What Is Social Media Depression?
ourselves with others are taking their toll.
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC &
Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.
social media depression
social media depression
Social media depression:In the past decade, since the advent of social media, there’s been an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicidality among teenagers and young adults.1 There is now enough of a link established between social media use and depression and anxiety that even Facebook conducts extensive research on the topic.2 (Which we’ll dive into in this article.) Adolescents and young adults are the most active users of social media.3 And with more than 3 billion people on social media worldwide, learning healthy social media habits is crucial.4 Social media users, parents, therapists and educators should read on to learn:
Sometimes comparing yourself with someone you believe is better off can motivate you to do better.
Other times it can cause you to feel envy which, in turn, can affect your anxiety and depression levels.7
Certain kinds of social media content can trigger those who are predisposed to making more frequent social comparisons. If the results of such comparisons are unfavorable, this can increase feelings of anxiety or depression.
Facebook conducts extensive research to understand the kinds of online experiences that worsen social comparisons.
In a mass survey, Facebook asked 37,729 users from 18 countries to recount an occurrence in the past two weeks in which they felt worse via comparison on Facebook.8 They also asked about the intensity and duration of the episode and whether the user wished they hadn’t seen the post.
Rather than rely solely on self-reporting, as most previous studies have done, they used log data of respondents’ activities during the prior month, such as the number of posts they viewed and the amount of time they spent looking at profiles of demographically similar people.
What they found is that viewing more social content—as opposed to news or commercial content—increased the frequency of social comparison.
Seeing friends’ social content with high levels of feedback—such as Likes, comments, or Reactions—was associated with some of the highest levels of social comparison in the study.
Specifically, social comparison frequency increased with the proportion of posts people saw in their News Feeds that received 20 or more pieces of one-click feedback. (Likes or Reactions), or received 20 or more comments.
Interestingly, people who saw more positive and less negative content from friends felt more social comparison. This suggests that when friends share negative experiences in their lives, the impact of social comparison may be tempered.
People who reported more frequent social comparison also spent proportionally more time viewing their friends’ profiles and a greater proportion of that time viewing their own profiles.
And people who saw more content from people within one year of their age, on News Feed, profiles, or stories, reported more frequent social comparison. This corresponds with social comparison theory which states that individuals only make social comparisons with relevant targets i.e., demographically similar people.
People who score high on a social media addiction scale – A study of 500 college students at Texas State University found that participants with higher scores on the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale were significantly more likely to meet the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).10
The Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale is widely used in psychological research. It consists of the following six statements that respondents rate from 1 to 5. One stands for "very rarely", 2 means "rarely", 3 means "sometimes", 4 means "often", and 5 means "very often". A score of 4 or 5 on at least four of the statements could be an indicator of social media addiction.
1. You spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning how to use it.
2. You feel an urge to use social media more and more.
3. You use social media in order to forget about personal problems.
4. You have tried to cut down on the use of social media without success
5. You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using social media.
6. You use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.
Though a link has been established between social media and depression, the causal direction of the relationship hasn’t. Meaning, researchers don’t know if heavy consumption of social content leads some users to become depressed or if depressed people tend to consume a lot of social content, or if the relationship is bi-directional. To that end, the following are social media behaviors reported by people who met the criteria for major depressive disorder (MDD) in one study of 500 college students at Texas State University.10
The fact is most people have fewer friends—on social media and in real life—than their friends have. Researchers call this the “friendship paradox”.11
The friendship paradox happens because people with larger networks are more likely to appear in the friend networks of everyone else.
Conversely, you’re less likely to be friends with someone who has few friends.
This is known as a sampling bias.
And the data show that if people compare themselves with their friends, it’s likely that most of them will feel relatively inadequate. (On the flip slide, people who are better socially connected contract infections earlier, so it’s not all a bed of roses for them, either.)
It follows that the same people who have more friends than you on social media also receive more Likes than you because they have more friends to give those Likes. Researchers call this the “Like paradox.”12
Ranking algorithms often prioritize posts that have more Likes and other feedback since, according to Facebook, feedback is one signal that a post is desirable to users.13
When the friendship paradox, the Like paradox and social media algorithms are combined, users are more likely to see their friends’ posts with the highest feedback in their feeds.
If you compare the feedback you receive on your posts to the feedback your friends receive, you may overestimate your friends’ popularity and feel worse by comparison.
Video game companies use well-establish principles of behavioral psychology to work players into a highly stimulated, emotional state before hitting them up to make in-game purchases of virtual items for real money.
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6. Bahns, A. J., Crandall, C. S., Gillath, O., & Preacher, K. J. (2017). Similarity in relationships as niche construction: Choice, stability, and influence within dyads in a free choice environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(2), 329–355. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000088
7. Karim, Fazida, et al. “Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review.” Cureus, 2020. Crossref, doi:10.7759/cureus.8627.
8. Burke, Moira, et al. “Social Comparison and Facebook: Feedback, Positivity, and Opportunities for Comparison.” Facebook Research, ACM, 25 Apr. 2020.
9. Bekalu, Mesfin A., et al. “Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use.” Health Education & Behavior, vol. 46, no. 2_suppl, 2019, pp. 69S-80S.
10. Robinson, A, Bonnette, A, Howard, K, et al. Social comparisons, social media addiction, and social interaction: An examination of specific social media behaviors related to major depressive disorder in a millennial population. J Appl Behav Res. 2019; 24:e12158. https://doi.org/10.1111/jabr.12158
12. Scissors, Lauren, et al. “What’s in a Like? Attitudes and Behaviors Around Receiving Likes on Facebook.” Facebook Research, ACM, 27 Feb. 2016.
14. Spottswood, Erin L., and Jeffrey T. Hancock. “The Positivity Bias and Prosocial Deception on Facebook.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 65, 2016, pp. 252–59.
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17. Wong, Y. Joel, et al. “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial.” Psychotherapy research : journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research vol. 28,2 (2018): 192-202. doi:10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332