Study: Too much social media use harms your mental health

Students, Olivia Harden (left) and Roanan Keldin (right) check their phones
during a 15-minute break from class. Photo by Madison Taber.

Social media and college students grew up together. They are closely tied and practically inseparable.

But a new study published in the December Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reveals that excessive social media use and passively scrolling through Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram feeds increases the rates of depression, loneliness and anxiety in young people ages 18 to 22.  

“[Social media] invites downward social comparison (feeling like your life isn’t as good as other people’s) and feeling left out, when you see friends posting about events you weren’t at,” said Melissa G. Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.”

That’s true, confirmed Logan Kent, a sophomore business major, who confessed to comparing her own life to those of strangers she follows on Instagram. Yet, she can’t stay off the platform.

“I find myself drawn to it every chance I have,” she admitted.

While the amount of time users spent on social media varied, the average was one hour per day, according to Hunt’s study. And there was a direct correlation between increased use and rates of depression, she said.

Many people were using significantly more than [one hour]- up to 2.5 hours a day. And that’s not including other apps like Twitter or dating apps,” Hunt said. “That’s a lot of lost time.”

Spending a large amount of time on social media diminishes an individual’s time spent interacting with people face-to-face, which is a more rewarding use of time, Hunt said.  

“True intimacy involves revealing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses to those who care about us and then supporting them in turn when they reveal their vulnerabilities to us. Social media doesn’t really encourage that, so it may get in the way of true intimacy,” Hunt said.  

Individuals shift their focus from what is happening in reality to what other people want to be perceived as doing, leaving their minds in a flurry of discontentment, Hunt said. Excessive social media use can also exacerbate anxiety, she continued.

“Social media promised to connect us with others – but we usually only see the ‘best’ that people have to offer on carefully curated Instagram feeds or posed photos on Facebook,” Hunt said. Still, social media can be used to spark new relationships if utilized properly, Hunt said.

“Social media is designed to appeal to our preference for novelty,” Hunt said. “Like most things, using it in moderation actually may help you connect with others, talk to your friends, and share things about your lives.”

She explains that the issue develops when individuals use social media too often and in a passive manner to view other people’s posts.

But social media is dangerous because “it’s a bit addictive,” Hunt warned. “Collecting ‘likes’ and ‘streaks’ and ‘views’ can make you feel good about yourself for a split second. That’s enticing, but like other addictive things, what makes you feel good in the moment can make you feel pretty terrible over the long haul.”

Hunt acknowledged that abstaining from social media use entirely is impractical for most young people, but limiting the time they spend on it may help improve their moods.  

“People who used less social media – about 25-30 minutes a day, rather than an hour a day or more – showed improvement in depressive symptoms and loneliness,” she said.  

The study suggests downloading apps such as “Moment” or “Space” that track how much time an individual spends on each app in an effort to raise awareness of how much time is actually spent on social media.

Some students recognize that they spend too much time on social media platforms.

“I stopped using social media because I just found myself obsessing about it every day. I was spending at least an hour a day between Instagram and Snapchat, stressing out and feeling like I wasn’t doing as much as everyone else was,” said Jack Kirby, a sophomore broadcast journalism major.

Kirby decided to cut himself off from all social media platforms at once.

“When I first stopped using it, I realized how much time I was spending on it,” Kirby said. “There were these gaps in my day that I didn’t know how to fill. It was kind of anxiety-inducing. Like, what the hell do I do now? But since then I’ve been able to do so much more. I cook more, go to the gym more, and overall I feel happier.”

Madison Taber

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