Pitt research links social media to depression

Millennials love social media. But what is each click, scroll and link doing to their minds?

New research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has revealed a staggering correlation between the high use of social media and depression. The researchers hope the findings will spur doctors to talk more about technology and social media use at regular check-ups.

Researchers analyzed more than 1,700 people ages 19 to 32 with questionnaires to establish social media usage and “an established depression assessment tool,” according to the press release. It is one of the most extensive studies of this kind done in the nation.

On average, a fourth of the participants spending about an hour on social media per day were identified as exhibiting ‘high’ indicators of depression.

Researchers found that participants who reported checking social media most frequently throughout the week were 2.7 times more likely to be depressed.

Dr. Brian A. Primack, director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, notes the significant role social media plays in communication.

"Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use," Primack said in the press release.

Researchers focused on the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time of the 2014 study: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

In November, PublicSource wrote about how Millennials have more technology at their disposal than any other generation and how it could be affecting their brain development.

Lui yi Lin, a lead author on the study, stressed the importance that the Pitt study findings prove a correlation between usage and depression, but not the definitive cause.

The research views the usage of social media as a cycle: the more social media consumed, the higher the chances of experiencing the onset of depression, which can lead to more trolling on social media.

From the press release:

  • Exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.

  • Engaging in activities of little meaning on social media may give a feeling of “time wasted” that negatively influences mood.

  • Social media use could be fueling “Internet addiction,” a proposed psychiatric condition closely associated with depression.

  • Spending more time on social media may increase the risk of exposure to cyber-bullying or other similar negative interactions, which can cause feelings of depression.

“It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void,” Lin said.

Depression is forecasted to become the leading cause of disability in high-income countries by 2030, according to the press release.

Studies in the past have been extremely limited not only by the small groups of participants, but also by the range of social media platforms monitored.

Pitt’s research was controlled for various factors which may contribute to depression such as age, sex, race and other demographic factors.

With these findings, researchers hope clinicians will be more inclined to ask patients about social media usage.

“All social media exposures are not the same,” Primack said. “Future studies should examine whether there may be different risks for depression depending on whether the social media interactions people have tend to be more active vs. passive or whether they tend to be more confrontational vs. supportive. This would help us develop more fine-grained recommendations around social media use.”

Reach PublicSource intern Sabrina Bodon at sbodon@publicsource.org.