Does social media impact mental health? What we really know

Does social media impact mental health? What we really know

Over the last 20 years, social media has risen from relative obscurity. To become a fully accepted and integrated part of everyday life. However, despite social media’s ubiquity, the research on how it affects mental health remains inconclusive.

For instance, a 2019 studyTrusted Source involving 6,595 teenagers from the United States concludes that those who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media may have a higher risk of mental health problems than those who do not.

But the degree to which social media actually harms mental health is debatable. A recent review, available as a preprint, found that most studies investigating the link between social media and mental health demonstrate “weak” or “inconsistent” associations.

Another review found that while there may be a small negative association between social media use and mental health, the link is complex and depends on exactly how researchers define mental health and social media use.

Meanwhile, other research suggests that social media may even benefit mental health, especially for people belonging to LGBTQIA+ communities and those living with mental health conditions.

‘We simply don’t know about cause and effect’

“There’s a lot of research out there that suggests media are a useful tool to stay connected to others. In fact, those who use media more also report feeling more support. However, all of this comes with a huge caveat: We simply don’t know about cause and effect. It’s just as plausible that heavy media users make more friends. That those with a lot of friends use more media. It’s also plausible that both are true,” he explained.

Social media and mental health risk factors

“For children and teens, I think the most compelling evidence is the researchTrusted Source regarding cyberbullying on social media,” said Dr. Kya Barounis, a senior mental health researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “Cyberbullying is associated with symptoms of depression and suicidality. It may be a particular problem for youth who identify as sexual or gender minorities.”

Dr. Barounis also noted that media use could displace other behaviors, such as sleep and exercise, which are “important for maintaining good mental health.” Researchers study this process through what is known as “displacement theoryTrusted Source.”

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