical exercise or sleep. But used in moderation, technology is handy for staying in touch with friends when in-person contact isn't a possibility, and video games can improve your skills in coordination, problem-solving, and memory.
Hunt said the new study only looked at three social media apps, so it's not clear if it applies more broadly. But she hopes to answer more questions with further research. Overall, she said there are two conclusions we can reach from the study's results.
"When you're not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you're actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life." she said. "In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life."
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