Does Social Media Cause Depression?

by / Thursday, 19 August 2021 / Published in Psychology

A frowning young woman lies in bed with her smartphone.

While mental health issues associated with social media have received more attention in recent years, it hasn’t stopped billions of people worldwide from making social media platforms part of their daily lives. It’s a decision that may come with a high price regarding mental health.

Recent research links excessive social network usage to increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, body image issues, and loneliness. Because of the widespread use of social media, those who concentrate on media psychology in an online Master of Arts in Psychology program develop expertise in this critical area of mental health.

The Reach of Social Media

An estimated four billion people use social media daily – a little more than half the world’s population. In the United States alone, 72 percent of all adults and 84 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 use social media, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

The center also tracks the most popular social media sites in the United States and the percentage of the population that uses them.

  • YouTube (81 percent)
  • Facebook (69 percent)
  • Instagram (40 percent)
  • Pinterest (31 percent)
  • LinkedIn (28 percent)
  • Snapchat (25 percent)
  • Twitter (23 percent)
  • TikTok (21 percent)

In testimony given to a U.S. Senate committee in February 2023, Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, said the reach of social media is so vast and the potential mental health issue so severe that Congress should consider taking action.

Prinstein’s suggestions included investing in more studies of social media (particularly its impact on adolescents), mandating that data from algorithms be made public, and requiring social media platforms to develop tools that disable certain addictive features for young users. He also suggested mandating protection for “marginalized and LGBTQ+ kids,” who often experience some of the worst mental health issues.

Social Media Use Linked to Depression

Social media has a reinforcing nature, according to doctors at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. They report that social media activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, a chemical linked to pleasurable activities such as sex, food, and social interaction.

They added, “The platforms are designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments.”

The Mayo Clinic defines major depression as a “mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” It can impact how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. It can lead to problems with concentration, sleeping, eating disorders, decision-making, and daily routines. At its worst, major depression can lead to feelings that life is not worth living.

Social Media Depression

Recent research validates the theory that social media leads to major depression.

A 2015 of 736 college students found that Facebook triggers feelings of envy and that envy leads to symptoms of major depression. A 2019 study from the United Kingdom found that people who checked Facebook late at night lost sleep and were more likely to feel depressed and unhappy.

Prinstein said in his Senate testimony that social media could impact younger users the most. He noted that developmental neuroscientists had found two critical periods for adaptive neural development. One is the first year of life. The other is the onset of puberty through early adulthood.

“This latter period is highly relevant, as this is when a great number of youths are offered relatively unfettered access to devices and unrestricted or unsupervised use of social media and other online platforms,” Prinstein said.

Less Social Media May Lead to Better Mental Health

In 2018, the University of Pennsylvania hosted research into the connection between social media and major depression. The involved splitting a group of 143 students into two groups for three weeks. One group continued normal social network activities. The second limited their access to social media to 30 minutes a day.

In three weeks, the group that used less social media had better mental health outcomes, suggesting that less time on social media led to fewer feelings of unhappiness and depression.

Researchers titled the study: “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” FOMO is an acronym for “Fear of Missing Out.” FOMO causes people to constantly check and recheck their social network feeds to avoid missing anything.

“Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes and shares from these sites affect the brain’s reward area to trigger the same chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine,” according to the Addiction Center.

A Master Degree in Media Psychology

Earning an online Master of Arts Degree in Psychology with a Concentration in Media Psychology prepares graduates to understand social media depression and other media-related issues like falling for the trap of “fake news.”

Graduates from the 100% online program often pursue careers with media companies (including television, radio, and movie studios), marketing, and advertising. Some also work with schools and organizations, creating educational material on media psychology.

With the growth of social media-related depression and other mental health issues involving social media use, the need for experts in media psychology has never been greater. For those motivated to work in this critical field, a master’s degree in this specialization can help them achieve their career goals.