Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram may be hazardous to your mental health. The first experimental study examining use of multiple platforms shows a causal link between time spent on these social media and increased depression and loneliness, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers.
The link between the two has been talked about for years, but a causal connection had never been proven. In the new study, collected experimental data connected Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use to decreased well-being.
Few prior studies have attempted to show that social-media use harms users’ well-being. Earlier investigations either put participants in unrealistic situations or were limited in scope. Overall, these studies were not designed well as they would ask a participant to completely forego Facebook, rely on self-report data, or conduct the activities in a lab in as little time as an hour.
“We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid,” said psychologist Dr. Melissa G. Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department.
“Here’s the bottom line,” she said. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
Her findings will appear in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
To improve the study methodology, the research team, which included recent graduates Rachel Marx and Courtney Lipson and Penn senior Jordyn Young, designed their experiment to include the three platforms most popular with a cohort of undergraduates. They then collected objective usage data automatically tracked by iPhones for active apps, not those running the background.
Each of 143 participants completed a survey to determine mood and well-being at the study’s start, plus shared shots of their iPhone battery screens to offer a week’s worth of baseline social-media data. Participants were then randomly assigned to a control group, which had users maintain their typical social-media behavior, or an experimental group that limited time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to 10 minutes per platform per day.
For the next three weeks, participants shared iPhone battery screenshots to give the researchers weekly tallies for each individual. With those data in hand, Hunt then looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
However, Hunt said the findings do not suggest that 18- to 22-year-olds should stop using social media altogether. In fact, she built the study to preclude what she considers an unrealistic goal. The work does, however, speak to the idea that limiting screen time on these apps couldn’t hurt.
“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” she says. But when she digs a little deeper, the findings make sense.
“Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
Because this particular work only looked at Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, it’s not clear whether it applies broadly to other social-media platforms.
Hunt also hesitates to say that these findings would replicate for other age groups or in different settings. Those are questions she still hopes to answer, including in an upcoming study about the use of dating apps by college students.
Despite those caveats, and although the study didn’t determine the optimal time users should spend on these platforms or the best way to use them, Hunt says the findings do offer two related conclusions it couldn’t hurt any social-media user to follow.
For one, reduce opportunities for social comparison, she says.
“When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.”
Secondly, she adds, because these tools are here to stay, it’s incumbent on society to figure out how to use them in a way that limits damaging effects. “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”