Study Challenges Link Between Teen Social Media Use And Depression

By Kelly Burch 02/06/19
Researchers explored whether teens are using social media to feel better or if it makes them feel worse.
teen girl using social media

Which came first? It has been documented that teen social media use is tied to higher rates of depression, but a new study suggests that experiencing symptoms of depression may actually lead to social media use, rather than the other way around. 

The study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, polled 6th, 7th and 8th graders over the course of two years, and college students over the course of 6 years.

Researchers asked about weekday and weekend social media use and other screen time, and evaluated the participants for depression using established scales, according to Science Daily

The researchers found that social media use did not predict symptoms of depression.

Breaking the data down between ages and genders, the researchers found that among people with depressive symptoms, only teen girls are likely to spend more time on social media, said lead study author Taylor Heffer.

"This finding contrasts with the idea that people who use a lot of social media become more depressed over time. Instead, adolescent girls who are feeling down may turn to social media to try and make themselves feel better," Heffer said.

The study differed from previous research because it polled participants over time, rather than relying on information about depressive symptoms and social media use from one specific time. 

"You have to follow the same people over time in order to draw the conclusion that social media use predicts greater depressive symptoms," Heffer said. "By using two large longitudinal samples, we were able to empirically test that assumption."

The study results may be a welcome relief for parents who are concerned that social media engagement could be detrimental to their children’s health, Heffer said.

"When parents read media headlines such as 'Facebook Depression,' there is an inherent assumption that social media use leads to depression. Policymakers also have recently been debating ways to tackle the effects of social media use on mental health.”

Instead of looking to broad trends in the cause and effect of social media use, Heffer said it’s important that individuals pay attention to how they particularly are affected by heavy social media use, if at all. 

"There may be different groups of people who use social media for different reasons. For example, there may be a group of people who use social media to make social comparisons or turn to it when they are feeling down, while another group of people may use it for more positive reasons, such as keeping in contact with friends."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.