Despite the noble goals encouraging their creation, social media websites belong to inventions that are sometimes demonized and claimed to be the sources of young people’s problems and negative social change. In particular, society is polarized due to the question of whether social media use can lead to mental health concerns. Judging from modern research, the frequent use of social media is often correlated with low self-esteem and high depression scores, but there is no solid evidence that high social network activity causes these problems.
The Frequency of Social Media Use and Depression
If the use of social networks and, specifically, its frequency, are among the factors that are interconnected with the development of depression is of interest to many researchers today. To some extent, the level of attention paid to this research problem can be related to the global burden of depression. Also, it has to deal with the worst patient outcomes such as suicidal thoughts that sometimes lead to life-threatening actions.
Modern social media websites can be drastically different in terms of the prevailing type of information (visual, text, video, etc.), platforms’ being interest-based, users’ anonymity, and other factors. Taking the effects of these dissimilarities on users’ intents into account, modern authors pay close attention to the mental health effects of the so-called highly visual social media such as Instagram (Lup et al. 247).
Instagram is different from other social networking sites since interactions between its users are based on sharing photos that can be improved with the help of special effects and filters. In their experiment, Lup et al. surveyed more than a hundred young Instagram users, the majority of which were well-educated straight white women (250). They found that participants using Instagram about three or two hours every day had higher depression scores compared to those devoting less time to posting new photos and checking others’ accounts (Lup et al. 249).
Although frequent use of social media websites focusing on sharing photos is believed to be related to depression, mental health outcomes for users can be different depending on the style of social media activity. On Instagram, connections between users do not have to be reciprocal, and this feature helps to better understand the complexity of the link between depression and frequent Instagram use.
Having analyzed this connection with reference to the mode of using Instagram, Lup et al. found that in people following fewer strangers, the association between depression scores and the frequency of Instagram use was weaker than in participants primarily following people they knew personally (250; see fig. 1). Thus, in general, following strangers, a person is supposed to make conclusions about the quality of their life based on their posts and digitally improved photos, which can lead to cognitive distortions and inaccurate comparisons.
According to modern research, adults are not the only demographic group that faces the risks of depression when using social media frequently. The correlation is also manifested in teenagers using both media sharing platforms and social networks. For instance, the results of the Millennium Cohort Study conducted in England suggest that boys aged fourteen spend less time using Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp than their female peers, and are less vulnerable to depression (Campbell).
According to the statistics, more than 35% of girls and less than 15% of boys using social media five or more hours daily demonstrate the symptoms of depression (Campbell). The results of the discussed study demonstrate the presence of clear links between the number of hours teenagers devote to social media and the manifestation of the symptoms of depression, but these links exist only for girls (Campbell). Thus, in adolescent girls, frequent use of social networking websites is related to the risks of developing depression although the presence of causal links is an open question.
Gender-based differences identified in the Millenium Cohort Study can point at the mechanisms explaining the links between depression and social network use. Having surveyed adolescents with depression who used social media both moderately and frequently, the researchers found that almost two-thirds of depressed girls and less than one-fourth of boys were uncomfortable with their appearances (Campbell).
Being asked about their weight satisfaction, more than 27% of depressed girls and 10% of depressed boys responded negatively (Campbell). Based on these findings, it can be supposed that frequent social media use increases exposure to materials illustrating gender asymmetry in appearance expectations, thus exacerbating mental health issues such as depression in girls. This proposition is partially supported by the stories of teenagers addicted to social media.
For instance, Shannon McLaughlin, a young woman with depression, claims that seeing other users “enjoying life” and being “confronted by women with unattainably skinny bodies” contributed to her poor mental condition (Campbell). Therefore, it is possible that social media use increases the risks of depression by encouraging negative social comparison.
Apart from the existence of different types of social media, the quality of online communication needs to be considered to answer the chosen research question. To summarize state of the art in social media and depression, Seabrook et al. analyzed seventy modern studies devoted to depressive and anxiety disorders in the context of social network use (e50). Judging from their results, although social media use and depression present interconnected variables, the question of whether more frequent use of social networks increases the risks of developing depression remains open (Seabrook et al. e50).
For instance, out of thirty studies focusing on these variables, only eight found a significant positive association between them (Seabrook et al. e50). The results suggest that being isolated from other factors, the frequency of social media use does not present a cause of depression or a contributing factor.
Even though the ability of the frequency of social network used to predict depression is not a statement that leaves no room for doubt, there are specific circumstances in which this link is quite obvious. As an example, frequent use of Instagram increases depression in people who tend to follow strangers instead of communicating with people they know (Seabrook et al. e50). In fact, people’s experiences with social media vary, and the risks of having depression can be linked to the proportion of positive interactions. At the same time, the quality of communication is unlikely to be connected to the amount of time spent online, and this is why separating the frequency of social media use from other variables is probably not the best research strategy.
Apart from studying correlations, modern authors are concerned with establishing cause-and-effect relationships between the variables in question. In the experimental study by Hunt et al., one group of participants was required to use three social media platforms not more than 210 minutes weekly, whereas people in the second group could use them up to 400 minutes every week (760). The analysis of the groups’ average BDI scores after four weeks of the intervention indicated that participants whose social media use were limited had a significant decline in depressive symptoms unlike people in the comparison group (Hunt et al. 763). Based on these findings, using social media moderately can help reduce mental health risks.
