Social media use increases depression and loneliness, study finds

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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Limiting social media usage could reduce loneliness and depression, according to an experimental study by the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers found that the participants who drastically cut the time spent on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat experienced “significant declines” in symptoms associated with depression.

Lead researcher, psychologist Melissa G Hunt, said “It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that reducing social media, which promised to help us connect with others, actually helps people feel less lonely and depressed.”

The university said the study was the first of its kind to record first-hand data of social media use and to make a “causal link” with depression.

Most other previous studies have either put participants in unrealistic situations or were limited in scope, asking them to completely forego Facebook and relying on self-report data, for example, or conducting the work in a lab in as little time as an hour, it added.

For this experiment, 143 undergraduate students were monitored for three weeks after being assigned to either limit their social media use to about 10 minutes per app — Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram — per day, or continue using it as they normally would.

The participants' social media usage was measured via the battery feature on iPhones, which shows app usage. They then completed detailed questionnaires about their mental health periodically throughout the study.

Researchers found that the limited use group showed “significant reductions in loneliness and depression” compared to the control group, while both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baseline, suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring.

Although the study didn't determine the optimal time users should spend on these platforms or the best way to use them, Hunt said the findings do offer two related conclusions which wouldn't hurt any social-media user if followed.

For one, reduce opportunities for social comparison, she said. “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 added, 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.”

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