Facebook Admits Social Media Impacts Mental Health

By Britni de la Cretaz 12/19/17
Research shows that specific activities like passively observing Facebook posts can worsen the mood of the user.
person navigating social media apps on an iPhone

There's been a lot of hand-wringing, concern, and speculation about what social media is doing to the mental health of people who use it. Is it making us anti-social and isolated? Is it further connecting us to our friends and to the world at-large? Scientists at Facebook have been trying to answer some of these questions through research. And what they’re discovering is that the answers to both of these questions is “yes.”

The distinction to whether or not the platforms are good or bad for someone’s mental health is about how people are using it, as opposed to if they are using it, according to a blog post published by two researchers at Facebook.

One study found that people who scrolled through and read their Facebook news feed without interacting with it—what they called “passive usage”—reported a worse mood than those who had been directly interacting with friends.

Another study reported that people who "Liked" a lot of comments and statuses also reported worse mental health than average. But conversely, research has shown that people who use Facebook to interact with their friends report positive effects on their mental well-being.

A study from earlier this year from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and Young Health Movement (YHM) in the United Kingdom found that Instagram is the worst social media platform for mental health. The photo-sharing platform was associated with feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as bullying and worries about missing out or being left out among young people. Some of this could be related to what’s called “negative social comparison”—the same thing that contributed to passive use of Facebook’s negative impact on mental well-being. 

“As the evidence grows that there may be potential harms from heavy use of social media, and as we upgrade the status of mental health within society, it is important that we have checks and balances in place to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of RSPH, said in a press release. “We want to promote and encourage the many positive aspects of networking platforms and avoid a situation that leads to social media psychosis which may blight the lives of our young people.”

“We don’t have all the answers, but given the prominent role social media now plays in many people’s lives, we want to help elevate the conversation,” David Ginsberg and Moira Burke, the authors of the Facebook blog post, concluded.

“In the years ahead we’ll be doing more to dig into these questions, share our findings and improve our products. At the end of the day, we’re committed to bringing people together and supporting well-being through meaningful interactions on Facebook.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.