Is it true that social media increases mental illness?

Is it true that social media increases mental illness?

Written by
Mar 20, 2020

Talk of the link between social media use and mental illness continues. Often in the context of teenagers. Why? For starters, there is a need for intervention. There’s much evidence for the idea that mental illness is rising among teens. See this graph from the US:

(Data taken from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Table 11.2b; go.nature.com/3ayjaww)

In a Nature article from Jan. this year, author Jonothan Haidt notes that in 2012, two-thirds of 15-17 year-olds began using social media daily. This was a watershed moment. From 2012 onwards, rates of teen depression haven’t stopped climbing.

Haidt gives three arguments for why the use of social media causes mental illness:

  1. Girls use social media more than boys, who game more. Girls are far more represented in the increases in mental illness.
  2. Scientists have overlooked how social media can affect not only the user, but those who don’t consume it. “When most of the 11-year-olds in a class are on Instagram, there can be pervasive effects on everyone… children who opt out can find themselves isolated.”
  3. Patients who “reduce their use generally report a reduction in […] symptoms of depression”

Yet consider the counterclaims. The Lancet published an original study of 13-16 year-old girls. They concluded that “nearly 60% of the psychological distress caused by the frequent use of social media could be accounted for by disrupted sleep and greater exposure to cyberbullying.” This suggests that “social media itself doesn’t cause harm” but that “frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health.”

Secondly, the user’s personality affects whether social media causes distress. In 2015, the University of Missouri concluded that Facebook could cause depression if it triggers envy in its user. If it doesn’t, it can have “positive effects on well-being”. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health echoes this idea in a recent article. To their surprise, they found that the routine use of social media is positively associated with mental health. Problems arise when the user has an “emotional connection” to social media. This includes a “fear of missing out” or “feeling disconnected from friends when not logged in”. When this type of person uses social media, their mental health wanes.

Lastly, Nick Allen of Nature argues that mobile devices, now “ever-present in people’s lives”, offer a new ability to track mental health. By tracking mood, social communication, sleep etc., apps may facilitate “just-in-time” interventions. They may warn of a downturn in mood or the risk of suicide. Mobile apps have already been used in this way to treat binge-eating and substance abuse. Not to mention how, mental healthcare apps may service patients who are otherwise too remote. They are accessible at any time, whether on the train to work or late at night. For mental health, it seems social media can be both boon and bane.