Spending too much time on “social networking” sites like Facebook is making people more than a little miserable. It may also be making them depressed.
A recent study by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania has shown, for the first time, a causal link between time spent on social media and depression and loneliness, the researchers said.
It concluded that those who drastically reduced their use of sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat often saw a noticeable improvement in their mood and how they felt about their lives.
“It was surprising,” says Melissa Hunt, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the study. “What we found over the course of three weeks was that rates of depression and loneliness were significantly reduced for people who limited their (social media) use.”
Many of those who began the study with moderate clinical depression ended up only a few weeks later with very mild symptoms, she says.
The study, “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression,” was published by Melissa Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, and Jordyn Young, and is being published by the peer-reviewed Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. .
For the study, Hunt and his team studied 143 college students at the University of Pennsylvania over several weeks. They tested their mood and sense of well-being using seven different established scales. Half of the participants continued to use social networking sites as usual. (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat did not respond to requests for comment.)
The other half were restricted to ten minutes per day for each of the three sites studied: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the most popular sites for the age group. (Usage was tracked through regular screenshots from participants’ phones showing battery data.)
Net result: Those who reduced social media use saw “clinically significant” drops in depression and loneliness over the course of the study. Their scores on both measures dropped sharply, while those in the so-called “control” group, who did not change their behavior, saw no improvement.
This is not the first study to find a link between the use of social networks, on the one hand, and depression and loneliness, on the other. But previous studies have mostly shown that there is a correlation, and researchers argue that this shows a “causal connection.”
“It is possible, even likely, that lonely and depressed people use sites like Facebook more because they are looking for social connections.”
It’s possible, even likely, that lonely and depressed people use sites like Facebook more because they’re looking for social connections, Hunt says. The new study suggests that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat aren’t just popular among the lonely and depressed: They’re also making people lonelier and more depressed.
Why does social media make so many people feel bad? The study didn’t look at this, but Hunt offers two explanations. The first is “downward social comparison.” You read your friends’ timelines. They are deliberately putting on a show to make their lives look wonderful. The result: “You’re more likely to think your life sucks by comparison,” Hunt says. The second reason: FOMO, or fear of missing out.
Social media sites have become such an integral part of the modern world that many people simply can’t remove them completely, Hunt says. That’s why the study focused on trimming. Significantly, restricting use to ten minutes per site per day greatly helped people with depression. You don’t have to give up completely to feel better.
The main caveat is that the study was restricted to undergraduate students. Whether the same sites affect older groups, who may be less susceptible to social pressure, is another topic for another day.
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