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Weekend Long Reads: The Link Between Social Media and Depression

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s “long read” is a study by Massachusetts General Hospital and 10 academic partners trying to determine if there is a link between social media use and depression. Spoiler: The researchers found some specific correlations, but they raise many more questions than they answer.

The researchers recruited 8,000 people on the internet to participate in the study. They surveyed the study participants on which of eight social media sites and apps they used and also asked participants to complete a commonly used assessment of whether someone is showing signs of depression, called the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (or PHQ-9). The assessment asks nine questions about specific symptoms and assigns 0–3 points per question, depending on how often the patient exhibits each symptom. The higher the PHQ-9 score, the more severe the signs of depression.

Study participants were asked to fill out the PHQ-9 twice, at least a month apart. Of the 5,400 who scored less than 5 points the first time (considered “minimal depression”), 482 had an increase of 5 or more points on their second PHQ-9. The researchers then went looking for a pattern among those 482.

They found that three of the eight social media apps — Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok — were associated with a greater risk of increased depressive symptoms. Moreover, they found that for TikTok and Snapchat, the greater risk existed only for users above age 35, and for Facebook, it was only for those under 35. They checked whether there were any contextual influences that might factor in, such as other news sources, social supports, and frequency of in-person social interactions. They only found one: Snapchat users with other news sources had a lower risk of depressive symptoms.

It would be very easy to read this and jump to the conclusion that social media causes depression. But this study doesn’t even come close to getting us there. First, as with all science, it needs to be repeated before we accept it as a real phenomenon. Second, as the reports explains, it found a correlation, not a cause-effect relationship. While the fact that some participants’ PHQ-9 scores went up over the course of the study suggests that social media use was a potential cause, it could also be that social media use is a “marker” for people who already have an underlying vulnerability to depression. 

The study also doesn’t explain the “why” behind the correlation; figuring that out will take much more research. First, they need to understand whether the COVID-19 umbrella we’re all living under affected the results. Second, they need to dive into the specifics: Is there a certain minimum amount of social media use that correlates with depression? And then there are all the deeper issues, such as what’s behind the age differences for Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok — not to mention why other social media apps don’t correlate. 

And then, once we better understand the phenomenon, we will need to figure out what to do about it.

Find the full “long read” here: Association Between Social Media Use and Self-reported Symptoms of Depression in US Adults

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Animated Heaven (under a Creative Commons, CC0 1.0 license).

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