Researchers published an eye-opening analysis that shows just how much social media and depression are linked in young adults. The more social media platforms they are on, the more likely they are to be depressed.

The analysis was led by a team from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health In particular, the scientists found that people who reported using 7 to 11 social media platforms were 3 times more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety than their counterparts who used 0 to 2 such platforms. These include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn. 

“This association is strong enough that clinicians could consider asking their patients with depression and anxiety about multiple platform use and counseling them that this use may be related to their symptoms,” said the paper’s lead author and physician Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D. “While we can’t tell from this study whether depressed and anxious people seek out multiple platforms or whether something about using multiple platforms can lead to depression and anxiety, in either case the results are potentially valuable.”

A previous study in which Doctor Primack participated found a clear connection between social media use and increased depression in young adults. For the current study, in 2014, the team sampled 1,787 young people between 19 and 32 years of age. They used a depression assessment questionnaire as well as questions on social media use. They controlled also for other potential contributors to depression and anxiety, such as race, gender, relationship status, household income, education and total time on social media.

It should be noted that Primack himself cautions about what the study could mean. Is it that increased social media usage causes depression or do depressed people use more social media? 

“It may be that people who suffer from symptoms of depression or anxiety, or both, tend to subsequently use a broader range of social media outlets. For example, they may be searching out multiple avenues for a setting that feels comfortable and accepting,” said Primack in a statement. “However, it could also be that trying to maintain a presence on multiple platforms may actually lead to depression and anxiety. More research will be needed to tease that apart.”

Primack and the team do, however, offer some ideas on why social media use could contribute to depression. These include: 

- multitasking as switching between platforms has been shown to impair cognitive and mental functioning

- different rules for different platforms could be confusing and contributing to negative emotions

- more potential social media embarrassments that would come with using more platforms

The ultimate goal of this research? To be used in treatment. The study’s co-author and psychiatrist César G. Escobar-Viera, M.D., Ph.D., weighed in:

“Ultimately, we want this research to help in designing and implementing educational public health interventions that are as personalized as possible.”

The study “Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S. young adults” is available online and will be published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior

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