DEPRESSION
June 20, 2018

Social Media Can Bring You Down

From hurtful comments to parties you weren't invited to, social media visits can leave you feeling worse than before you logged on. Time for a break?

It’s easy to see why you sometimes feel a little down after scrolling through your social media feeds. Maybe someone argued with you about an opinion you posted on Facebook, or you came across photos on Instagram from an event to which you weren’t invited.

Such negative interactions affect social media users’ emotional states more than positive interactions and can foster depression, the findings of a new study suggest. They are a reminder to be more thoughtful about your interactions on social media.

Every 10 percent increase in the number of negative experiences was associated with a 20 percent increase in feelings of depression.

Positive experiences on social media were unrelated or only weakly related to fewer depressive symptoms, Brian Primack, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor. However, “Negative experiences online were strongly and consistently associated with more depressive symptoms.”

“Our findings may encourage people to pay more attention to their online exchanges,” said Primack, dean of the Honors College and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh. Going forward, he added, these findings may also help scientists develop ways to counter negative effects of social media use and strengthen their positive effects.

Primack and his team asked 1,175 students, ages 18 to 30, at West Virginia University about their social media use and experiences. Participants also completed a questionnaire to evaluate their depressive symptoms. The investigators found each 10 percent increase in the number of positive experiences on social media was associated with a four percent decrease in depressive symptoms. But every 10 percent increase in the number of negative experiences was associated with a 20 percent increase in feelings of depression.

The team was surprised at how weak the connection was between positive online experiences and a reduction in depressive symptoms. “We were expecting exposure to what people considered positive experiences on social media would be associated with a much greater decrease in feelings of depression,” Primack said. That negative experiences led to a rise in feelings of depression was no surprise.

People should be mindful of how their time on social media makes them feel once they have logged off, and tweak their use of social media accordingly, said Primack. “I think many people are on autopilot. They are active on social media because it’s a relatively new phenomenon. But they are not always being very reflective about it,” he said.

Once people start to realize how certain kinds of content can lead to negative feelings, they might want to think about the instances they logged off feeling worse than when they logged on. Then they can adjust their use of social media.

And it may not be just the tone of interactions during a particular session on social media that make people feel sad afterward. “Both the kind of experience users have on social media and their state of mind before they log on might lead to depression after social media use,” said Primack.

In other words, people who are a little depressed to begin with may view online interactions more negatively, and be more affected by them than someone who is not depressed. This combination of user mindset and tone of online experience could set the stage for a vicious cycle.

The research team is interested in looking at how certain factors within the context of social media participation affects users' mindsets. For example, some people are much more active users of social media. They post their own content and comment on others’ posts. Others are more passive users, and may spend hours on social media, but never post a single thing. Primack said it would be interesting to determine which kind of social media use is more likely to be protective against depression or related to greater depression.

The study was published online recently in Depression and Anxiety.

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