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Image via CC (credit: Gloria Williams)

Feeling down, withdrawn, and out of sorts? Don’t be surprised if your therapist asks you how much time you’ve been spending on social media.


A recent study published by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has found a significant correlation between heavy social media use and the likelihood of depression. Researchers surveyed 1,787 Americans between the ages of 19 and 32 about their social media habits and concurrently administered a scale that measures levels of depression. They found that the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.

“Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use,” said senior author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health in a statement.

While there have been smaller studies with mixed results, this was the first large, nationally representative study to examine the relationship between various social media outlets and depression. The questionnaire inquired about time spent on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn, the 11 most popular social media platforms. On average, participants used social media for 61 minutes a day and visited various accounts 30 times per week. More than a quarter of participants were classified as having high indicators of depression. The researchers found a significant linear association between social media use and depression in regard to both total time spent on the various platforms and for the frequency of visits. Participants who checked social media sites the most frequently had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression while those who spent the greatest amount of time on social media had 1.7 times the risk of depression.

One thing to note is that this study did not differentiate between cause and effect. While it’s possible that people who are depressed spend more time on social media, it could also be that spending time on social media contributes to depression. People who engage on these platforms may compare themselves to highly idealized and deliberately contrived representations of other people, which can lead to feelings of envy and depression. Social media platforms can also fuel internet addiction, a proposed psychiatric condition associated with depression. And the more time someone engages online, the more likely they are to be exposed to cyber bullying and negative interactions with other users.

The researchers hope that this study will prompt clinicians to inquire about social media usage when assessing patients for depression. Since these platforms aren’t going away any time soon, the goal will be to develop interventions that limit harmful social media usage while promoting positive engagement across the various sites. “All social media exposures are not the same,” explained Dr. Pimack. “Future studies should examine whether there may be different risks for depression depending on whether the social media interactions people have tend to be more active vs. passive or whether they tend to be more confrontational vs. supportive. This would help us develop more fine-grained recommendations around social media use.”

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