A systematic review of research on how social networking sites influence depressive and anxiety symptoms reveals a poorly understood association between time spent on social sites and these symptoms. Citing studies’ lack of depth and poor design, researchers Elena Marie Piteo and Kelly Ward call for improved study designs to examine the benefits and harms of social media use.
“Given social networking sites (SNSs) have become a pervasive part of the culture, it is critical to understand the ways in which they may be advantageous or detrimental to the mental health of young people,” they write.
The last thirty years have seen an unprecedented rise in digital, networked technologies. Concern over the effects of these technologies, particularly on young people, is now about as popular as the usage of social media sites themselves. The pendulum has swung from the techno-salvationism emanating from Silicon Valley (and psychologists’ own enthusiasm for anonymous identity play in the 1990s) to deep suspicion and doubt about how social media affects mental health. Such sentiments suggest a mixture of unfulfilled promises and disturbing, unexpected consequences.
The social web tends to widen the generational gulf between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Common discourse likens social media to addictive drugs that “fill the void” of addicted users, and studies link the use of social media with the risk of depression, anxiety, and worse overall well-being.
Yet, as social media continues to embed itself in global culture, affecting how we work, play, spend, vote, and relate to others, scholars are finally leveling decades of sharply divided empirical outcomes and popular opinion, pointing out that the polarized body of research on social networking sites and mental health would do well to inquire into how sites are used. For example, are users enhancing meaningful connections or comparing themselves to others?
Researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Aquinas College reviewed 19 studies published in the last 15 years that assessed the relationship between social media and anxiety and depression symptoms in children and adolescents between 5 and 18 years of age. Despite a variety of methodological issues and confounding variables, significant associations were found across the literature.
Indeed, evidence has shown an association between the amount of time spent on social networking sites and higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms. The authors urge us to interpret these results conservatively because effect sizes were small, and many studies were of poor quality. Surprisingly, few studies looked at the ways people engage social media and the relationship between these different styles and activities and anxiety symptoms.
“Overall, the quality of the studies was poor to fair. All of the studies, except for four, were cross-sectional in design, which means that cause and effect cannot be inferred. Four studies did not clearly define demographic characteristics, including age range, and two studies had small sample sizes.”
A big part of the problem is that lack of understanding of the robust possibilities of the digital world led early interest in this association to take social media for granted as a homogeneous “thing” to be studied quantitatively, in terms of time spent, rather than qualitatively, in terms of what happens on these sites. This is reflected in disregard for the sites that people were using and whether their participation was active (like posting reviews or communicating with a friend) or passive (scrolling a feed, watching news clips). Importantly, most studies fail to distinguish the emotional valence of activities: did the user console a bereaved friend, or did they watch videos of puppies licking each other?
They recommend that future studies measure results longitudinally and use validated, reliable ways of operationalizing social sites and depression and anxiety symptoms.
“The effects of media tend to be small, but this does not mean that they are not important. Rather, there may be many dispositional, social, and contextual and developmental factors, which may actually influence this relationship.”
They point to confounding factors that could explain this relationship, like “fear of missing out, frequent social comparison and perceived social support.” Future studies should hone in on the conditions by which social networking sites may interfere or enhance emotional regulation development in young people.
This study is part of a wave of research concluding that social media must be studied in greater and with greater complexity and nuance. Small effect sizes, confounding variables, different outcome measures across reviewed studies, and tremendous difficulty conceptualizing social media plague present efforts.
We may not be able to conclude much about the mental health effects of social media yet. Nevertheless, a rigorous, qualitative understanding of the social dynamics and actual activities on these sites holds great promise for making detailed recommendations that prioritize mental health without inadvertently suggesting that adolescents isolate themselves socially.
Piteo, E. M., & Ward, K. (2020). Review: Social networking sites and associations with depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents – a systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 25(4), 201–216. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12373 (Link)