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Research: Social Media Linked to Depression, Anxiety

Jonathan Ferng is an internal medicine physician who has a wide range of interests spanning healthcare, business, consulting, research, and music. He enjoys meditating, learning new skills, and sharing positivity with the world.
Published: September 23, 2022
A new study found a correlation between the advent of Facebook and anxiety and depression among college students.
While over 9 in 10 internet users visit social media platforms every month, recent research explores how our mental health may be affected. (Image: Nathan Cowley via Pexels)

According to DataReportal, 4.65 billion people, or 58.7 percent of the world’s population, used social media as of April of 2022. If the eligible audience is narrowed to ages 13 and above, about three-quarters of those who can use social media already do.

Alexey Makarin and colleagues Luca Braghieri of Bocconi University and Ro’ee Levy of Tel Aviv University recently wrote a paper evaluating the relationship between social media and mental health, to be published in American Economic Review.

Anxiety and depression rates increased

Facebook, first launched at Harvard University in February of 2004, was initially limited to people with a Harvard email address. However, the social media platform became available to people at Columbia, Stanford, and Yale within a month. Today, there are roughly two billion daily active users.

The staggered rollout of Facebook to U.S. campuses continued until September of 2006, when everyone aged 13 and above was able to create an account. The researchers analyzed 430,000 responses to a semi-annual survey of mental health and well-being called the National College Health Assessment.

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“We were able to use the fact that Facebook rolled out at different universities at different times, together with the fact that we have this huge survey already conducted at universities, to understand the causal impact of Facebook on student mental health,” Makarin stated.

With the addition of college-wide access to Facebook, rates of severe depression and anxiety disorder increased by 7 percent and 20 percent respectively. The magnitude of the negative effect of Facebook on mental health was said to be about 20 percent of what is experienced by those who lose their job.

Furthermore, the negative effect of Facebook seems to increase with greater exposure. Makarin said, “The effects seem to increase with time. If, in late fall 2004, a freshman at Harvard had Facebook available to him for one semester and a sophomore for two semesters, it appears as though the effect is stronger with the sophomore, who had greater exposure.”

Frequent online use

Internet users spend an average of almost seven hours online every day, which corresponds to about 40 percent of waking life spent online. Compared to older people, younger people tend to spend more time online. Over 9 in 10 internet users visit social media platforms each month.

Young women aged 16 to 24 spend around 8 hours per day online, comparable to the time spent sleeping. In contrast, men 55 to 64 years old spend about 5.5 hours online daily, which is still about one-third of their waking hours.

There are 18 percent more male social media users than female users worldwide, which DataReportal refers to as a “digital gender gap.” The gender disparity is especially apparent in certain regions such as in Southern Asia, where men account for 2.5 times as many social media users compared to women. 

Social media is also used for work-related communications by over 4 in 5 working professionals. Almost two-thirds (63.2 percent) of professionals between age 16 and 64 report using social media for daily work communications.

While 9 in 10 professionals in the Gen Z age group use social media for work conversations, less than 6 in 10 Baby Boomers do the same. On any given day, 7 in 10 Gen Z professionals use social media for work conversations, compared to 4 in 10 of Baby Boomers.

Activities vary across platforms

Analysis of a dataset from GWI revealed user motivations and activities vary significantly across different social media platforms. While 7 in 10 Facebook users communicate with friends and family through Facebook, only 15 percent of TikTok users report the same communication on TikTok.

Instead, 77 percent of TikTok users tend to use the platform as a means of entertainment. Instagram and Snapchat users, on the other hand, use Instagram and Snapchat to post or share photos or videos the most compared to other social media platforms. 

While 69.9 percent of Instagram users and 40.3 percent of Snapchat users post photos or videos, only 33.9 percent of TikTok users post videos to TikTok.

Interestingly, 28.8 percent of LinkedIn users and 59.7 percent of Twitter users use the platform the most to stay up to date with news and events compared to other activities. In the same vein, most Pinterest users follow or research brands and products on Pinterest instead of using the platform for other reasons.