Does social media make people feel lonelier? Or do lonely people spend more time on social media?
How about decision-making ability? Does social media erode it - or are poor decision-makers simply more attracted to social media?
Then there’s depression, anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out). They’ve all been linked to heavy social media use too. But the question whether social media engagement causes such problems or simply attracts users who already have them …? #itscomplicated.
Research in this area is plagued with difficulties, and that’s made reliable findings rare.
Many studies put participants in unrealistic situations that may or may not have any bearing at all on real life. Others involve experiments lasting as little as an hour, or rely exclusively on self-report data (i.e., written surveys that ask people to describe their behaviour as opposed to experimental situations where researchers objectively observe people’s behaviour).
An article that appeared in The Australian earlier this month under the headline “Social media can harm your choices” is a good case in point. The article begins “Excessive use of social media may impair your decision-making capabilities in much the same way as drug, alcohol and gambling addictions.”
It cites a recent study that tested the ability of young adults to make good decisions “in a card game scenario” relative to their dependence on Facebook. The study found that poor decision-making on the card game task was linked to heavy Facebook use.
But that word “linked” is the tricky bit.
Did subjects’ social media use “cause” or lead to poor decision-making - or were poor decision makers more likely to be heavy Facebook users? The finding that two variables are linked, in other words, doesn’t establish anything about a cause-and-effect relationship, either its direction (what has caused what?) or its existence (IQ has linked to postcode, but real estate neither determines intelligence nor intelligence real estate - and that's quite aside from the question of whether IQ measures intelligence at all!).
What about wellbeing?
A more rigorous study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, however, has recently claimed to be the first to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between decreased wellbeing and Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram use.
Researchers collected a week’s worth of usage data directly from 143 university students’ phones to determine baseline social-media habits. Over the next three weeks, they were then randomly assigned to one of two groups: a control group who maintained their usual social media habits, and an experimental group who were limited to 10 minutes per platform per day.
Researchers then looked at seven wellbeing measures - including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Their findings? Using less social media than normal did lead to “significant” decreases in both loneliness and depression. Interestingly, the effects were strongest for students who were depressed at the outset of the study.
The big question is “why?” Experts speculate that the answer probably has to do with social comparison. As one researcher put it, “When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
Reducing time on social media reduces opportunities for social comparison - and frees up more time for activities that actually increase wellbeing.
Does that necessarily mean social media will make you, or your child, feel more depressed and lonely? It most emphatically does not.
Even the best experiment is limited in scope and what researchers call “generalisability” - i.e., just because a small sample American college students reacted this way doesn’t mean you will too.
Then again, it doesn’t mean you won’t. See? I told you it was #complicated.