What Science Can and Can’t Tell Us About Social Media and Mental Health

social media and mental health
Image by Rebecca Angel with pngtree

There are more and more scientific studies coming out on the impact of social media on ourselves and our children, specifically teenagers. Most findings don’t look so healthy. Examining these studies more closely exposes serious flaws. Here I look at several of the studies being talked about, issues they may have, and what science needs to do to help everyone understand the impact of this new technology on our health and the health of our children.

Mental health problems are on the rise, especially in teens. We know this. The use of mobile devices and social media is also climbing, especially in teens. But are they connected? That’s the big question. According to this study, there was a positive correlation between social media use and anxiety in adults. Another one looked at adolescence and social media addiction, which is now believed to be real. These showed some serious mental health problems linked to using social media excessively on a daily basis. But not all studies show this link or define “excessive” in the same way.

One correlational study looked at social media use and mental health issues in teens over time and found no link. The data was collected via a questionnaire once a year. It found that social media use increased with the age of participants, but rates of depression and anxiety did not. Looking at the specific numbers of this study, the “high” average of social media use was about two hours per day. According to a different study, mental health problems are not usually seen until crossing that two-hour mark, especially with girls. So in that first “no difference” research, that particular group of teens was not in the “danger zone” found in the second study.

But here’s the problem with all of them:

Self-reporting on mobile device use is wildly underreported. Most people have no idea how much they use their mobile devices and computers on a daily basis. Any study that uses self-reporting for social media use should be treated with caution as that data is most likely inaccurate, erring on the side of people use their phones waaaay more than they think. Only by checking the actual device can an accurate reading be determined.

The issue with any research on social media and mental health is that there cannot be a controlled laboratory setting with cause and effect results. Scientists cannot ethically separate 12-year-olds into two groups: one group stays in a room with no access to social media, the other group is in another room with access, all other controls are the same. And then…see which group has a higher rate of suicide by 18. Never! This was the problem with smoking studies. You can’t just ask a bunch of pregnant ladies to take up smoking and see what happens nine months later. Instead, the studies looked at correlations between populations of people who smoked and didn’t over many decades. In the short term, researchers did find direct links to tobacco smoke and health problems in laboratory animals. Unfortunately, there is no SnapRat equivalent (yet).

According to multiple laboratory studies, we do know for a fact that use of social media at nighttime DOES interfere with sleep. And lack of sleep is tied to various mental health problems. So finally we have a proven risk.

My husband, a geneticist, suggested there could be a study using DNA markers. He said if there was a genetic marker for depression, then that could be measured in a controlled study for social media use. However, that doesn’t exist yet.

There was a study, however, that looked at mental health behavior indicators and social media. In this study, participants were asked about social media use and behavior associated with dealing with problems. Specifically, the researchers asked questions about internalizing (may lead to mental health issues) or externalizing their problems. The data found a link between more social media time and the tendency to internalize problems. (But this also relied on self-reporting.)

There is also a really big issue on all scientific studies about social media beyond self-reporting. What exactly IS social media? Some studies differentiate between general screentime and specifically social media, but not all. Daniel Nations on Lifewire recently posted a fantastic article defining social media in detail and used this definition:

Social media are web-based communication tools that enable people to interact with each other by both sharing and consuming information.

The lines between what is and what is not social media can be blurry. Blogs like GeekMom could fall into this category for their “media” and ability to comment but are not generally considered to be as “social” as Facebook, for example. Is having a one-to-one conversation over SnapChat the same as posting an insult on Twitter to hundreds (or thousands) of people? Pinterest is technically social media but doesn’t “feel” the same as Instagram to me. And my iPhone tracking center counts texting as “social networking,” but that’s not exactly the same as social media either. Looking at those “social media” studies makes me wonder exactly what they were studying. And once again, self-reporting further complicates the matter since each participant may have a different definition of their own.

Also, some researchers lump social media with all internet use or screentime in general. Those are three different categories. Typing in a question on Google, using your phone as an alarm, or scrolling through Tumblr are not the same at all. While new research suggests excess screen time is bad for anyone, that is just part of the issue surrounding social media concerns.

One study did look at which social media platforms had the “worst” effects. Instagram came out as being linked to the highest correlation to mental illness, while YouTube was the least offender. YouTube is social media? I always thought of it as like Netflix in the “entertainment” category. But because anyone can upload content and view and comment on others, that fits the definition as well. I found this research to be the most helpful because it highlighted that mental health and social media may be more about how it’s used.

How we use social media is also complicated and probably a huge indicator of the impact on mental health. I joined several Facebook groups for my chronic illness. At first, they were extremely helpful for support and advice, but then I found myself on these groups multiple times a day, posting long replies, reading depressing stories, and ended up feeling overwhelmed. I had to take a mental health break. In this case study, I saw the benefits of social media quickly turn to risks as I increased my time and got caught up in the “drama” of it all.

And let’s add to all this the “second-hand smoke” of social media: parents using social media to post about their children. What effect does this have on their parenting? On the kids as they age? My fellow writers here on GeekMom and GeekDad have often discussed this issue as our children start to ask NOT to be the subject of their parent’s internet world. It is all too new to even have a scientific study. But it’s worth thinking about.

What can we take from all this? Mostly that the causes of mental health are complicated and may or may not be tied to social media. Studies themselves are just as complicated and there needs to be more diverse research to get closer to the truth; each one has only one piece of the puzzle. Researchers defining social media, and being sure screentime dangers are separated out is key. Looking at how social media is used and the differences between platforms will give us the most useful data.

The Week had an excellent article coming to the same conclusion: that we really don’t know the full story.

Science is not perfect, but it’s the tool we have for risk-benefit analysis to decide how to keep our family safe. We use this to teach our children how to cook (knives! fire!) and we use this to keep them from driving while drunk. It’s not just about risks, but benefits. The benefits of your child knowing how to feed themselves outweigh the risks. The benefits of driving drunk do NOT.

I’m sure more social media studies will be coming down the pipeline in the years to come to give us more data on the issue, but until then, it’s up to each parent to make a risk-benefit analysis. Right now we know there is a potential link to mental health risks and the over-use of social media. There are no known benefits of using social media for multiple hours a day. So why, in the name of love and science, would you take that risk in yourself or your children?

images for main graphic provided by pngtree

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