A longitudinal study found that the addictive use of Facebook can increase depression severity among people diagnosed with depression. The findings suggest that overuse of Facebook can diminish a person’s sense of self-worth. The study was published in Computers in Human Behavior.
In both scientific literature and the media, there has been much discussion about the negative effects of social networking sites like Facebook on mental well-being. For example, there’s some evidence that the more time someone spends on Facebook, the more depressed they are. Findings like this have inspired the term ‘Facebook depression,’ which describes depression resulting from the prolonged use of Facebook.
However, it seems that it is not time spent on Facebook in itself that contributes to depression. Instead, addictive use of the platform seems to be most detrimental to well-being. Study author Soon Li Lee and his colleagues proposed that Facebook addiction might predict depression severity through two distinct depressive experiences — dependency and self-criticism.
“We have a growing reliance on technology, as we heavily rely on it to effectively live our lives,” explained Lee, a psychology lecturer at Monash University Malaysia. “This makes it integral to understand how this reliance affects our well-being, both physically and psychologically. Understanding how it affects those with clinical diagnoses is important as well, as most studies were conducted with healthy young adults. This will ensure the scientific literature represents the different groups in a particular population.”
The researchers conducted a longitudinal study to examine dependency and self-criticism over time among a sample of depressed Facebook users. The study participants were 250 Malaysian Facebook users who had been diagnosed with depression. The participants completed two online surveys — one at the start of the study and another one at a follow-up six months later.
Survey measures included the Facebook Intensity Scale, an assessment of emotional connectedness to Facebook and its integration into one’s daily life. Measures also included the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, an assessment of behavioral addiction tendencies like being unable to reduce one’s Facebook use despite trying to. Finally, there was a measure of depression severity and measures of the distinct depressive experiences of self-criticism (feelings of shame when one fails to maintain a positive self-image) and dependency (feelings of helplessness when one loses acceptance from others).
The results revealed that, at both waves of the study, participants with higher addictive use of Facebook reported more salient depressive experiences and more severe depression. Also at both waves, the relationship between Facebook addiction and depression was mediated by dependency and self-criticism.
“It will be helpful to monitor the use of Facebook for those with clinical depression, as findings suggest such usage will increase the severity of depression,” Lee told PsyPost. “This should be conducted with discretion. Results and their subsequent interpretations are dependent on the quality of Facebook use. Therefore, depending on the scope of the investigation, Facebook use can be beneficial to users.”
“Current findings indicate that addictive use is increasing the severity of depression. With other forms of usage that relate to healthy outcomes (e.g. seeking support on social media), the findings may be different.”
Interestingly, when the researchers took the time lag into account, addictive use of Facebook at the start of the study was a direct predictor of depression severity six months later — but the indirect effects of dependency and self-criticism were no longer significant. The study authors say this suggests that these processes occur simultaneously instead of developing over time.
“The inconsistent findings surprised me,” Lee said. “At first, I found that self-criticism and dependency mediated the relationship between Facebook addiction and depression. This means that Facebook addiction increased the inclinations for self-criticism and dependency, which eventually manifested into depression. These findings were derived without considering the time gap.”
“After considering the time lag of six months, these two aspects (self-criticism and dependency) did not mediate the stated relationship. I thought these findings would be consistent. The contradicting findings are important to the research community, which relied heavily on a cross-sectional design in which no follow-up survey was conducted. If we consider the time gap, the findings may be different than what we have established with a cross-sectional design. Without realizing it, this study is sending this important message to my counterparts.”
In their study, Lee and his team discuss why Facebook addiction might contribute to depression. People who overuse Facebook are forced to regularly respond to updates from their social contacts in order to elicit acceptance from others. By doing this, they either reinforce their dependency (i.e., hypersensitivity to rejection) or their self-criticism (i.e., tendency to magnify their own inadequacies). These processes undermine their self-worth and escalate into depression.
The overall findings suggest that the excessive use of Facebook is harmful to depressed users, worsening their present and future depression severity. This is in line with past research suggesting that overuse of Facebook can have a detrimental effect on the treatment progress of mental health patients.
Notably, Facebook addiction, depression, and depressive experiences appeared to be relatively stable over time. However, the use of only two waves of data limits the researchers from drawing conclusions about the stability of variables.
“The design itself does not allow us to draw a concrete conclusion,” Lee told PsyPost. “That is a major caveat to this study. Hopefully, we can find a way to address the ‘chicken and egg situation’ (e.g. technology use directly influences the severity of depression or whether the severity of depression influences technology use). A comparison with healthy young adults could be a useful extension of the scope of the study. This is what I intend to do with my upcoming research.”
The study, “Facebook depression with depressed users: The mediating effects of dependency and self-criticism on facebook addiction and depressiveness”, was authored by Soon Li Lee, Cai Lian Tam, and Sivakumar Thurairajasingam.