We blame friends’ posts about weddings, babies and holidays for driving “digital depression” – but is social media really that bad for mental health?
A new study that dug deep into how platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram influence our psychological wellbeing suggests not.
In fact, the weak link the Kiwi researchers found was comparable to that of playing computer games, watching TV or just minding kids.
Surveys suggest more than three quarters of Kiwis are users – and the nearly two hours we devote daily to scrolling, tweeting, liking and commenting is up there with the average 168 minutes we give our TVs.
And worries around social media have been growing – especially when it comes to our young people – with each new international study pointing to potential risks.
Dr Sam Stronge, from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, wasn’t sure what the true picture was when she began investigating.
“There have been a couple of large international studies out recently – including one saying that social media is really bad, and other saying that nothing is going on – so we just wanted to figure out what was happening.”
Using the sprawling, longitudinal New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, Stronge quizzed 19,000 people using what’s called the Kessler-6 scale.
This measure asked people questions such as how many times in a given period they felt hopeless, how many times in a given week they felt depressed, and to rate the strength of those feelings on a scale from zero to four.
A higher score on the scale indicated someone may be struggling with serious mental illness.
The results showed a small negative association between social media and psychological distress, with every extra hour of use in a given week linked with a slightly higher level of psychological distress as measured on the scale.
“Overall, we found that social media has very little to do with New Zealanders’ mental wellbeing.”
In fact, Stronge and her colleagues found that people would need to spend a “ridiculous, if not impossible” amount of time on social media to experience a significant negative effect.
Unlike similar research, this latest study also asked how people reported feeling after using social media compared to how they felt after doing a range of other daily activities such as looking after children, watching television or playing computer games.
There was only a small difference in reported psychological wellbeing whether using social media or doing other ordinary things.
“We accounted for as many variables in the data as possible so that we could accurately see how good or bad one hour of social media was for people’s mental wellbeing and those results couldn’t be explained by anything else,” Stronge said.
Another aspect of the study was that, unlike much of the previous research which has focused on adolescents, this one questioned adults aged 18 to 95 years.
She was eager to ask more questions – for instance, whether people who already had worse mental health were harmed or helped by social media.
There had been little research on this to date – but findings had pointed to the latter more than the former.
“I’d really like to follow that up a lot more. What we do know is the worst way to use social media is passively – or just reading and scrolling and not interacting with people,” she said.
“So if you’re talking, or commenting, or interacting or posting your own photos, then you’re spending more time looking at other peoples’ holidays or weddings and comparing yourself to them.”
Social media and us
International studies have painted a somewhat mixed picture when it comes to social media use.
A US study out last year, looking at Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use, found a causal link to poorer wellbeing, and its authors said people could ease depression and loneliness by cutting back.
And a separate US study, published last month, suggested teens who spent more than three hours a day on social media were more likely to report high levels of “internalising” – that included social withdrawal, difficulty coping with anxiety or depression or directing feelings inward.
But another study, by Oxford University researchers and looking at 12,000 British teenagers, found that any link between social media and life satisfaction was small at best.
Other studies have explored other potential risks, ranging from narcissism, bullying and fake news, obesity, sleep problems and addiction.
One paper by UK’s Lancaster University found users risked becoming more addicted to social media even as they experienced stress from their use, as, instead of quitting, they instead just used the same platforms differently.
Social media has also been implicated in New Zealand’s comparably dismal cyberbullying rates.
An international survey last year found more than a quarter of parents or caregivers believed their child had experienced cyberbullying themselves. Only India and Brazil recorded higher levels.
New Zealand’s NetSafe encourages parents to set boundaries and expectations with their children before they join social media, and to check in with them regularly and look for any negative changes in behaviour.