Social media and depression: A relationship status update

Sometimes it seems there’s another distressing headline about social media every time you check your newsfeed.

Other times, there quite literally is.

Just a few hours after posting our blog about teen users’ concerns, comes news of a new study in the journal Depression and Anxiety linking depression in young adults to - yep, you guessed it - negative social media use.

Researchers surveyed 1,200 students aged 18 to 30 about their positive and negative experiences on social media. They also recorded information about participants’ depression symptoms - and then examined how the two variables related.

They found that for every 10% increase in negativity on social media, the risk of depression rose 20%. For every 10% rise in positive experiences online, depression risk declined by a statistically insignificant four percent - meaning the change could have been due to chance.

Study author Brian Primack was quick to acknowledge that the correlation did not show that bad experiences on social media “caused” depression.

“We don’t know from our study whether the negative social media interactions actually caused the depressive symptoms or whether depressed individuals are more likely to seek out negative online interactions,” Primack explained.

The real answer was probably some combination of the two, he added.

Yet a causal link between social media negativity and depression would hardly be surprising. In the real world, most of us are more affected by negative experiences than we are with positive ones, too. We tend to focus on disappointments, slights and criticism much more attentively than we do to compliments and appreciative comments. We remember the mean things for longer too.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the “negativity bias.” And they speculate that it evolved to serve a survival purpose - conditioning our human ancestors to remember past threats in order to avoid future ones.

Primack also notes that people who are depressed to begin with may be more prone to seek out potentially risky interactions online. If that turned out to be true, then the depression would “causing” the negativity, not the other way about.

Should those at risk give up social media? Not necessarily, say experts.

"Fill up your social media feed with people who are a good influence, who inspire you," urges Family Zone cyber expert and ySafe clinical psychologist Jordan Foster. "People who make you feel more accepting of yourself - and call out the rubbish that can be on social media - can be more empowering than getting rid of it altogether."

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Topics: Parental Controls, Mobile Apps, Cyber Safety, Social Media, teens on social media, depression

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