If a paper published last week in the open-access journal of the American Medical Association is to be believed, social media really can drive you crazy.
Mental illness is nothing to joke about, however, and researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Northeastern and Northwestern universities, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Rutger’s University say social media appears to make it worse.
From May 2020 to May 2021, they followed nearly 6,000 adults who agreed to track their social media use while being monitored for signs of depression.
At the end of that year, the researchers reported in JAMA Open Network, “social media use was associated with greater likelihood of a subsequent increase in depressive symptoms after adjustment for sociodemographic features and news sources.”
Why this was, they couldn’t say, but what they found is that Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok all increase the odds that people will end up depressed.
In the big picture, Snapchat was the leading mental health wrecker with an odds ratio (OR) of 1.53, but Facebook with an OR of 1.42 and Tiktok at 1.39 weren’t far behind.
Only it wasn’t that simple. Results for the fallout from various social media varied significantly by age.
A regression analysis of the data found that “for TikTok and Snapchat, use was associated with depressive symptoms among those ages 35 years or older but not among those younger than age 35 years.”
Those over 35 and active on Snapchat nearly doubled their odds of suffering depression.
For Facebook, however, “the opposite pattern was observed,” the study said, “use was associated with depressive symptoms among those younger than 35 years, but not among those aged 35 years and older.”
The younger folks on Facebook increased their odds of suffering depression by almost two and a half times.
Problematic Facebook Use (PFU) has been a subject under debate for at least a decade now. As early as 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics was advising pediatricians to “urge parents” to monitor their children for signs of “Facebook depression.”
An “umbrella review” published in Current Opinion in Psychology in April found 25 reviews – seven meta-analyses, nine systematic, and nine narrative reviews – on the subject conducted between 2019 and mid-2021.
“Results showed that most reviews interpreted the associations between social media use and mental health as ‘weak’ or ‘inconsistent,’ whereas a few qualified the same associations as ‘substantial’ and ‘deleterious’,” that review reported. “We summarize the gaps identified in the reviews, provide an explanation for their diverging interpretations, and suggest several avenues for future research.”
The course of science is, sadly, seldom a straight line from point A to point B.
Still in the fog
The latest JAMA paper agreed with the conclusion that there is a serious “need for further investigation of the relationship between social media use and mental health.”
But there are indications of problems, and not just in adolescents and young adults as cited in the earliest studies hinting at connections between social media and depression.
The median age in the latest study was 55.8.
Some of the depression might be linked to the ongoing pandemic, but the researchers tried to control for that.
Study participants were “asked to identify any sources of COVID-19 related news they consumed in the past 24 hours (ie, cable television, network television, or news website), which we used as a proxy for news sources more generally, while examining web-based vs television-based news separately; (the) number of social supports available ‘to talk to if you had a problem, felt sad, or depressed;’ and face-to-face meetings with nonhousehold members in the prior 24 hours.”
With the exception of Snapchat, the researchers reported finding no association between depression and the “use of other news sources, suggesting it is not accounted for by differential media consumption….Likewise, the association was not meaningfully changed by (the) number of social supports or face-to-face social interactions at baseline, suggesting it is not mediated by reduction in social interactions more broadly.”
That said, a lot of confounders remain, and the researchers admitted that “social media use may simply be a marker of underlying vulnerability to depression.”