A recent study indicates that there is no statistically significant correlation between how often young individuals engage in activities such as posting updates, liking content, and commenting on social media platforms, and their subsequent experience of symptoms related to depression and anxiety over time. The research has been published in Computers in Human Behavior.
The study was motivated by the growing concern surrounding the potential impact of social media on the mental well-being of adolescents, particularly as the prevalence of emotional problems among youth has been on the rise over the past decade. As social media has become an integral part of adolescents’ lives, the researchers aimed to address the inconsistent findings in existing literature regarding the relationship between social media use and mental health outcomes.
“Social media is a new developmental context where adolescents spend a lot of time,” said study author Silje Steinsbekk, a professor in clinical child and adolescent psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “To promote healthy development, we need to know how social media use affects youth. There is a lot of concern, and knowledge is needed. We need to know what kind of social media use is ‘good and bad,’ and for whom.”
To conduct the study, the researchers used data from the Trondheim Early Secure Study (TESS), a longitudinal study of children’s mental health and psychosocial development. The study began with children at age 4, and biennial assessments were conducted up to age 16.
Data was collected through semi-structured psychiatric interviews with participants and their parents, measuring symptoms of depression, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety based on DSM-5 criteria. Social media use was assessed using interviews as well, capturing different behaviors such as posting updates, liking, commenting, and selfie-posting on various social media platforms.
The researchers found that Instagram and Snapchat were the most frequently used social media platforms for adolescents at ages 10 and 12, followed by Facebook at age 14. By age 16, Snapchat and Instagram remained the top two used apps.
Both self-oriented and other-oriented social media behaviors increased with age, particularly from ages 14 to 16. Self-oriented social media behavior refers to actions and activities on social media platforms that revolve around an individual’s self-expression, self-presentation, and personal sharing — such as sharing selfie photos. Other-oriented social media behavior refers to actions and interactions on social media platforms that involve engaging with content and people other than oneself — such as adding comments to others’ posts.
The researchers found no evidence that changes in self-oriented or other-oriented social media use predicted subsequent changes in the participants’ levels of symptoms for depression, social anxiety, or generalized anxiety. Additionally, there were no significant effects in the opposite direction, meaning that changes in symptoms of depression and anxiety did not forecast future levels of self-oriented and other-oriented social media behavior.
These findings were consistent across both sexes and were further confirmed through sensitivity analyses examining the specific behaviors within social media use.
“We found that If ‘Jonah’ or ‘Lisa’ likes, comments or posts more on social media over time, they have no increased risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. So, in short: Increased use of social media is not related to more symptoms,” Steinsbekk told PsyPost.
“I was slightly surprised that we found no sex-differences. On the other hand, I was not very surprised by the lack of a relation between social media use and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some former studies have reported social media use to be associated with better mental health, other with poorer, and the associations are always small. Others, like us, report no relation between social media use and mental health.”
“We add to existing research by following the same participants over many years, examining diagnostically defined symptoms of depression and anxiety and specific social media use, thus being positioned to generate more nuanced knowledge about the relation between social media use and mental health,” Steinsbekk explained.
While the frequency and nature of an individual’s social media activities might remain relatively consistent despite changes in their depression and anxiety symptoms, their emotional responses, perceptions, and interactions within the social media environment could be influenced by their mental health.
“As mentioned above, it is not ‘one size fits all,'” Steinsbekk said. “It is not like ‘social media is bad for you.’ Social media can both be good and bad, it likely depends on how you use it, what you are exposed to (e.g., cyberbullying? Rewarding social interactions?) and characteristics of who you are and how you are doing (e.g., personality, social relations, self-esteem). This is what we will focus on in our future studies.”
The study has several strengths such as its longitudinal design and clinical assessment of mental health symptoms, but there are some limitations to note. For example, the sample was drawn from a specific cultural context, which may limit the generalizability of findings to more diverse populations and cultural settings. Additionally, relying on self-reported data for assessing social media behaviors introduces the possibility of recall bias
“The Trondheim Early Secure Study (TESS), which this study is based on, is an ongoing project,” Steinsbekk noted. “The participants are now around 20 years of age, and we will continue to collect data. The overall aim of the project is to generate knowledge explaining why some develop mental health difficulties why others do not. TESS also aims to identify factors explaining why individuals differ in important aspects of functioning, such as social and academic competence, social relationships, self-concept, behavioral and emotional regulation, sexuality, cognition, physical activity, eating and sleep.”
The study, “Social media behaviors and symptoms of anxiety and depression. A four-wave cohort study from age 10–16 years“, was authored by Silje Steinsbekk, Jacqueline Nesi, and Lars Wichstrøm.