A study published in PLOS One highlights the importance of differentiating between social media platforms when considering the psychological impact of social media. The findings revealed that active use of Facebook during the pandemic was tied to greater negative affect, while active uses of Twitter and Instagram were tied to greater life satisfaction through increased social support.
In the wake of a sudden loss of social contact during the COVID-19 lockdown, people were encouraged to turn to social media to stay connected with friends and family. But according to the current psychology literature, there is some evidence that the use of social networking sites may be more harmful than helpful when it comes to mental health.
Study authors Alexandra Masciantonio and her colleagues say that the overall research on the impact of social media has presented mixed findings. The researchers suggest that this is because most studies have failed to differentiate between specific social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, TikTok) or to distinguish between active and passive use of the platforms. Masciantonio and her team conducted their own study to explore the impact of social media use during the pandemic while improving on these limitations.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion in the use of social networks in everyday life. It was therefore essential for us to understand if they had effects on individual well-being and if so, what could moderate these effects,” explained Masciantonio.
A total of 793 adults between the ages of 18 and 77 completed online surveys in April of 2020, during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The respondents, who were mainly French or Belgian, were asked how often they used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok before the confinement and after the confinement. For each social media platform, they also reported the extent that they engaged with the platform actively and passively during the quarantine. Active use referred to sharing content or commenting on others’ posts, while passive use referred to scrolling through content without contributing.
Respondents also answered questions assessing the extent that they receive social support through social media and the extent that they tend to make upward social comparisons on social media (e.g., ‘On social network sites, I sometimes think that my relatives (friends, family and colleagues) are better off than me.’). Finally, they completed assessments of three well-being measures — negative affect, positive affect, and satisfaction with life.
In general, the results indicated that social media use increased during the pandemic across all platforms, especially TikTok. Further, the social media platforms had differential effects on well-being. First, when it came to TikTok, neither active nor passive use of the platform was associated with any of the well-being measures. But active use of Facebook was associated with greater negative affect (e.g., feeling sad, angry, anxious), and passive use of Facebook was associated with greater use of upward social comparisons, and in turn, lower positive affect, higher negative affect, and reduced life satisfaction.
Next, active use of Instagram was associated with increased social support, and in turn, higher life satisfaction and higher negative affect. The study’s authors discuss why social support might be associated with negative affect, noting, “It is plausible that interacting with others on social network sites elicits emotional reactivation rather than discharge. As a consequence, obtaining social support during the COVID-19 pandemic, a negative and painful event, may increase negative affect.”
Active Twitter use was associated with greater social support and in turn, higher life satisfaction. Passive Twitter use also seemed to have beneficial effects, demonstrating an association with decreased use of upward social comparisons, and in turn, lower negative affect, greater positive affect, and greater life satisfaction. The researchers propose that this negative link between passive Twitter use and upward social comparisons might be explained by the social context of the platform. Recent studies have suggested that negative messages and emotions are more frequent on Twitter compared to platforms like Facebook where positive self-presentation and impression management are more common.
“It is plausible that Twitter’s users scrolling through their Twitter news feed and seeing constant bad news from their followers, are more inclined to compare their situation with what they consider to be worse (i.e. downward social comparison), rather than better off (i.e. upward social comparison),” Masciantonio and colleagues write.
The study authors note that their findings are preliminary, preventing them from offering clear recommendations for social media use during the pandemic. Instead, they emphasize the importance of considering the differential effects of specific platforms rather than promoting an “overall use” of social network sites.
“The important thing to remember from this study is that the association between social networks and well-being during the first lockdown depended both on the type of social network and the way they were used,” Masciantonio told PsyPost.
However, “like all scientific studies, there are limitations,” she added. “The most essential one is that this study is based on a cross-sectional design, so it is impossible to establish a causal link between the use of social networks and well-being. Many questions about social networks and their impact on human beings remain to be explored. For example, some lack of information still exists about the effect of the medium which social networks are used (smartphones, connected watch, computers, etc.) on daily stress, well-being, and so on.”
The study, “Don’t put all social network sites in one basket: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and their relations with well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic”, was authored by Alexandra Masciantonio, David Bourguignon, Pierre Bouchat, Manon Balty, and Bernard Rimé.