Frequent Social Media Use and Self-Esteem
There are many factors that impact self-esteem in a negative way, and the role of social network use in this regard presents an important avenue of psychology research. The use of tools for online communication is widely associated with problems with self-esteem. For instance, according to Silva’s research, 60% of people who actively use social networks list such platforms among the factors lowering their self-esteem. According to recent academic research, the amount of time spent using social media and self-esteem present interconnected factors.
The intuitive truth reported by Silva’s interviewees is supported by academic research as well. In their cross-sectional study, Andreassen et al. surveyed over twenty-three thousand people in Norway to establish the potential predictors of the abnormally frequent use of social media websites (287). The analysis of findings demonstrated the presence of links between social networking addiction and such factors as being a female, younger age, having financial difficulties, self-idealization, and low self-esteem (Andreassen et al. 287).
The mentioned study did not attempt to define the nature of the link, and this is why the frequent use of social networks can potentially be either “a consequence or a predictor of low self-esteem” (Andreassen et al. 291). Concerning the first version, users are able to create social media accounts that present them as happy and successful people, and it can be the reason why people with low self-esteem become addicted to social networks.
As for frequent social media use as a predictor of low self-esteem, it is possible that social network addicts are more exposed to unrealistic body images and fake successes, which is detrimental to their self-image. This hypothesis is partially supported by Marengo et al. who studied a sample of Italian adolescents using image-sharing social media (63). The participants who used such social networking websites more than two hours daily were significantly more likely to report negative opinions about their body shape compared to those using them less frequently (Marengo et al. 66). The effect was more pronounced in female participants, pointing at adolescent girls’ vulnerability to distortions in self-perception (Marengo et al. 66).
These findings have direct implications for the research question being discussed since satisfaction with appearance heavily affects self-esteem, especially in girls (Campbell; Silva). Similar conclusions have been made in earlier studies devoted to social networks and self-esteem. For example, in 2011, the group of researchers led by Kalpidou conducted their experiment and reported the presence of significant negative correlations between Facebook usage frequency and self-esteem (Hunt et al. 752).
The sources focusing on social media use and depression are dissimilar in terms of the types of studied social networking websites, sample size, the methods used to control the accuracy of data collection, and other aspects of research. In spite of these differences, the majority of authors establish correlations between frequent use of social media and depression scores. In particular, it has been demonstrated that the addictive use of social networks predicts depression in some specific groups of users, for instance, adolescent girls or people who tend to follow strangers on Instagram. However, the presence of results reporting no links between these variables indicates that only frequent social media use can not make mentally healthy people depressed.
Concerning the use of social networks and self-esteem, the findings of modern authors seem to be more consistent. Despite quality heterogeneity, the studies based on both subjective (interviews) and objective (self-esteem inventories) data indicate significant links between social networks’ use and issues with self-esteem in adults and adolescents. Overall, the sense of self-worth presents a complicated concept that involves numerous components such as perceived success in life, the way that people evaluate their personality traits, and similar points of analysis. Self-esteem is always subjective and impermanent; in some people, it can change significantly due to the external values or ideals imposed on them.
It is possible to regard body image as the component of self-esteem, and the reviewed studies show clear links between the frequent use of image-sharing social media platforms and people’s negative perception of their body shape. Modern studies do not establish the direction of relationships between the addictive use of social media and low self-esteem, which is a research gap to be addressed in the future. However, in general, the interconnectedness of the mentioned variables does not present a matter of dispute.
To sum up, the ability of frequent social media use to cause depression and low self-esteem is still an open question despite the presence of correlations between these variables. At the same time, modern studies shed light on potential risk factors for depression such as sex, young age, and a high proportion of strangers among the followed users. The links between low self-esteem and social media activity also exist, with their direction being unknown.
Andreassen, Cecilie Schou, et al. “The Relationship between Addictive Use of Social Media, Narcissism, and Self-Esteem: Findings from a Large National Survey.” Addictive Behaviors, vol. 64, 2017, pp. 287-293.
Campbell, Denis. “Depression in Girls Linked to Higher Use of Social Media.” The Guardian. 2019. Web.
Hunt, Melissa G., et al. “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, vol. 37, no. 10, 2018, pp. 751-768.
Lup, Katerina, et al. “Instagram# Instasad?: Exploring Associations Among Instagram Use, Depressive Symptoms, Negative Social Comparison, and Strangers Followed.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, vol. 18, no. 5, 2015, pp. 247-252.
Marengo, David, et al. “Highly-Visual Social Media and Internalizing Symptoms in Adolescence: The Mediating Role of Body Image Concerns.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 82, 2018, pp. 63-69.
Seabrook, Elizabeth M., et al. “Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review.” JMIR Mental Health, vol. 3, no. 4, 2016, p. e50. Web.
Silva, Clarissa. “Social Media’s Impact on Self-Esteem.” Huffpost. 2017. Web.