Mind & Body

Social Media Might Be Better for Your Mental Health Than We Thought

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For years, the running theory has been that social media is bad for mental health. We grin and bear it and keep scrolling through Facebook even though we "know" it causes us stress, sleep disturbances, and plenty of FOMO. But a new study has found that it's not all bad: Older adults who use social media are 63 percent less likely to experience serious psychological distress from one year to the next, including major depression or serious anxiety.

It turns out that previous studies on the mental health challenges around social media have focused on teens and young adults, who tend to be going through other life changes that could interfere with the findings. For older adults, it's looking like social media might not be all that harmful. In fact, it could even lower levels of psychological distress.

Social Media, at Large

It makes sense that scientists want to study social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp are huge parts of our lives (hello, that's probably how you found this article!) and we want to know how they're influencing our mental health. Especially since nearly 50 percent of Americans will experience at least one mental health disorder in their lifetime.

But here's the problem: Since today's social media platforms have only existed since the early 2000s, the time for research has been relatively short. In that time, most studies have been done on college students and high schoolers. That makes sense given social networks like Facebook were originally made for young adults. Today, though, nearly 3.5 billion people use social media, a figure that outnumbers the world's college students by more than 15 times.

Research has continued on teens and young adults, but the current study shows that those findings just can't be generalized to older adults. The brains of teenagers and college students grow and change in fundamental ways. Your brain doesn't even reach maturity until you're halfway through your twenties, so what's true for the mental health of an 18-year-old probably isn't the same for their parents and grandparents.

Past research also fails to consider the turbulent times today's teens and young adults have faced since social media appeared on the scene. "Taking a snapshot of the anxiety felt by young people today and concluding that a whole generation is at risk because of social media ignores more noteworthy social changes, such as the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the rise in single child families, older and more protective parents, more kids going to college and rising student debt," Keith Hampton, the lead researcher on the new social media study, told MSU Today.

Lose the Stigma

Have you ever heard of "nomophobia?" That's a disorder being proposed by some researchers, which is caused by the separation or fear of separation from one's phone. By one estimate, "nomophobia" might be experienced by 53 percent of mobile phone users (that's probably most of us).

But Dr. Keith Hampton from the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University has looked closely at these studies and found that they assume any use of technology is inherently problematic. "To ask a participant if he/she believes that a cell phone or any technology causes his/her disorder or some negative emotion is to do a roundabout over hypothesis testing," Dr. Hampton wrote in a recent analysis.

To avoid those pitfalls for the current study, Dr. Hampton used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a U.S. survey that started in 1968, making it the longest-running longitudinal household survey in the world. Because the participants of that study are nationally representative — in age, gender, ethnicity, et cetera — the data gleaned from them should be more easily generalized to the entire U.S. population. In 2015 and 2016, the PSID asked participants to report how often they use social media and how frequently they felt symptoms of psychological distress, like sadness, nervousness, restlessness, or worthlessness.

In their analysis of the data, Dr. Hampton his team controlled for segments of the U.S. population who are more likely to experience psychological distress, along with examining family and social factors that might contribute to mental disorders.

In the end, the researchers found that home internet use and individual use of social media was actually related to lower psychological distress over time. And participants who connected with family members on social media seemed to experience less psychological distress, even if their family members suffered mental health crises.

The current study is very new, and Dr. Hampton urges future researchers to study different algorithms and types of social media use for more precise findings on psychological distress. But the general takeaway is that the popularity of social media has led to some undue moral panic. Social media seems to give most adults a healthy way to share and connect with the people they care about. And the more we share, the healthier we seem to be.

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For another take on how social media isn't as bad as it's made out to be, check out the MIT Press book "The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life" by Lee Humphreys. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk August 30, 2019

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