Social Media and Depression: Are There Any Associations?

In the past decade, social media has exploded. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have become a part of the usual routine for many. If you spend hours each day scrolling through your feed, you're not alone. In the United States, the average person spends 2 to 4 hours daily on social media, and use is particularly high among teens and young adults, who are still developing their identity and sense of self.

Key takeaways:
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    Social media can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and envy.
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    Vulnerable people may also be at greater risk for developing depression when using social media.
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    Depression is a serious mental health problem that can impact a person's quality of life.
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    If you're struggling with depression, it's important to seek professional help.

For some, social media is a convenient and accessible way to stay connected with friends and family. It's also a great resource for information and support and for staying current on current events. But it can also have a dark side, providing a distorted view of reality that triggers feelings of loneliness and envy in vulnerable individuals.

Studies suggest that social media can affect mental health, and there are links to depression. Continue reading as we explore this association.

What is depression?

Depression is more than feeling sad or blue for a few days. It's a serious mental health condition that affects your mood, thoughts, and behavior. It can lead to multiple emotional and physical problems, ultimately affecting how you function at work or home.

Mental health problems are a growing epidemic, and depression is now a leading cause of disability worldwide and can lead to thoughts of self-harm and suicide. In the U.S., depression affects nearly 17 million adults, but experts believe these statistics are gross underestimates as many people do not seek medical attention.

There are marked differences in depression prevalence by age group. For example, people aged 18 to 29 are three times more likely to have depression than those aged 60 years or older.

Doctors don't fully understand what causes depression. It may be caused by a combination of genetics, biology, environment, and psychological factors. Many factors contribute to someone developing depression, including:

  • Life circumstances
  • Hormones
  • Inflammation
  • Genetics

Recently, mounting evidence connects depression with social media use.

How can social media cause depression?

Social media use is highest among young adults, who are also the most likely to experience depression.

Teenagers are still developing. Research now shows that it takes until the mid-20s to reach full brain maturity. The emotional and cognitive regions in the frontal and temporal areas of the brain are the last to develop. These regions are responsible for judgment, decision-making, and impulse control.

During this time of development, the brain is particularly vulnerable to outside influences when the brain is still growing and changing. Social media can harm mental health because it continuously exposes users to artificial images of perfection, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and depression.

Social media promotes a culture of comparison. Unlike in reality, on social media, you're open to the highlight reel of other people's lives and may start to believe that everyone else is leading a more interesting and fulfilling life than you. This can trigger feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and envy.

A large study found that the people who use the most social media were up to three times more likely to develop depression over the next 6 months compared with those who used the least.

Why does social media increase feelings of isolation?

Besides the problems of comparison, social media can also spark feelings of isolation and loneliness. Spending hours each day on social media could replace more valuable human face-to-face contact. It could also increase miscommunication, causing relationship difficulties and increasing the risk of developing mental health problems.

Research involving young adults aged 19 to 32 showed a correlation between time spent on social media and perceived social isolation (PSI). However, it's not a straightforward matter. Is it that people who feel socially isolated in general spend more time on social media, or do people who use social media the most develop these feelings?

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a further issue. When you see other people living their best lives on social media, it's easy to feel like you're not doing enough with your own life, and you don't feel connected to your social world. The more you use social media, the less you’re present in the moment.

You may worry about why you weren't invited to an event you see on Facebook or need to catch every post someone makes. If you're continuously online, you prioritize digital interactions over real-life ones. Because these digital interactions are often superficial and cannot compare to in-person interactions, they can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Who is at risk?

Millions of people use social media every day, but not everyone is equally at risk for developing depression. Certain personality characteristics could make you more likely to become depressed if you use social media.

In a 6 month study of 978 individuals ages 18 to 30, researchers aimed to find an association between certain personality characteristics, social media use, and depression.

Across all personality characteristics, depression was more likely in those who used social media the most. However, people categorized as highly agreeable had a 49% lower chance of developing depression compared to those with low agreeableness. Agreeableness describes a person's ability to consider others' needs before theirs. In addition, agreeable people are typically empathetic and enjoy helping others.

Furthermore, people with high neuroticism had more than double the odds of developing depression compared to those with low neuroticism. Neuroticism is a trait that describes a person's emotional stability. People who are neurotic tend to be anxious, self-conscious, and have mood swings.

Knowing that certain traits affect a person's risk of depression may help health professionals and loved ones support high-risk populations.

Social media can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and envy. It's especially harmful to teenagers and young adults whose brains are still developing. People with specific personality traits could also be more likely to develop depression when using social media.

As a serious mental health problem, depression can harm every area of your life. If you're struggling with depression, it's important to seek professional help. Don't hesitate to talk to a doctor or therapist if you feel overwhelmed.

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