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Research Spotlight: Does Social Media Cause Depression and Anxiety?

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, and its impact on mental health is discussed regularly. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What is it doing to our young generation, who spend many of their waking hours online? Therefore, exploring whether social media cause depression, and anxiety is useful to try and mitigate the negative outcomes where possible.Researchers are starting to show that it’s not a simple answer. A lot depends on how people use social media. While social media use may have some negative mental health impacts for some individuals, it can also be beneficial by providing access to social support, positive interactions, and social connection.

Researchers are starting to show that it’s not a simple answer. A lot depends on how people use social media. While social media use may have some negative mental health impacts for some individuals, it can also be beneficial by providing access to social support, positive interactions, and social connection.


Elizabeth Seabrook

Elizabeth Seabrook

Elizabeth Seabrook, a PhD candidate in the School of Psychological Sciences, Monash University, Australia talks about the review paper she and her co-authors Dr. Peggy Kern and Dr. Nikki Rickard recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research – Mental Health.


In short, what is the study about?

We combined the findings of 70 different studies to consider how social media use relate to depression and anxiety. We find that there are both benefits and problems, with a lot depending on why you use social media and how you engage with it.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

In contrast to a lot of popular belief, social media use was not a particularly good predictor of depression or anxiety. Rather, it’s more about how a person engages and uses social media – the quality of interactions we have with peers, whether we compare ourselves to friends in our networks, and other social, emotional, and cognitive factors.For those with higher levels of depression or anxiety, using social networks may provide benefits in some domains and may be a problem in others. One thing we observed was that for those with higher levels of anxiety who might find interacting with other people face-to-face difficult, social networks might be a way that they can connect with others, without some of the fears that arise in face-to-face interactions. However, it could also be that people with social anxiety use social networks as a way to compensate for their fears, encouraging greater disconnection from others.

For those with higher levels of depression or anxiety, using social networks may provide benefits in some domains and may be a problem in others. One thing we observed was that for those with higher levels of anxiety who might find interacting with other people face-to-face difficult, social networks might be a way that they can connect with others, without some of the fears that arise in face-to-face interactions. However, it could also be that people with social anxiety use social networks as a way to compensate for their fears, encouraging greater disconnection from others.Individuals with more depression symptoms more often used the social network for to express their thoughts and feelings. In the offline space, therapeutic writing has shown that this can have well-being benefits, but at this point, we’re not sure how that translates into the online space. Those with higher levels of depression were more likely to perceive negative interactions and would ruminate about their negative experiences. Further, while depression symptoms appear to remain relatively stable overtime, one paper suggested that increases in posting rates might suggest that a person is feeling lonely.

Individuals with more depression symptoms more often used the social network for to express their thoughts and feelings. In the offline space, therapeutic writing has shown that this can have well-being benefits, but at this point, we’re not sure how that translates into the online space. Those with higher levels of depression were more likely to perceive negative interactions and would ruminate about their negative experiences. Further, while depression symptoms appear to remain relatively stable overtime, one paper suggested that increases in posting rates might suggest that a person is feeling lonely.

Social Media Influence

Social media usage patterns provide an insight into a person’s mental health status (Image source: Pixabay)

How are these findings important in practice and what are some direction for future research?

In practice, there are a couple of important applications for the findings.

Firstly, there seem to be some distinct patterns that appear on social media sights that reflect the lived experience of people and potentially provide insight into their mental health status. If people are willing to share their social media information, there’s a lot of possibilities for considering how mental health shifts over time. The research into this sort of application is still very young, but computational models for mental health prediction are showing considerable promise.

Secondly, the review suggests that how people think may impact whether or not social media is beneficial. This was most clearly shown for individuals with Major Depressive Disorder, where people were more likely to think that they had less social support than they actually received from their friend network. Utilizing online cognitive-behavioural therapy tools and applying them to an observable social record like on SNSs, may assist in reframing SNSs interactions to increase the perception of positive interactions and social support. Development and validation of such an intervention should be an area of interest for future research.

Further reading

Another literature review examining depression and online social networking has also recently been published by Mr. David Baker and Dr. Guillermo Perez Algortahis and provides another valuable discussion on the research in this area (see here). Also, we reviewed 70 different studies. These have many insights into both possibilities and complexities in this space.

Link to the primary paper

Seabrook EM, Kern ML, Rickard NS. Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review. JMIR Mental Health 2016; 3(4):e50. URL: http://mental.jmir.org/2016/4/e50. DOI: 10.2196/mental.5842. PMID: 27881357

Other links

Elizabeth’s LinkedIn Profile

Peggy’s LinkedIn Profile

Nikki’s LinkedIn Profile

About Elizabeth Seabrook, PhD Candidate, Monash University

Alternative Text

Elizabeth Seabrook is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at Monash University. Her research involves looking at the way mood and mental health are related to patterns of social media use, stemming from her passion for technology and the ways it can support mental health and well-being. She is also a part of the team at Monash University working on the mood-tracking app MoodPrism (moodprismapp.com).

Elizabeth Seabrook on the Web
More on: Anxiety, Depression
Latest update: January 12, 2017